Sunday, January 07, 2007

Not teaching kids to think?

I began this blog, in large part, because I have heard so many negative things said about public education that don't fit with my experience. Public education has taken such a beating by the media, blue-ribbon commissions, and so-called experts that whenever anyone says something bad about it, there's a good chance that many people will simply accept it as true. On my last post, Anonymous (not to be confused with Anonymous Teacher) made this comment:

Our challenge today is our schools, public in particular, as a general rule, do NOT teach our kids to think. The goal of most public schools -- stated in their mission statements - is to produce good citizens. This is measured by getting kids registered to vote. Geez this is pitiful. This is nothing but mediocrity. Where are the future leaders, entrepreneurs, inventors, etc. coming from? Yep, you guessed. The high end academic specialty public schools and private schools. Just my two cents worth. Public education needs major competition. The weak teachers need to be ousted. The strong teachers and administrators (principals) need to be able to run their schools without the top down dictatorships of weak superintendents too scared to let their people be creative and do the things that will produce incredible results in our students. This testing mentality takes the fun out of learning. It eliminates to ability to have time to be creative, to have dialogue with students so they can think through challenges, talk them out and come to their own conclusion. Nope. As a rule this is not happening in today's average public school.

I appreciate Anonymous's comments on my blog, and there are statements in this one that I at least partially agree with. However, I strongly take issue with the statement that public schools are not teaching kids to think. It just so happened that I read this comment immediately after compiling a representation of excerpts from comments my students submitted as part of a simple current events assignment. The assignment was this: Using a minimum of three sentences, comment on any current event we've talked about in class for the last three weeks. I then take excerpts from their comments, and post them on our bulletin board for the kids to read. Here is a sample: (I hope you'll read at least some of them, but don't feel like you've got to read them all.)

MADD & ALCOHOL SENSORS IN CARS (This article dealt with a proposal by Mothers Against Drunk Driving to eventually have sensors in all cars that would keep the car from starting if it sensed alcohol.)

This would stop a lot of accidents all over the United States. A lot of people die because of drunk driving. People would be smarter about their drinking, and our roads would be much safer to drive on.

I do not agree with this. I’ve been in a situation where my sister needed a ride home from the bar. How am I supposed to accomplish that if the sensor senses the alcohol on my sister’s breath? Also, how would we get home if you had only had one beer at a bar, and your car wouldn’t start? You certainly can’t sleep at the bar. A definite NO to alcohol sensors!

Having these devices for first time drunk driving offenders is a good idea. It could really cut down on the deaths from drunk driving. It might affect the rights of the drunk driver, but what about the rights of their victims? If the device prevents more drunk driving, it will save more lives, more charges and arrests, which would save court costs. If there were less charges, it would save on jail costs. While an inmate is in prison, it costs for their medical and housing. If drunk driving is prevented, that person is working, paying for their own expenses, plus paying taxes.

I am mad at MADD. Who are they to get mad at lawbreakers? They are just lawbreakers themselves. The MADD organization is made up of the same people who go to bars and smash out cars’ headlights. They do this so the intoxicated driver will get pulled over by the police for his headlight violation. MADD is simply too radical. I am so angry that I am thinking of starting my own organization: SAMM (Students Against Mad Mothers).

I think MADD is an excellent organization. I also think that putting sensors in our cars is taking it too far. Somehow, people will find a way around it, so it won’t end up doing any good.

It is completely crazy what MADD is trying to do. That would be like an environmental group telling people to take a two-minute shower or use bio-degradable toilet paper. If every extremist group got its way, we wouldn’t be able to do anything.

This is an awesome idea. Anything to eliminate the risk of drunk drivers is wonderful. I would, however, worry about the device malfunctioning and an innocent driver being stuck. They need to make sure it’s foolproof before it’s required.

This is a ridiculous idea. There would be no way that I can see for the alcohol detector to see how heavy you are, what your alcohol tolerance is, or your muscle to fat ratio. Having one or two drinks isn’t dangerous. Besides, when most people go to a bar to drink, they are not alone, they’re with friends. They could just take turns being the designated driver. You couldn’t even use a designated driver with this proposal.

I think this could be a good idea, because it would decrease the number of people killed by drunk drivers. It also could be annoying to have to take a test to drive even just down the street. I do think that first-time offenders should have to have the device, because if they’ve done it once, there’s nothing stopping them from doing it again.

I agree with Representative Charles Rangel wanting to end the war in Iraq, but reinstating the draft is absurd. I understand that he’s trying to show that lower income families suffer, but a draft would take it to a whole new extreme.

I support the idea of the draft being reinstated, but I don’t agree with Rangel’s reasons. He says that the draft would have prevented Congressmen from letting our country go to war. I think if your name is called for the draft, it is your duty as a citizen to fulfill your obligation. If your country is in need of protection, you should serve with pride.

I agree that if they reinstate the draft that Congress would think twice about whether or not we should go to war. The draft ages should stay at 18-26 instead of 18-42, because that’s like having my old father go to war. And he is not in the best of shape!

I disagree with this proposal. They’re saying that only minorities and lower income people are going into the armed forces. They are not forced to, but it does offer them opportunities. The United States is not desperate for people or they would have reinstated it a long time ago.

The draft should not be reinstated. I feel is should be your own choice. They have enough volunteers that want to go fight, and they do a very good job defending our country. Mentally, you have to be prepared when called upon. If you don’t want to go into the military, you won’t have that. Right now, our volunteer service men and women are doing a great job, and I look up to them with a lot of respect.

FIGHTING SIOUX (The University of North Dakota has been directed by the NCAA to get rid of its "Fighting Sioux" logo, but UND has challenged this in court.)

UND should be able to keep its name. Indians shouldn’t be offended by it. In my opinion, it is complimenting them, saying they were great warriors.

UND should be the ones being sued for having the Sioux logo and nickname. UND should get rid of the logo because it’s racist.

I don’t see anything wrong with the Sioux logo. It is catchy, depicts strength, and has not, in my opinion, been hostile to Native Americans. Besides, other colleges have been granted exemptions. UND also has the approval of the nearest Sioux tribe. If they aren’t insulted, why should anybody else be so upset about it.

UND should be able to keep their nickname and logo. They have had the name for a long time, so it’s part of the school now. The teams take pride in the name, and I don’t think it’s “hostile and abusive” at all. I am a Native American myself, and I don’t take offense to any sports teams’ names like that.

I don’t see how using the “Indian Head” as a logo could be hostile and abusive. I’ve been to about 7 or 8 Sioux hockey games, and every game I’ve gone to they have honored the Indians and thanked them for letting them wear the Sioux logo on their jerseys. If the Indian tribes don’t support them, then that’s the way it has to be, but in my opinion, UND hasn’t done anything to tarnish the Indian name or way of life.

I'm not usually for the death penalty, but in the case of Saddam Hussein, I am. For what he did to all those people, no penalty could be too harsh.

Saddam Hussein was given the death penalty by a court in his own country. They are the only ones who had the right to decide how to deal with him in the end. He deserved a severe penalty, and that's what he got.

The death penalty for Saddam Hussein was completely reasonable. There definitely was enough evidence for him to be hanged. A lot of people are against the death penalty because of the possibility for mistakes, but this problem was obviously not an issue.

If you're guilty of raping, killing, or other serious crimes like that, you should be punished. If you go out and kill someone, unless it's in self-defense, it would only be fair if you were punished in the same way. Besides, jails don't have enough room for all these idiots who commit these senseless crimes. If you're suffering from all the pain getting the lethal injection, chances are you probably deserve it. What goes around comes around. If you kill somebody, you'd better expect the same treatment.

Killing any person in any way should be considered cruel. The U.S. Supreme Court has yet to ban any of the forms of capital punishment even though they cause a lot of pain. Killing a person is murder regardless of whether or not it is a punishment, and it should be ruled unconstitutional.

I have nothing against the death penalty. I don't agree with the electric chair, but anything else doesn't bother me. Some people deserve it. We have come far enough in medical research to know what works. They say a licensed medical professional should be there, but no one will do it. Then pay somebody at the prison to take the classes. Give them more money.

The death penalty should not be legal. Even though people deserve it sometimes, rotting away in jail for the rest of your life would probably be worse. If the constitution guarantees us our freedom of speech, why doesn't it guarantee freedom of life?

BETTY FORD (From an article on Betty Ford after Gerald Ford's death.)
Betty Ford was an unusual First Lady because she was open about things that no one else would talk about. If it wasn't for her, people that needed help for their problems would not have gone in for them. I think she is an amazing lady, and I'm glad she stood up for what she believed in.

Betty Ford showed our country that it is not bad to have problems, and if you do, help is the best solution.

Betty Ford was a First Lady who changed the nation in a phenominal way. I think that her setting such a great example in the face of adversity shows how our leaders should act. If all our leaders acted in a way similar to Betty Ford when faced with problems, our world would be filled with far more good role models. If Betty Ford had acted differently, there may be quite a few woman who would not be alive today. Her actions are those of a real hero, or in this case a heroine.

It is really sad that we have lost all of those soldiers and still not had much success in Iraq. We had good intentions when we went into Iraq, but now it is obvious that it isn't helping. We have to do something soon. Pulling our troops out would be a relief, but it would look like we were giving up. Sending more troops in might help a little, but this could also just lead to more soldiers getting killed. Until we figure this out, the most important thing to do is to keep these soldiers in our hearts.

The U.S. being in Iraq and losing 3,000 soldiers makes no sense. We have been there way too long. I'm hoping that Saddam's execution will help bring this war to an end. We should get out before more people get killed.

You might not like what some of these students have to say, and I'll admit that some of them are a little goofy. But it would be hard to say that none of these kids are being creative, or that none of them are thinking through challenges, or that they are being discouraged from coming up with their own conclusions. In fact the thinking demonstrated on least a couple of these is excellent.

There was nothing special about this assignment. In fact, it's probably typical of what goes on in public school classrooms day after day. In my experience, there have always been plenty of students who are willing to think and to draw their own conclusions. The problem has been that it's hard to convince kids that opinions based on facts and logic are more valuable than opinions based on mush. I don't know how many times I've heard at the beginning of a school year, "How can you grade my opinion? It's MY opinion!" The point is that if you think public schools are doing nothing to teach thinking, you'd better think again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, just to be finicky old me:

yes, you have demonstrated through these quotes that your students are capable of thinking. But I'm not sure how, exactly, this supports your point. After all, you are not rebutting a claim of "public school-educated students can't think." Rather, you are attempting to rebut the claim "public school doesn't do well at teaching children how to think."

So your quotes are interesting but your conclusion is unsupported.

How is the fact that your students CAN think related to the claim that they were actively "taught" to think or that the entity doing such "teaching" was the school system, or you....?

1/08/2007 12:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, I think "anonymous" is asking a bit much--you're not getting paid to do scientific controlled studies on public v. private education.

As for your students' thoughts--hate to tell you this, but I'm not impressed. Some of them made good points, but only a few included researchable facts and none of them provided citations. These students are going to be in for a rude surprise if they go to college, where they will be required to cite sources for their facts.

1/08/2007 1:18 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous and Elizabeth, even though you raise slightly different points, I'll try to answer them together. Regarding Elizabeth's point, I give a wide range of assignments when it comes to difficulty. This was a very easy one. This wasn't meant to be a complicated assignment with citations, etc., but I do have ones that are much more demanding than this. This was just a simple assignment in which I was asking the kids to THINK.

Tomorrow, I will give my American History classes a quiz on a reading assignment followed by a Powerpoint presentation on the Spanish-American War. The next day I will put them into groups and have them come up with positions on the following questions:

1. Do you believe the United States was justified in going to war with Spain in 1898? Give your reasons.
2. Do you agree with American treatment of the Philippines after the war? Explain your thinking.
3. Do you agree with American treatment of Cuba after the war? Explain your thinking.

They'll have about a half-hour to put together their positions, and then we'll debate the questions as a class for the last fifteen minutes of class. Sometimes, the kids carry these debates into their later classes. The point is that I am constantly asking my students to think, and I am not alone in doing that. This type of thing goes on all the time in public schools.

1/08/2007 1:59 PM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

I'm not actually all that impressed with the students' thoughts either, Dennis, but more because I don't see them trying to explore both sides of an issue or defuse the opponent's arguments.

However, I will grant you that I'm comparing them to what I think makes a legitimate argument, and my standards might be too high. I'd like to see similar attempts by students of other countries. Even if informal, it could give a justification for saying the US does this better than, say, China.

As to your general point, I've heard that other countries have looked at our educational system with some interest. While they praise the creativity and freedom our schools allow, many also scoff at the basic skills of our students. Call me biased, but I'd like for our (i.e., US) schools to completely outdo that of other countries in all (or, most) areas.

1/08/2007 2:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eh... I told you class of 'o8 was better Mr. Ferm. Anyways, I wouldn't listen to whoever this anonymous person, or Elizabeth person is. From a student standpoint, I'd like to say that the public school systems shouldn't be put to blame for the mistakes of the students themselves. That's right, the students.

While it is true that the public schools are responsible for making their best attempt at educating us, molding us into better people and preparing us for the future, it is our own responsibility to take full advantage of this. The teachers are not getting paid big money, especially not in a public school system to make such an attempt. They are grossly underpaid for some of the stuff they have to put up with. Some students just don't take advantage of their situation.

While I understand the concern of being compared to other countries in the success rate and lax of our education system, it's also true that it isn't all that necessary for absolutely every student to become more than what is considered mediocre. If everyone were to become a senator or a state representative, then who would run in the lower ranks of the country? Who would do the manual labor? The world works on a class system; even in communist China. Not everyone can make it out there, we need workers for factories and to work under large industries for any country/economy to work. That's just common sense.

From a parental perspective(give me some leverage here, I'm speculating based upon my experience with my own parents and that of my peers) I can understand where it hurts to see that your child may not become the big success that you hoped for them to be or hoped that you could show off to your friends and what the like. But the truth hurts. Not every kid wants to become something, not every kid is going to get high scores on the ACT's or SAT's. It just doesn't work that way.

If Americans are concerned about education in the public school system, perhaps they should start with education in the home. Kids who grow up in a home where they are unspoiled, taught moral values and are brought up with the belief that knowledge really is valuable and should be strived for, will work harder. You don't have to shell out an extra 25k a year to get your kid to 'think' in school. Kids think all the time. Thinking well is the problem, and the public education system is not to be blamed if your child has failed to be motivated or has failed to reach thinking at a higher level. Brain developement starts at birth, you're given at the best 4 years to mold your child into something that is ready for the public education system.

But... that's just my opinion on the matter, as a student and as an American. An Asian-American at that. Female too... and I'm completely against affirmative action. Now then, I believe, not to be cocky but I won't deny it either, that I am one of the few students who is self motivated, who thinks on a higher level because I've used what my teachers have tried to teach me as a tool to further my own knowledge. I don't think it matters, public education/private education, where I go I would still be me with the same mind same body and same opinions.

What does this prove? This proves that at best the teachers at our public school systems have accomplished something with at least one student. They attempt to motivate us, to help us think as better individuals. That is their jobs, they don't actually HAVE to accomplish it. It's a prize for them to do that, and a bonus for the students. The fact is at the least they try their best in the best ways they know how. Every school, every teacher, every student; they're all different. You people all care too much how we measure up to other countries statistically speaking. Test scores, writing scores, they don't mean that much. How many kids in China and those other countries are desperately searching for jobs now due to overpopulation? How many are seeking the help of American companies outsourcing jobs to them? I'm going to forget where I was going with this if I keep going, but I have to say this. You can't blame public schooling for the failure of these students to meet up to whatever standards you have set up for them. You just can't, because it is not the only factor. Ask any kid that's doing poorly in school right this very moment, why? I wonder if you expect them to actually tell you the truth? 'Nuff said.

-Mani T-

P.s. so, I was totally googling something different and found your blogger thingy Mr. Ferm. I was surprised. Weird eh? Okay, peace out. =D also, I'm very sorry for how long this got.

1/08/2007 3:38 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mani, you may have gotten off on a couple of tangents, but overall I'd have to say that you made my point better than I ever could. Thanks for commenting on my blogger thingy!

1/08/2007 4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see you are using powerpoints. I have to say that I think that putting students to work together is half the battle and making them think.

Working together as much as you have them is hopefully showing them how to work with people that don't have the same opinions as them. I have found that that skill has helped me as much as anything.

1/09/2007 4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis--are you asking your students to "think" or to opinionate?

I'm not trying to be hard on's just that I think opinions are overrated. Our society is full of celebrity talkers such as Bill O'Reilly who do nothing but opinionate but rarely back up anything they say with evidence.

I do think there is some value in the type of assignments you describe in that they can get students involved and also force them to digest the information they've read or that you've given them. But I hope you're not giving them an exaggerated sense of their own opinions. In order for them to be taken seriously by educated people, they will have to do a lot more than say "well, I think..."

I wrote papers in high school (in private high school anyway) in which I argued a point of view, but I had to use sources and footnotes nonetheless. In public high school, I mainly wrote research papers and took exams. Nobody asked me what I "thought" about the Treaty of Versailles etc. but I was expected to learn what it entailed and the general consensus of historians as to its effects. I might have thought it was humorous if my teacher had said "so, what do you think of the Treaty of Versailles? Was it a good idea?" I probably would have replied "I'm here to learn. Tell us what YOU know. I'm 15!" But as you can see, I went on to go to college and graduate school and become a writer and a psychotherapist, without benefit of being asked to opinionate at age 15!

I remember an incident in graduate school in which I and three other students worked together on a research project. This was a real research project. To do real research, you start by reviewing all the research previously done on your topic--all of it. Then you do your research, and then and only then do you come up with any conclusions, which are usually quite narrow and tentative. One of the other students--a graduate of NYC public high schools and City College, turned in as her contribution a bunch of opinions on the research articles she'd read. We couldn't use anything she had done because it was inappropriate. We ended up giving her data entry tasks while I and one other student ended up doing most of the work (the fourth person was a foreign student who unbelievably did not speak English well enough to write a research paper). We just didn't have time to teach this young woman that professional research doesn't involve personal opinionating; it's a scientific process. She was supposed to learn that in college--but frankly, I learned that in high school.

1/09/2007 5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Elizabeth, I'm wondering if you don't think that it takes a little thinking to form an opinion? Believe it or not, although an opinion is not factual, it is factually based upon what knowledge the opinonated has. It DOES require thinking, and it DOES teach kids to think up their own opinions or even to copy the opinions of other individuals. All this requires thinking. That was the issue at hand if I recall.

As for kids in highschool, they're just kids in highschool and sophmores no less. They aren't being asked to write out a scientific process or a professional research paper. While some of them may take the time to do so, they aren't all going to. Saying that asking for an opinion and being interested in what a student thinks, yes what a student thinks is the very point of asking their opinions on any particular subject matter. You must see some merit in that. You cannot assume that all highschool students are like yourself, or have had the same oppurtunities as yourself.

Being able to write a long, drawn out, scientific research paper is good and well in all respects, but being able to express one's self through writing is definitely more stimulating to the mind than researching and pasting a bunch of facts together. I'm not saying facts aren't necessary, they are very necessary, but facts don't teach us to think. Facts teach us what is fact. Upon fact, we ponder, we think. We utilize these facts as best we can to formulate our opinions. An interesting opinion, based upon fact is undeniably interesting and no educated person could possibly look down on such. To do so would only be arrogant, not educated. So before you start in on how you need fact, fact, fact... well, the fact of the matter is, that the subject at hand was not the ability to get kids to do college level research papers, but to stimulate their minds and to get them thinking.

1/09/2007 7:36 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

One of the things we're pretty focused on, in my school anyway, is moving students upwards in Bloom's Taxonomy. When making up assignments or exams, I always ask myself if I'm simply asking students to regurgitate information I've given them, or if I'm asking them for an analysis or synthesis of information (those are my two favorite areas on which to focus). Fr'instance, one of my favorite questions when studying the French Revolution (Grade 10 history) is "Do you think the ends justify the means? Use examples from the unit to back up your opinion."

1/09/2007 9:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Wow! Lazarus has arisen. I checked this post for new comments throughout the day yesterday, but when I went to bed, I had given it up for dead. All of a sudden, this morning there are four more comments, including one from the amazing Mr. Ward! Hi Rob.

It looks like Ian and I are on the same page, but then there's that darned Elizabeth. I don't want to repeat what Gemini has said--she does a great job on her own--but I do want to make a couple of points in response to Elizabeth's comment.

I share Elizabeth's concern about the proliferation in our culture of "gotcha" type opinion-debates, that we see so much of on the news channels, in which the main goal of the participants seems to be to out-shout or out-filibuster the opponent. I want to draw Elizabeth's attention to the last paragraph of my post: "In my experience, there have always been plenty of students who are willing to think and to draw their own conclusions. The problem has been that it's hard to convince kids that opinions based on facts and logic are more valuable than opinions based on mush. I don't know how many times I've heard at the beginning of a school year, 'How can you grade my opinion? It's MY opinion!'" I want to assure Elizabeth that whenever I assign an opinion, the emphasis is on the evidence and logic used to back that opinion up.

Elizabeth is obviously a proponent of assignments that involve research and citation of sources. I do a lot of that in my A.P. American Government class (I'm sure those students wish I would do less), but very little in my regular tenth grade American History classes. One reason is that the subject matter in the class is so large that there isn't time, and the other involves the variety of students I have. I have had students in that class who have gone on to Harvard, Yale, Stanford and other colleges and universities, but I have also had a lot of kids in there who have gone on to be factory workers. I want the class to be meaningful for ALL of them, and that ain't easy! My simple little three-sentence current event comment assignment is something that anyone can do. In the sample included in this post, some of the comments come from A students, but I've also listed ones from kids who failed the first quarter. In fact, I go out of my way to include comments from kids who are not at the top of the class in the ones that I post on our bulletin board. That's just part of my effort to make it clear that anyone can be successful in my class. Some might not agree, but I think that's important. Also, even though the requirement is only three sentences, students can take off and run with it if they want, and some always do. I think the first comment listed on the war in Iraq made a lot more sense than some of the things I've heard from "experts" on the news channels.

1/10/2007 4:56 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I am a dinosaur at heart. I should point out that it was the Amazing Mr. Ward who pushed me into Powerpoint and taught me how to do it. Rob left our school district at the end of last year so that his wife could go to medical school at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Our loss was Eveleth-Gilbert's gain.

1/10/2007 5:12 AM  
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