Monday, November 22, 2004

Genius to order?

Last nights TV's 20/20 program featured ideas about how to improve student's genius. It seems we are able to create student genius at will. Not withstanding that the word genius means the 'spirit or joy within each person', and is not a gift limited to a minority, it all seemed too easy.

We were shown an enthusiastic young UK educator whose main message was to have students 'talk up' whatever ability they might have; a sort of 'educational soft sell'; In the process I think I learnt more about the educator's personality. A positive attitude is one thing but we also needed to be shown what these students could actually do in their chosen fields. Actions always speak louder than words. A range of interesting intelligences were illustrated but it seemed strange that there was no mention of the seminal work of Howard Gardner's 'multiple intelligences' in this field.

Then we were shown a North Shore school which is evidently putting these ideas into practice. The message was similar. The impression given by the program was that this thinking emphasis is all very new but anyone with a little understanding would know that developing students 'thinking' has been around since the days of John Dewey and even earlier. This school seemed to rely on students being able to articulate strategies ( a great idea) and talk about their individual brilliance . All too much about self esteem and process. I waited in vain to see concrete examples of what these students could actually do; that is not to say they weren't there to be seen.

Finally we were shown a New Zealand educator singing the praises of multi colored 'mind maps', learning styles, study skills ( which seemed practical), the need to drink water and listening to Mozart. I would be interested to know of how research backs up many of the benefits expressed.

It would have been more worthwhile if the TV presenter had indicated that she had researched the extensive 'teaching thinking' field, and mentioned the research of other educators who have dedicated their lives to helping students learn more efficiently. The TV program was all too superficial.

I have visited numerous classes that profess to make use of a range of 'higher order thinking skills' and listened to equally enthusiastic teachers and principals. I have seen walls covered with mind maps ( in multi colors) venn diagrams, graphic organizers, tree maps, thinking hats, multiple intelligences, intelligent behaviors charts, and problem solving processes, but when I look closer to see what products these thinking strategies have helped students create I am often disappointed. Higher order thinking for too often thin learning; all process and too little product.

Students may be able to talk about learning intentions, their goals and strategies but if what they achieve is not worth the effort why bother? Products ( without process) may have been a fault of traditional teaching but now the fault may have been reversed?

I visit many classrooms that have retained the balance between process ( learning 'how to learn') and quality results. Without real content learning is at risk. In the classrooms I like ( and I guess this is a personal point of view) I look to see finished products that represent qualitative improvement on what is normally seen. I look to see well researched presentations that use a variety of media and technological skills. I look to see if the students have learnt that personal excellence requires not only an awareness of processes but also appreciate the need for perseverance, practice and hard work; and also an appreciation that sometimes instant gratification is not the name of the game. True genius takes time and practice and a strong sense of self belief rather than shallow self esteem. And real self worth comes from doing something really well that you couldn't do before. Every student in a 'thinking class' ought to be able to show you examples of continual improvement in their learning portfolios.

In the classrooms I like, learning is driven by curiosity, student's passions and interests and in depth learning; doing fewer things well. Real learning can be seen by ideas that have been transformed by the students as a result of their thinking. Being 'gifted' in this sense is what children can do. Students in the classrooms I like have learnt that excellence requires perspiration as well as inspiration. They understand the meassage of the great dancer Ana Pavlova who said, 'God gives talent, work transforms it into genius'.

There were valuable ideas to be learnt from the TV program but the trendy, egocentric ideas shown really worry me. There is more to life that students who seem to be saying, 'look at me , see how clever I say I am'?

This might sound a bit old fashioned but teaching thinking deserves better thinking!


Anonymous said...

I watched the 20/20 programme and was astounded by the concentration on certain superficial elements of the 'thinking approach' to learning.

Also as a teacher that has spent 20 or so years practicing independent thinking strategies in the classroom I was perplexed as to why this approach was described as being new.

Have the educators and media researchers not heard of the 'interactive teaching approach' for example. Developed from the Waikato University research 'Learning In Science Project' (1982-1985), a well described teaching strategy based on valuing children's thinking. The focus is clearly on independent learning skills, experience and investigation and the development of 'active learners'

What I witnessed on T.V. last night seemed to be more about actor teachers than active learners. The interaction between child and teacher shown were to me condescending and embarrassing in their contrived and superficial nature.

I am a strongly in favour of teaching programmes that value the uniqueness and power of children's thinking. The ultimate value of this approach should be evident in the quality, depth of thought, and strength of 'voice' in the children's work. Not by self-declaration of genius or the product of teacher motivated pep talks.

Bruce said...

I couldn't agree more with your comments.

I actually was involved with some of the research you mention and it is a crime that since 'Tomorrows Schools' it has been almost completely ignored.

The Interactive Aproach was about valuing student's questions, their prior ideas and then challenging student's answers.

Real teaching - real thinking!

Anonymous said...

Hello Bruce
I really enjoy reading your comments. As someone who is new to the profession you provide insight that is challenging and thought provoking. I agree with your comments regarding higher order thinking skills, and I also agree with your comments regarding creativity and Robert Sternberg's ideas. I appreciated your contribution of Sternber's 24 ideas for classroom use. My question is, 'can you summarise the steps / ideas / teaching steps that best encourage or enhance higher order thinking skills'?

Bruce said...

Thanks for the feedback. I don't think problem solving is too mysterious. John Dewey outlined it years ago as: recognising a problem, generating ideas to solve it, trying out what looks the most promising and if this doesn't work out try another and so on.It is not a linear process more an attitude of mind. Recognising an opportunity to solve is the biggest issue - the real creative act! Creative people continually question everything and this of course makes them unpopular now and then.