Grant Wiggins made me do it

Grant Wiggins published thoughts yesterday on students taking the French Baccalaureat. Admittedly, I know nothing about this test, and, from what I gather, this is tough test. The philosophy portion challenges a test taker to think in broad terms, open-ended terms, with no exact answer. Sandy’s France posts this year’s philosophy questions for you to read at your leisure. What really interested me was Grant’s take on these types of questions.

Note that the questions are all framed in a way that teachers have long been trained not to do in the US, i.e. frame open-ended questions in a format that suggests that there is a simple yes/no answer to them. I hope you agree with me that these questions actually sharpen thinking and thus show the need for a good argument better than many of the wishy-washy open-ended questions people often give students to write on.

He states that teachers have long been trained not to ask open-ended questions. As I went through my teacher readiness program through the University of Akron, there was a professor that pounded the need to ask convergent and divergent questions so as to acutely know student’s comprehension of content, and create an expansive, almost dream-like, atmosphere that allowed for open thinking. Now, I am one person who recalls being taught to ask open-ended questions that have an answer, your answer, based on rational thinking supported by evidence. I read a few of the questions on the bac and asked myself how I would go about answering these questions. Needless to say the questions are complex, and complex questions that force critical thinking cause consternation and distress because there is no easy answer.

I am a technology integration specialist and teach four computer classes at Brecksville-Broadview Heights Middle School and reflect regularly at Sync Tech. When I ask questions that are open ended, and I do this a lot, I usually get blank faces because the question has no definite answer. The blank faces are also a result of kids lacking experience to answer these kinds of questions. If there is no apparent and quick answer, kids tune out rather than delve into deep thinking to try and answer the question. Obviously this is a problem.

The problem is two fold where I teach. The first is the amount of time teaches and students have to experience learning. Forty-three minutes constitutes a period and students have eight of them during the day. Know that I am not bashing my school, but it points out a very apparent problem and the problem is no real learning can happen in 43 minutes worth of time. One could argue the learning of facts and steps in a process and dates and other such things is learning. Ok, I agree, but facts are forgotten. By real learning I mean the mental gymnastics students go through to grapple with a problem or paradox that causes them to pull from prior knowledge and problem solving processes to derive an answer that not only shows creative thinking but creates new knowledge. This new knowledge is what will be remembered and encoded because of the wide context of the question and the complex answer given.  Shuffle kids from one period to another and in those few minutes factual learning takes place with teachers shoving the information into the students and then assessing facts, and when the facts aren’t mastered teachers wonder why the kids aren’t learning.  Kids aren’t learning because they are not spending time on open-ended questions that cause them to use content to solve problems and think critically.  The other problem is the current atmosphere of high stakes testing to measure the growth of every student. Lets be honest. Teachers teach to a test and while they may espouse teaching critical thinking, most of the learning strategies have to do with rote learning so students can pass a test.  And, because students have to pass a test, the learning goals are really about AYP.

If our students are going to compete in a global society, they need to be taught how to think in a global way to solve problems that have not been encountered yet. The bac is right on par if you ask me. Let’s see how students at all levels think by answering complex questions so we can see the true grit of the mind divulged in words penned on paper or device that expose critical thinking as a way of assessment and not answering fact based questions. We have a long way to go if we are going grow a society that excels in thinking and solving problems in broad contexts.  However, the current state of testing is forcing us into an acute and narrow minded focus on facts vs. critical thinking.