Friday, January 30, 2009

Critical Thinking in the Disciplines

Do disciplinary considerations affect how different people define critical thinking? Yesterday's first attempt at defining the term was purposely generic—an attempt to begin formulating my conception of a common view. It might be necessary first to examine critical thinking through the perspective of different domains.

In every discipline, critical thinking would include proper framing of the issue or question and a review of the relevant literature to see what others have learned. Examining different pre-existing positions, theories, or perspectives would be vital. In many cases, narrowing inquiry to a more manageable scope might be needed. In some cases, broadening one's background knowledge would be necessary although it would be hoped that the critical thinker has a sound base of understanding in the domain.

In science, critical thinking would extend into empirical observation and the design of an experiment or a methodology for gathering data in situ. Looking for patterns and anomalies would be a major aspect. The latter also would be part of critical thinking in social science.

Critical thinking about a literary text would be more centered on close reading, looking for patterns and anomalies in the text, identifying any claims being made. Often, existing literary theories would be used as a lens for examining the text or one appropriate theory would be selected as the basis for critical analysis.

Critical thinking about a work of visual art, a musical composition, a dance, or a dramatic performance combines the observation of the physical environment used in science and the textual analysis techniques used in literature.

Critical thinking in writing (here I mean scholarly or practical writing), I think, requires the broadest repertoire of skills because there is more choice involved—what evidence, words, connections to include. Creative writing and making art involve even more choices and require one to go beyond established territory and make more original judgments. However, in those activities, critical thinking is more subjective—the artist can set his or her own criteria.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

What is "critical thinking" anyway?

The term "critical thinking" appears repeatedly in state education visions, but I wonder whether everyone who uses it would define it the same way. Before I begin to research what others say about the term, I thought I would attempt to begin formulating a comprehensive definition of what I think it means. The following is my first pass. I welcome suggestions and critiques.

Critical thinking can be used in the process of arriving at a single right answer, but often, it can lead to a number of possible decisions, outcomes, solutions, or answers.

Critical thinking is concerned with some "object" for consideration. On a micro level, that object might be a text, an image, a spoken statement, a piece of music, a physical action, or a natural phenomenon. It might be a product or performance that combines multiple objects and types of objects. On a macro level, it might be an entire domain or subdomain of knowledge.

The object for consideration can be viewed or interpreted or responded to in multiple ways.

The object for consideration has content and form. Content might include facts and claims of fact, descriptions, concepts, ideas, theories, evidence, arguments, proposed actions or methodologies, etc. Form is the way content is arranged or structured to create a whole.

I would define critical thinking as examining an object closely, going beyond first impressions, surface appearance, and the most salient details in order to arrive at a goal—a decision or course of action, a solution, or new knowledge (or at least an enlightened theory, idea, or course of action). That examination of an object—let's say the object is a proposed idea—begins with clearly articulating the idea followed by such processes as:

1) Ensuring the idea is understood. Defining terms associated with the idea and being aware of alternative ways of articulating the idea. Putting the idea into a more understandable form if needed. Exploring assumptions about and subjective reactions to the idea to prevent bias. Exploring how the form of the idea affects its content, as well as how it might affect response to the idea.

2) Comparing the idea to other ideas in order to place it in a group, establish its distinctiveness from a group to which others have assigned it, and/or associate it with other relevant ideas. Exploring its opposite and other alternative ideas.

3) Taking the idea apart and identifying its parts. Determining the important ways its parts fit and work together and how they affect one another.

4) Putting the idea in a larger context—historical, environmental, societal/cultural, artistic, philosophical—whatever context might affect or be affected by the idea. Exploring the origins of the idea. Exploring the future implications of the idea.

5) Connecting the idea to evidence (objective facts, accepted ideas, expert opinions, data from experiments) that might establish its validity, applicability, and or superiority. (Of course, critical thinking must, in turn, be applied to that evidence, as well as to the question of whether that evidence is appropriate to the idea.)

6) Applying criteria to the idea to determine its value.

Throughout the process of employing these thinking strategies, creative thinking is an undercurrent: Asking questions about the idea, finding different ways to look at it, conducting thought experiments.

Regarding Yesterday's Post:

Correction: I corrected a reference in yesterday's post. Frans Johansson's Medici Effect was the book that said prolific innovators continue to have bad ideas throughout their lives.

Addendum: I found a discussion of hands on learning at the university level and some great to consider on a January 19 post at The Clever Sheep blog.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Content Knowledge AND Creativity

Must kids learn basic content before they are allowed to think, imagine, and create in school?

In his blog D-Ed Reckoning, Ken DeRosa dismisses the Pittsburgh Regional Future City Competition as a "charming" attempt to to "instill creativity in students without first teaching them the relevant underlying content knowledge." The competition, which is part of the National Engineers Week Future City Competition, includes envisioning a city of the future (this year, with an emphasis on ("water conservation, reuse, and self-sufficiency"), using SimCity4 to create computer models, and then building a model of the city using recyclable materials. He quotes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article written for the general public that, of course, emphasizes the fun and charm of the kids' ideas rather than delving into how they were taught and how content knowledge was assessed.

First, teams for this competition must have engineers as mentors. That is valuable. I doubt that engineers would waste their time if fun were the only objective. The materials on the Web site of the national competition and the essays suggest to me that the winning teams did more than have fun. There was potential for them to experience how engineers work, become more knowledgeable about today's advanced technologies, and engage in complex problem-solving. I'm sure the essays and presentations that are part of competing were among the most rigorous communication challenges of those students' middle school experience. Also, I thought the list of awards for last year's Pittsburgh competition provide a glimpse of the complexity of the project and suggest that charming ideas were only part of the experience.

Now I'm sure there are many cases of bad implementation for contests like this. I'm sure many teachers go heavier on the fun and creativity but do not think enough about how to tie the semester long project in with the rigorous math and science content knowledge they need to teach. I'm sure there are some teachers who aren't taking full advantage of the opportunity to work with an engineer and who are letting some students slide while others do most of the work. Cases of poor implementation and teacher training don't make such an activity a bad approach, however.

Now I'll go a little further out on a limb. Let's say some students are doing the project in a less than optimal context—mediocre teacher, lost opportunities to teach some of the relevant content underlying the competition. But they are engaged; many, for the first time, have thought of themselves as learners. They are experiencing teamwork, both its immediate social benefits and the potential for some long-term growth as collaborators. They are more aware of complexity and systems thinking, of interdependence. Their attitudes about science and engineering have changed. They can now imagine becoming engineers.

Those outcomes aren't enough, but they are significant. Sure, the excitement will dim for some, and they will fall back into apathy. But middle school is when many students lose interest in math and science, so who's to say this little jolt of fun won't be the spark that keeps some of them going long enough to put them on the path toward realizing that they need to do the hard work of mastering physics and math. Maybe the artistic child who tunes out math and science won't start to pay attention because they now see math and science as ways to apply, enhance, and even develop their creative capabilities.

And who's to say that the challenge of envisioning a city of the future is nothing without the underlying content knowledge? Maybe the act of imagining the city will lead to questions that will lead to deep engagement with relevant content. Maybe a desire to begin building a mental framework in math and science that extends far beyond the project will grow. I know I experienced that jolt in some contexts. And maybe the kids with the wild imaginations will have a role not yet envisioned in our future society. If ideas are the fuel for the future economy, maybe innovative teams will include people who don't need to know—just imagine. I read recently that innovative people have more ideas but often continue to produce bad ideas throughout their careers (Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect).

I don't mean to suggest that content knowledge is less important than creativity. But I question whether particular relevant content always must precede imaginative speculation. I think creative work and rigorous learning are interdependent.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Content Knowledge AND Critical Thinking, Part II

Yesterday, I said this: "Some bloggers continue to suggest that increased focus on creativity and critical thinking skills threatens basic literacy, numeracy, and knowledge in the disciplines." My first example was a post in the Core Knowledge blog showing how critical thinking without background knowledge would limit listeners' grasp of the President's inaugural speech. As you can see in the comments for yesterday, the author of that blog did not intend to suggest that thinking skills are unimportant and has had some experiences with those who take the "learning how to learn" position too far. I think we all need to examine our positions continually in search of the right balance and I intend to to put that into practice using the Core Knowledge blog and other good sources with perspectives that differ from my own.

Perhaps Ken DeRosa, who writes a blog called D-Ed Reckoning, also has seen some examples of dismissiveness toward content knowledge and poorly implemented strategies for teaching thinking. But I'd like to suggest that he underestimates the power of critical thinking and the idea of "learning to learn."

In a January 21 entry, he outlined a projectile motion physics problem and on January 23 (in an entry called "Where's Your Google Now?"), he discusses "how difficult it is to think critically about Physics unless you know quite a bit [of] physics and have had quite a lot of practice solving similar physics problems."

Clearly, he demonstrated what he set out to demonstrate. But I think that in many contexts, good research and analytical skills can overcome gaps in content knowledge.

For example, I did not take physics and higher level math courses in school, and I know that even with my advanced Googling skills and high aptitude for gleaning information from technical texts, I would not be able to solve a projectile motion physics problem. But when a problem is relevant to something I need to understand and write about, I can discern that relevance through research and thought and can develop the background knowledge required for my communication task. In my career, and in many others, that is good enough.

When I worked for a NASA contractor as a writer, I covered basic and applied research projects across a variety of disciplines. When I started in 1987, I would not have been able even to identify or define those disciplines and knew nothing about how engineers analyzed design concepts and tested prototypes. As a writer, I used my critical reading and thinking skills when I needed to summarize physical processes within a system or communicate with physicists who were working on advanced concepts. By examining some technical references and project reports (No Idiot's Guides in those days), I was able to ask good questions and synthesize information from several sources to create background explanations for general and managerial audiences. Thus with a limited based of knowledge, I was able to educate citizens about the amazing work behind things they take for granted, to help legislators make decisions from a more informed context, and to make researchers aware of what was happening in other areas so they could make better use of the limited time they had to explore outside of their specialities.

Certainly, we need people who can do much more than what I did. My simplified explanations were much less important than the work of those who could write technical reports that other scientists could act upon. But my "good enough" knowledge base, cobbled together primarily through critical reading and thinking, fulfilled a purpose. Perhaps knowing more physics and being able to solve physics problems would have made my technical writing better in some instances, but most of the time I was effective because I was a learner—someone who could listen to a totally new concept and make enough sense out of it to tell a bigger story of ideas, innovation, collaboration, practical problems solved, or progress toward national goals. Moreover, imagine the benefits of having someone on the team who doesn't know the science but is a good learner. If he or she can't understand your explanation, you know you need to work on your message. Otherwise, those less motivated to understand you might not fund your project.

I don't mean to say that my avoidance of physics and math in high school and college was a good thing. Nor do I suggest that content knowledge played no role in my technical writing during that time. Certainly, my knowledge of structure, learned through studying English language content, helped. I was very interested in biology and anatomy. Maybe my content knowledge about living systems helped make it possible for me to converse with physicists and engineers—and maybe their "good enough" content knowledge in areas outside of their specialized domains helped them communicate their work to a tenderfoot.

I guess what I'm saying is that it would be wonderful if schools could figure out a way to broaden students' content knowledge in math and science while making them agile learners who can compensate for gaps in knowledge at the same time. Because gaps are always going to be there.

Another post on D-Ed Reckoning needs, in my opinion, to take a broader view of creativity. I will continue this in tomorrow's post.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Core Knowledge AND Critical Thinking, Please

Some bloggers continue to suggest that increased focus on creativity and critical thinking skills threatens basic literacy, numeracy, and knowledge in the disciplines.

On the Core Knowledge blog, Robert Pondiscio shows eloquently how the symbolism in President Obama's inaugural speech would be lost on those without knowledge of history.
He questions the impact of the speech on children. He asks: "How many of our children, instead of seeing mere novelty, comprehend fully and viscerally the improbable closing of a historical loop they have just witnessed?"

While no child could be expected to comprehend the full historic impact of the speech, I think many will comprehend it "viscerally" because they have been witnesses, and they have heard family stories. They have asked questions and wondered. I think many will be motivated to learn more about the struggles mentioned in the speech because they know they have witnessed something important.

As a person educated in the liberal arts and a lifelong seeker of knowledge, I know my content knowledge of history, literature, and the Bible significantly deepened my understanding of what the President was saying in his speech. But most of my mental activities during and after the speech were along these lines:

I remembered stories my grandparents and parents told of the Depression and saw vividly in my mind household artifacts from that time. I recalled the metallic smell of my grandfather coming in from the steel mill. I remembered models of the Gemini spacecraft my brother built. I remembered my uncle's letters home from Viet Nam and the tears of girls in my neighborhood whose brothers and boyfriends were shipping out. I mentally replayed news clips of the civil rights movement during my childhood and remembered being in sixth grade and seeing a photo of a bleeding, prostrate black man being beaten as I tried to read a textbook on race relations because O wanted to know why so many white adults seemed to be troubled by Martin Luther King. I remembered our black garbage man standing in the kitchen and giving my mother his take on the riots of 1968. I heard his voice clearly. No textbook accounts came to mind, nor did I remember any lectures—except one nun trying to make us view the civil rights movement through the eyes of black people. I remembered her simple but profound words.

Basic literacy skills acquired in school made it possible for me to use books in making sense of those experiences. The content knowledge I acquired in school made my experiences more meaningful. But what engaged me and made me want to learn about historical events did not happen because of an excellent curriculum.

I acquired the content knowledge that gave the speech meaning because of my own unique way of thinking about the world. Wanting to understand my world determined what I decided was important to know and what I paid attention to and pondered during and after my school experience. I believe that more opportunities to ask and explore good questions and share knowledge in creative ways would have enriched my understanding even more, sharpened my thirst for core knowledge, and made a better scholar out of me.

I remember so many questions not answered in my textbooks and history classes: What is communism? How could such things happen to Anne Frank? Why are blacks unwelcome in our neighborhood? Why should Americans die in Viet Nam?

Here's another: Why do some want to make everything an either-or proposition?

I think what we need now is "Yes . . . and . . . "

The Core Knowledge Blog and others (see tomorrow's post) acknowledge that content and critical thinking are inseparable, but then they set about exposing the inadequacy of critical thinking for making sense of history or solving problems. Is content knowledge all we will need to understand war in the Middle East or negotiate a treaty or craft an effective energy policy?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

NEA Chair Dana Gioia Comments on Arts Education

"You're in a society that will be happy if you're simply a good customer and make enough money to buy stuff and be a consumer." That was one interesting comment National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia addressed to some high school students recently. (It was covered in The Tidings, a weekly paper by the LA Archdiocese. Paula Doyle wrote the story.)

Chairman Gioia, who left a high position in the corporate world to pursue his poetry, also said the purpose of arts education is "to produce complete human beings who can lead successful lives in a complicated society."

I would like to see this broader vision for arts education. I believe part of the problem is that teachers don't have adequate time to explore and talk about art with students. It's all about production and performance. Therefore, the arts are viewed as only for the talented and they become compartmentalized instead of flowing into all areas of inquiry.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New White Paper on 21st Century Learning Environments

Promoting "vibrant educational environments – physical and online, technological and human – that support the 21st century learning all children deserve" is the focus of 21st Century Learning Environments, a new white paper from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Classrooms that can be easily reconfigured (which the authors call "learning studios"), buildings that inspire intellectual curiosity and social interaction are some of the recommendations for physical spaces. The school schedule and calendar also should be more flexible. Schools should be connected to the outside world, both welcoming community members in and creating real world projects that extend learning beyond the time and space of school. Assessment should measure the results of such learning experiences rather than focusing on test results that measure only whether students have mastered or not mastered content and skills at a particular point in time.

Technology, connection, professional learning communities, project-based learning, and community partnerships are threads that run through the paper.

I think the paper describes the schools we need, and I like the paper's references to the ASCD's Commission on the Whole Child. But I would have liked to see arts education figure more prominently. I don't believe the Partnership for 21st Century Skills would view the cuts in arts education we have seen in recent years as good for the development of 21st century workers, leaders, and citizens, but I think they underestimate the important of artistic thinking.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama and Arts Education

Our new President seems to be an advocate for arts education. This is an excerpt from his position paper on arts and culture:

To support arts education, Obama proposes these strategies:

Expand Public/Private Partnerships Between Schools and Arts Organizations: Barack Obama will increase resources for the U.S. Department of Education’s Arts Education Model Development and Dissemination Grants, which develop public/private partnerships between schools and arts organizations. Obama will also engage the foundation and corporate community to increase support for public/private partnerships.

Create an Artist Corps: Barack Obama supports the creation of an “Artists Corps” of young artists trained to work in low-income schools and their communities. Studies in Chicago have demonstrated that test scores improved faster for students enrolled in low-income schools that link arts across the curriculum than scores for students in schools lacking such programs.

Publicly Champion the Importance of Arts Education: As president, Barack Obama will use the bully pulpit and the example he will set in the White House to promote the importance of arts and arts education in America. Not only is arts education indispensable for success in a rapidly changing, high skill, information economy, but studies show that arts education raises test scores in other subject areas as well.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Art and the Inauguration

I was glad to see that the arts were part of Barack Obama's Inauguration.

According to the LA Times: "Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States of America exactly at noon today Eastern time in a fashion unlike any of his predecessors. The ceremony ran a couple of minutes late, and as the clock struck, Obama had not yet been sworn in. Rather power changed hands as he sat quietly on the steps of the Capitol and -– along with much of the rest of the world -- listened as violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill performed the world premiere of “Air and Simple Gifts” by John Williams. (You can watch and hear it below.)

Power changed hands just as the sober introductory air segued into an animated riff on the Shaker tune “Simple Gifts,” on which Aaron Copland famously wrote a set of variations for his ballet “Appalachian Spring.”

Here is the video of that performance:

Poet Elizabeth Alexander delivered a poem called Praise song for the day that inspired me to feel gratitude and hope. All of us made this country great and what each of us does matters. The "day" in the title was both the new beginning of an historic Inauguration and a celebration of every day—all the seemingly insignificant acts that create our lives and affect others in ways we don't know.I loved the last line and I hope it stays with us all:

"In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light."
Also, "View of the Yosemite Valley" by Thomas Hill of the Hudson River School was selected to grace the Inauguration luncheon. The Hudson River School artists (some of whom painted scenes from the West as well) sought to raise awareness about caring for the land and to further the idea of Manifest Destiny, the position that America should expand westward to extend "from sea to shining sea" and spread democracy throughout the world.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Closing the Innovation Gap: New Book Embraces a Complete Curriculum—Including the Arts

I just finished an important new book: Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy. The author is Judy Estrin, who has founded a number of techology enterprises and served as Chief Technology Officer for Cisco Systems.

Similar to John Kao's Innovation Nation, the book looks broadly at our nations's "Innovation Ecosystem," including education, and outlines a direction for U.S. leadership in a global economy driven by innovation.

Estrin joins the call for increasing our ranks of STEM professionals. But she also says this:
“Improvements in math and science should not be made by sacrificing other subjects. Learning about literature, history, and the arts encourages curiosity, creativity, collaboration, and communication, all of which are essential skills for potential innovators."
"To cultivate next generation innovators," says Estrin, "the most important skill we need to teach our children is how to learn." (Note to Fordham's Gadflies: She says most important skill, not only skill.

She also quoted another technology leader who shares her views, John Seely Brown:
"If I had to teach creative problem solving would I go to mathematics, physics, or engineering? No. “I would go to history and art for lessons in moral development. Those are the domains that build the aesthetics and sensibilities for the kinds of thinking we need."
After critiquing NCLB, she said:
“In an era when we talk so much about Web site personalization, we are not giving our children the opportunity to develop as individuals. We need students who are solidly grounded in the fundamentals, but also generations of innovators who discovered their passion by being exposed to a broad range of human creativity and knowledge in school. We will not lead in the future by producing a nation of robots.”

For more information, see Estrin's Web site. See John Kao's Web site for more about Innovation Nation.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Does Education Need a Renaissance in Qualitative Thinking?

Continuing my inquiry from the last post . . . I believe that the education community will not unlock the secrets to creating innovative thinkers through data-driven approaches. I believe that data certainly has its place and that schools should be collecting evidence about how well their strategies are working, but a culture focusing solely on quantitative data will make only incremental progress. Clearly, that will not be enough to meet the challenges ahead.

Policy leaders need to stop demanding numbers to justify all their decisions. Yes, qualitative data is hard to acquire and analyze. But where would our world be without decisions based on standing back and looking at the whole, making intuitive leaps because mystery beckons?

For true innovation to occur in schools, those who are pursuing a transformation in education must cultivate within themselves qualities of mind that we often call "artistic"—qualities like wonder, apprehension of beauty, embrace of mystery, exploration of possibilities, and fanciful reverie. Scientific progress and innovative breakthroughs draw from those qualities.

I believe that arts experiences can be incubators for those qualities—perhaps not what most schools call arts education today but a true artistic community whose views and ideas are taken as seriously as those of DaVinci were. Look at our world. Art is everywhere. It is highly influential. But because we do not study art in depth—arts classes are about getting results to show that kids are becoming better performers, not about the artistic process—we don't understand those influences or even consciously know they exist.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Conundrum of Art as Evidence

I know that yesterday's post—an image and a song about 21st century kids—are not really evidence, in the usual sense, that the arts should play a central role in developing 21st century skills. I've done enough writing about research-based reading programs to know what it takes to make causal connections. And I know there is a growing research base on arts education and arts integration I could cite. (If you're interested, start at the Arts Education Partnership. )

But I'd like to suggest that developing creative, innovative thinkers requires that the education community and those who set policy need to adopt an innovation agenda for themselves. If you have decided to act based on scientific research, then fund basic and applied research to test promising approaches like arts integration in a systematic way. If you view education as a science, you must do more than look at the existing literature for answers. It is not scientific to ignore possibilities because no one has yet proved them.

At the same time, think about a broader approach to collecting evidence. I still concede that the two artists I mentioned yesterday have not provided a basis for action, but qualitative studies and meta-analyses, as well as looking at the culture, have a place in the quest for innovation. Think about it: While the theories of Einstein and Freud were taking shape, artists like Picasso and Kandinsky were investigating space, time, and consciousness in parallel.

Or did the poet Ezra Pound get it right:
"Artists are the antennae of the race, but the bullet- headed many will never learn to trust their great artists."

Monday, January 12, 2009

Why We Need Arts in School: Evidence

Throughout time, the arts have tapped into the gathering storms, illuminated changes in consciousness, and captured the spirit of the times in ways that no historian, politician, or blogger can.

As the debate about 21st century skills flows on, I saw two responses from artists today. Author/illustrator/educator Peter H. Reynolds has created a portrait of the 21st Century kid that can be viewed at the Verizon Thinkfinity Web site. I love it that his kid has a guitar slung on his back. (Reynolds also has a wonderful blog Stellar Cafe).

Jamie Cullum has written a song. I think the lyrics to 21st Century Kid (below the video) are something to ponder.

21st Century Kid
There's maybe a way I can tell you
Cos with everyday things continue
To get more compromised
So who will fantasise
A new generation politicised

When things are done in our own name
Are we as much to blame
Now it's become clear to me
But only lately
And the ground is removed underneath

Shout it from the brink
You’re louder than you think

21st century kid surrounded by illusion and confusion
So maybe if you're holding out for the truth now
Could it be the greatest weapon
Could it be the greatest weapon
Your weapon

Nothing is certain except a memory
And that's soon washed away by a low sea
Now sit yourself down my one
And see what you become
Ignoring a smouldering gun

The white dove's flown
D'ya think we're on our own

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sunday Arts Education Connections #3

First Installment in my series on Arts Elements and Principles (see overview post see introduction to series)


Form is an element in music, dance, theater, and visual art. It shapes our expectations, perceptions, and memories of arts experiences. Imagine exploring form as it relates to art, culture, language, the diversity of nature, the landscape. The possibilities are endless.

Wisconsin Report Links Arts Ed to Student Success

A task force was created by Wisconsin's Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elizabeth Burmaster has issued a report that makes strong statements linking arts education to success in higher education and the state's economic development. According to a January 11 Journal Sentinel article on the report, the task force found that "deepening the involvement of all Wisconsin students in the arts and involving them in creative processes in schools are, among other things, important steps toward making the state's economic future brighter." The report recommends immediate action on creating "a pilot program for six to 10 school districts to implement an arts and creativity in education action plan."

I like the way Elizabeth Burmeister defines the creative process on the Department of Public Instruction Web site: "a combination of imagination, creativity, and innovation to produce something unique that has value and meaning." She says the group's plan for action addresses four areas: 1) Legislative and State Policy, 2) Creativity in the Classroom, 3) Community Involvement, and 4) Business and the Creative Economy.

The report will be available at the Web site of the Wisconsin Task Force on Arts and Creativity. The site also has resources and will include updates on progress. As soon as I can read the report, I will post about it again.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Students Chime in on Creative Learning: Maybe a Junior Innovation Corps?

Awhile back I wrote about an idea I had for the new Secretary of Education—creating an Innovation Corps. I thought of several well-known thinkers, innovators, and creators I would ask to be part of the core "dream team," but I left off the most creative people of all: the kids.

The Tate Museum has not made that omission. They asked over 3000 students across the United Kingdom to share their views on what they need to be the creative and succeed in the future. The result was the following:

The Manifesto for a Creative Britain:

1. We want less formality in schools and more creativity in the classroom.

2. Change the curriculum so that our subjects reflect our lives.

3. Create spaces where we can vent our creativity.

4. Let us have opportunities to take risks so that we are not afraid to try new things.

5. We need mentoring help to get us into the creative industries. We don’t know how it works.

6. We need to gain confidence in ourselves.

7. Allow us to learn from each other, to get fresh ideas from cultures other than just our own. We want to mix it up.

8. We need it to be easier to use the internet at school.

9. Invest money in us because we are the future.

10. We are prepared to start at the bottom and make our way up.

11: We want time for out-of-school activities and we want them to count towards our qualifications.

12: Give us the choice between exams or coursework.

See my comments at The Compass Point and join the discussion there. This is definitely a framework I will be revisiting.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Ready to Innovate: A Good Resource for the Innovation Corps

A March 2008 report sponsored by the Conference Board, Americans for the Arts, and the American Association of School Administrators makes some interesting points about 21st century skills that I would definitely make required reading for the Innovation Corps I fantasized about.

Ready to Innovate: Are Educators and Executives Aligned on the Creative Readiness of the U.S. Workforce? compares the views of business executives and school superintendents regarding creativity and innovation.

First, when asked which school experiences were most important indicators of creativity, both employers and superintendents cited study in the arts. (Business ranked it second, superintendents first.)

Second, when asked about specific skills and patterns of behavior that indicate creativity, employers and superintendents differed in some areas. The chart below (taken from an article by Stacy Teicher Kadaroo in the Christian Science Monitor) shows a couple of interesting differences that should be further explored.

Based on the rankings, employers and superintendents agree that "ability to identify new patterns of behavior or new combination of actions" and "integration of knowledge across different disciplines" are highly indicative of creativity.

But perhaps schools that are interested in developing innovative thinkers should discuss the three areas ranked high by employers (most indicative of creativity) but significantly lower by superintendents:
  • Problem identification or articulation.
  • Comfort with the notion of no right answer.
  • Fundamental curiosity.
My reactions: I wonder whether some of the areas ranked lowest by employers (less indicative of creativity) are perhaps areas they take for granted—areas where schools have excelled. However, two of those areas—communicating new ideas and problem-solving—may be deceptive. Communicating new ideas is dependent on having them first, which requires the other skills and behaviors. That ranking may be more reflective of thinking sequentially. Solving problems is much broader than some of the other items and can be said to include some of the more highly ranked skills. I wonder whether superintendents were thinking of students or teachers when they were ranking. Some of the items they chose as the top five—problem-solving, integration of knowledge across disciplines, originality, and communications seem to suggest the types of criteria that would be used to judge student work or that would be found in education reports about 21st century skills.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Pivotal Idea in 21st Century Skills Dialogue

Journalists and bloggers have been quoting the Education Sector report "Measuring Skills for the 21st Century" by Elena Silva over the past few weeks. Although the report's central purpose is to assert that 21st century skills can be assessed and to highlight the need for better assessment systems that measure a wider range of content knowledge and skills, many commentaries that refer to the report focus more on her analysis of how 21st century skills fit into the education picture. Although her position is that schools must teach and assess both the basics and real world application, Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, writers at the Core Knowledge blog, and Education Sector co-founder Andrew J. Rotherham underscored her statement that we must abandon "the idea we can teach thinking without a solid foundation of knowledge." The use of the word "fad" by Rotherham and Mathews has been widely quoted by bloggers.

A facet of Silva's analysis that I hope to see discussed more is the idea that advanced thinking and analytical skills can be integrated with the process of teaching basic facts and simple procedures. Among her references, she cites a report on math by the US Department of Education asserting that "the best learning happens" when students learn rules and procedures "at the same time that they learn how to think and solve problems."

She also mentions the findings of a working group that revised Bloom's Taxonomy. Led by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl, the group found that more advanced skills, in many instances, can be learned simultaneously or even in reverse order. (See this post at Bowling Green's Interact at the Center blog for a good visual of the original and revised taxonomy.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Fordham Foundation: It's Time for Inquiry, Not Ridicule

Once again, the Thomas B. Fordham Education Gadfly blog "Flypaper" has responded to new views in public education with sarcasm, misrepresentation of the debate, and either-or arguments. This time it's an attack on 21st century skills. Flypaper blogger Mike Petrilli inaccurately frames the position of all who suggest that schools need to develop 21st century skills as “all kids need to learn is how to learn.” The most important, active discussions of how to prepare students for their future careers do NOT suggest scrapping content, nor is an emphasis on teaching technology skills (how to use software) the central recommendation of 21st century skills advocates. Yet the Fordham team chooses to frame the debate this way to suit its agenda: Attack any idea that does not require draining public funds into private schools.

This is not an either-or proposition, but Fordham has argued it that way. Sometimes explicit instruction in thinking skills is needed, but usually learning how to learn and mastering content reinforce one another. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, probably most responsible for the rise of the term, does not promote skills without content. Their framework suggests the need for new content (which includes not only introducing completely new concepts but also bringing some neglected aspects of the existing curriculum to the forefront) and paying more attention to the thinking processes students use as they engage with and apply content.

I agree that the term "21st century skills" has become a buzzword, but there is room in the education conversation for rethinking how we prepare students for the economic transformation and global challenges that are upon us.

Arts and STEM: Not Either-Or

Thanks to Josie from The Compass Point at Poughkeepsie Day School for pointing me to her post on Hetland and Winner's Studio Thinking. The quote she cited at the end of her post is an important statement:
“We don’t need the arts in our schools to raise mathematical and verbal skills,” conclude Winner and Hetland. “We already target these in math and language arts. We need the arts because in addition to introducing students to aesthetic appreciation, they teach other modes of thinking we value.”
The comments her post received included one arguing that the arts are a waste of time because the best universities prefer more math and science courses to four years of high school arts courses. If this was ever the case, I think we will see it change. Earlier this year, I interviewed several leaders in the development of Ohio's new STEM high schools for the Ohio Arts Council's Links & Threads newsletter (Vol. IV, Issue 2). Here are a couple quotes:

Gregory Bernhardt, dean of Wright State University’s College of Education and a leader in the Dayton Regional STEM School Consortium: “We think the arts absolutely go hand in hand
with being a good critical thinker. We believe art and music are languages for today’s young people.”

Shaun Yoder, executive director of the Ohio Business Alliance for Education and the Economy: "Creative, innovative, inventive thinking in the STEM disciplines and in the arts work in much
the same way."

Marcy Raymond, principal of Metro High School (Ohio's first STEM high school): “The arts and humanities require the higher order thinking skills of analysis, evaluation and synthesis . . . . Science doesn’t happen in isolation. Students must prepare to view their work within the culture and to see the connections.”

Ohio seems to be one of the states that have a broader, arts-inclusive view of innovation. Governor Ted Strickland and First Lady Frances often mention the arts as essential to innovation. The Ohio Department of Education has formed a group of arts leaders called Committee for the Arts and Innovative Thinking (CAIT) to look at greater integration between the arts and the state's STEM initiatives. Also, Ohio's STEM Learning Network has a section on its Web site called Inquiring Minds, which discusses how the arts and sciences go hand in hand in creative thinking.

Monday, January 5, 2009

21st Century Skills Round-Up

I've been following the term "21st century skills" on Google Reader for a few weeks and looking at blogs that regularly address the topic. Initially, I saw mostly mentions of the term without much further discussion. Now I think the conversation is heating up.

Here is a brief summary of what I'm seeing in other blogs and some articles. (I will be reviewing some major reports in another post.)

Increasingly, I am seeing school districts incorporating the term 21st century skills into their missions and slogans, politicians using the term in speeches, and vendors claiming that their products and services promote development of those skills. Will the term become meaningless or distrusted before long—like "transformation" and "paradigm shift"?

Just a Fad. Some are casting the term as another buzzword or fad. In the Washington Post, Jay Mathews calls 21st century skills "The Latest Doomed Pedagogical Fad."

The semantics debate.
Are we talking about skills or literacies or habits of mind? Is communication still defined as reading, writing, speaking, and listening, or does it need to be redefined? Good discussion on Strength of Weak Ties.

Objections to the modifier 21st century. Haven't many of the skills cited as 21st century always been important? See The Edge of Tomorrow. Also, Keeping Kids First makes the point that people in 2090 will be laughing at our concept of 21st century skills.

Emphasis on Tools. Many blogs and social networks that are dedicated to discussions of technology in education seem to equate 21st century skills with use of Web 2.0 and multimedia tools. It will be interesting to see if this thread gains branches.

Concern about Balance. Many bloggers commented on Andrew Rotherham's Dec. 15 article in U.S. News and World Report expressed concern that content will be shortchanged. While I haven't seen evidence of his claim that "some 21st-century skills proponents believe these skills should replace the teaching of content," he highlights an important issue. I also applaud the assertion of Daniel Willingham on the Britannica Blog that the crucial improvement needs to be deep understanding and the application of knowledge. The Compass Point had a good take on this debate.

Concerns about Equity. Will suburban kids be taught 21st century skills while low-income kids learn basics? This has been briefly mentioned.

I have not yet seen anything of substance about arts learning and 21st century skills.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Coming Back

I am back to work after taking some time off during the holidays. For the first time in three years, my son and daughter were home at the same time and I also had the opportunity to be in the same place with my parents and all six brothers and sisters for a day.

I am eager to see whether my "tortoise mind" has been at work on some new insights (see post from November 29).

My focus for this week will be commenting on some recent articles and blog posts about 21st century skills. Seems like awareness of this new reform is growing. I also plan to get back on track with the series on how the arts elements and principles and the four categories of arts learning foster 21st century skills.