One often hears the view expressed that one of the benefits of the enforced move to teaching online is that it will entail a move away from teaching content, and open up opportunities for a new vision of teaching that foregrounds students’ problem-solving skills. One of the many educational trends that have been rained down on teachers like the ten plaques of Egypt, is the idea that content is outdated, and that what counts in the Twenty First Century is Problem-Solving or Thinking Skills. It is an idea that has become all pervasive. At every Educational Technology Conference I’ve ever attended, at some stage a keynote speaker will express this point of view. Especially if they come from industry. “What we need is not people with paper qualifications,” they say, “it is people who can think and problem-solve!”
But can thinking be distilled from all context and taught as something discrete? Knowledge is changing so fast, the argument goes, that it will become outdated as soon as you teach it, and therefore what we need to be doing is teaching students to think, rather than teaching them content. This idea is seductive because of course it appeals to a kernel of truth. Knowledge is changing really fast. What I learned about the structure of the atom in high school is certainly not what is taught today! And yet the notion that somehow education’s core business has suddenly changed is somewhat ludicrous. Did teachers not teach students how to think pre-millenium? What does thinking that is separated from content look like, anyway?
My own career as a teacher has been affected by this movement towards explicit teaching of thinking. I teach a class called Thinking Skills. In this class we use problem-based approaches together with introducing the Harvard Visible Thinking Routines and cognitive tools such as the De Bono Thinking Hats, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps and Costa and Kallick’s Habits of Mind. These thinking tools and strategies are embedded in every school subject, but the purpose of the Thinking Skills class we do in our grades 8-10 is to give importance to thinking itself, and to provide a platform for explicit teaching of the range of cognitive tools we use across the school. I am in two minds about how effective this is as an approach. Thinking, after all, is always about something. Thinking divorced of content makes no sense, and thinking always has a context. How you think as an historian, a musician or as a scientist is different. Learning to think in one context surely confers benefit, and surely fuels habits and dispositions which are transferable to other contexts. But how this happens is not easy to pin down, or easy to demonstrate. Nor is it automatic. We assume that it happens, but we cannot definitively demonstrate that it does. We hope that an awareness of different cognitive tools, and familiarity with using different thinking strategies will improve our students’ thinking skills. We try to teach them to notice when they need to reach into their cognitive tool kits, and develop their capacity to reflect on their own thinking, and to become better at choosing appropriate cognitive strategies. But all the documentation in the world does not add up to proof that this is effective. And as much as I think the Thinking class I teach is useful, I do not believe it supplants Maths or English classes in any way. Students still need to learn to think like a mathematician, or think like an artist!
There is some anecdotal evidence of course, that our approach to cognitive education does work. Visitors to the school express amazement at how well our students engage with problem-solving tasks. As encouraging as this feedback is, it does not amount to proof. The benefit of an explicit Thinking course is not really about improving performance in other subjects, the aim is to improve the ability to think in any context. I think what students enjoy about it is that they get to think about real-world problems without the pressure of assessment or swotting. I think it is also important in that it signals that what the school values is thinking, and the development of thinking dispositions. I believe that this approach has benefits because solving problems helps improve the ability to solve problems. Not least it builds confidence in the ability to solve problems. As anyone who has ever tackled problems like crossword puzzles, for example, will know, once you start to understand how the puzzles are set, and develop strategies for solving the clues, the easier it becomes to work through the clues. And even a difficult seven across will be tackled with a level of confidence that it can be solved given enough time. The ability to solve crosswords does not necessarily make one a better problem-solver in another context, such as Chess problems. One can be quite good at solving one type of problem, but quite bad at another. In our class we try to tackle different types of problems and help students develop strategies and tools for approaching problems. The hope is that each student will develop a sizable toolkit of cognitive tools, and an awareness of which tools are good in different situations.
So, whilst I believe that teaching Thinking has value, I do not believe it can be done divorced from the curriculum. At my school the explicit teaching of thinking is limited, we wish it to be embedded in our curriculum, rather than becoming the focus of the curriculum. It would be lovely to believe that the move online would allow teachers to throw off the yoke of curricula and standardized testing and teach students to think, to problem-solve. Sadly I do not think that it does. It is rather naive, to believe that students, simply by doing an online project rather than more formal classes, will develop thinking skills miraculously. Thinking skills need to be carefully scaffolded and nurtured. Even in a Thinking class tasks are contextualised and we seek to draw students’ attention to opportunities for transferring their skills across the curriculum. As any teacher who has ever set an open-ended project will know, the success of the project depends on how carefully it was scaffolded and supported. Remote learning will not suddenly unlock hidden abilities in our students. If we want those abilities to emerge we need to put in the pedagogical work to develop them. And remote teaching is hard, it is hard enough teaching the regular curriculum.
Doing the kind of work needed to foster advanced thinking skills over Zoom?
I don’t think so.