Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Yes, but what do you THINK about that?

As most of you know to prevent my brain from further turning to mush and leaking out of my ears I decided to pick up a few classes this year.  My first thought had been to take some classes at the local junior college.  Then I thought maybe I would audit some at one of the number of colleges or universities in the area.  Then the heavens parted and the angels sang and I discovered Open Courses.  These are FREE courses offered online from top universities around the country. I can pick up classes from Yale, Harvard, Stanford, University of Michigan, anyplace I want, pretty much any subject I want and for free and since I am not interested in earning a degree or getting class credit this is perfect for me.  That and the ability to change subjects and universities whenever I want to, love it.

The first thing I discovered is that downloading them all in to iTunes meant that the lecture on the top of the list was not the first lecture so when I started it and was completely lost it was okay...I really was coming in to the middle of a talk and I didn't understand what the professor seemed to think I should because I hadn't heard the 13 lectures before that one. So, phew, sorted out and on to lecture number one.  Shorter lecture, outlining the basics of the class and what we were going to learn.  Then at the end of the class Professor Shapiro reminds everyone to read Eichmann in Jerusalem for the next class. Oh, great!  Since I don't have access to a syllabus I am so glad he mentioned the reading so I could prepare. I find the book at the local library, check it out and settle in to read...over 300 pages!  Before the next class? Oh my...well let's just say that I didn't pick up the next lecture in two days like I had planned but a week later. Another benefit of taking the classes online.

Now here is where I start to sound like an old lady so bear with me. The second lecture starts and Professor Shapiro asks a few questions about the reading. While doing the reading we were supposed to keep two questions in mind 1. What two things made you the most uncomfortable about Eichmann's actions? and 2. What two things made you the most uncomfortable about the events surrounding his apprehension, trial and execution? Do you know how frustrating it is to be "in" a class discussion and not be able to discuss?  You have to sit back and hope one of those students made your point. But they didn't. And I got more and more frustrated with them.  These are students at Yale. YALE for goodness sake. And instead of talking about what they thought, what made them uncomfortable, they were reciting back passages from the book. Now, this is fairly impressive in and of itself, to retain what you read and be able to pull it out, but it's not what YOU think.

I had to take a deep breath and remember that this is an introductory class. These are freshman. They might be freshman at Yale, but the are still 18 or 19 year old kids. And we haven't taught them how to think. Yes, you heard me. We fail our kids all through school on that level. We teach them how to take standardized tests. We teach them how to spout back the facts. But we fail at teaching them to THINK. And these kids showed over and over again that they had no idea what they thought about what they had read. It would take the professor three or four stabs at an answer with one student just to get a glimmer of something he could run with. And I could just imagine the hundreds of notes being taken out in the lecture hall of students trying to copy down what they were supposed to have thought....

You all know that C is extremely intelligent. But here is something you probably don't know. He flat out failed a TAG test he was given in the second grade when we lived in Colorado Springs. Or he would have had he not been taking it one on one with the TAG specialist as an experiment she was running on profoundly gifted children. She would ask a question and he would give an answer. It would be the wrong answer from what the test said was right. So she would ask him why he thought that was the right answer. He would explain it and she would have to admit that his answer was just as correct as the test answer. Her theory was that a lot of kids who are brilliant get labeled as having "test anxiety" or being "bad at tests" when really it's that the tests are too rigid. They don't accommodate thinking. Yes, they are easier to grade, but no, they don't facilitate teaching our kids to THINK about why an answer is the right or wrong answer. Dates, math problems, State capitals, these are all things that have a right and wrong answer. But themes from stories, lessons from history, these are not things we should be telling our kids the meaning of.  These are things we should be listening to them tell us what they think. Then questioning them as to why. And then why again.

Every parent of a toddler knows the dreaded Why? phase of development. When every answer is met with Why? It's exhausting. But it's so important to tell them why. And then to turn around and ask them why all the rest of their lives when they are telling you what they think or even more importantly what they KNOW. Why? Why is that right? Why do you feel that way? Why? Why? Why?  Only when they can answer why will they really know what they think.  Being able to defend your position means understanding why you have taken that one.

We were lucky with C in that he went to a middle school that facilitated deeper thinking about issues. Not just taking a test and spouting back answers but WHY? Now I wrote last year about a group of parents who were unhappy with their children not making the cut to get in to Summa, and these parents won the "it's not faiiiiiiirrrr" argument and now the admission criteria is much broader.  I am not happy with the decision on one hand.  The difference between 99th and 97th percentile is larger than you think and as the parent of a 99th percentile kid I know the need for schools and classrooms for kids like him.  But on the other hand if it gives more students a chance to learn how to think about issues instead of just learning the answer the test is looking for then that's a good thing.

C's high school also had great teachers that taught thinking.  He also learned how to take standardized tests over the years.  Learning what the expected answer is instead of what could also be the right answer.  And he faced the same issues in his freshman classes last year at school that I did in my online class.  Frustration with fellow classmates who didn't understand the difference between, What did you read? and What do you think about what you read? Big difference. And an important one.

Parents out there, teach your kids that there are right and wrong answers and there are answers that are just theirs alone.  The important part is WHY?

Oh..and as a follow up to the class room syllabus. I found it online after the second lecture just by chance Googling the professor's name.  And I discovered that the reason why he thought nothing of assigning a three hundred plus page book to read over a weekend for a class was that he only assigned a few chapters....oh....well the whole book was interesting anyway. Lots of things in there to think about....

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