Let’s (Really) Teach Critical Thinking Skills

How incredible is it that half of the people in the U.S. think that the other half is brainwashed, with the other half convinced the exact same about the others?  Most of our population really believes that vast swathes of the people with whom they share a country are delusional about pretty much every important aspect of how they think that country should run.  How did we get to this point?  What can we, as educators, do?

Well, one thing is to get real about teaching critical thinking skills.

I can the imagine the immediate objections:  “Critical thinking is already everywhere in education lately.  From the benchmarks to the buzzwords, critical thinking is literally everywhere!”  This objection does have a strong element of truth.  But it’s missing so much of what critical thinking actually is.

Critical thinking skills are not just skills of Bloom-like discovery, analysis, and synthesis, as so eloquently described here or here.  And it doesn’t just involve jamming buzz words, such as inference, problem solve, assessment, etc. into benchmarks, as has often happened following the national standards movement that began gathering steam in the 1980s, before steamrolling into the brick wall of the anti-core curriculum movement of late.  And if you want to pay a lot of money to learn these segments of how to critically think, the professional development industry will certainly oblige.

So, with all of this critical thinking education out there, and now for so long, why does it seem as though so many of our citizens are still so delusional?  I believe that the answer lies in what our critical thinking teaching has been missing.  Critical thinking is logical thinking.  Logical thinking involves a primary importance on truth above all else, even if it involves admitting mistakes.  It also involves knowing logical argumentation, along with being able to identify mistakes, including bias and fallacies.  It involves things like cross referencing, and citing sources.  These things simply aren’t being taught today.

When somebody’s media source takes a quote out of context, everybody should be immediately pointing out that “That’s cherry picking!”  When a Democrat argues with a Republican about just about anything, neither side should care as much about winning as about getting to the truth.  There shouldn’t be a disdain for “statistics” or “numbers.”  Everybody should know as much about confirmation bias as they do about Beyonce.  They should know how to cross reference.

And so, my plan is to do my little part.  In the upcoming weeks I will post some information, with some examples of common fallacies, as well as some information on bias and evidence, geared toward teens and adults who are either unfamiliar with these, or just need a brush up.  My plan is also to post some accompanying worksheets on my Free Language Stuff website, and my Teachers Pay Teachers store that will be free or close to it.  When the buzzwords finally become words like facts, evidence, statistics, fallacies, and logic, then hopefully the delusions will start to fade.

The Head in the Sand Syndrome

Two young daughters hover nearby as their mother carries her newborn infant.  Precise handling techniques are used to ensure the baby’s head doesn’t fall.  One of the daughters watches, while the other doesn’t.  After suggesting each take their turns, the mother asks the watching daughter to hand the baby to the other.  What happens?  Well, hopefully in this scenario the second daughter does just fine.  Hopefully, she properly lifts the baby’s head because she’s at least watched her knowledgeable sister.  Hopefully she uses observational learning, a learning theory popularized by Albert Bandura and his bobo dolls.

That observational learning is critical in a wide variety of situations, from language, to morality, to eating with chopsticks, is widely accepted, yet as a way of actually learning it seems to often fly under the radar.  However, here I’m not talking about domains such as speech and language (where people are often advised to model the correct sounds), behavior (where experts frequently extol the virtues of modeling correct behavior), or sports or music (often taught by “watch this, then do this”), but now I’m talking about groups.

We seem to increasingly be a society of information proliferation outpacing our ability to effectively use information.  Daylight savings is just one case in point; an example of an idea that people love to criticize while ignoring how others do it.  I did find this one article examining some trials of daylight savings in other countries, which generally suggested that many (but not all) people elsewhere tend to dislike the practice.  Though I’m curious about the sentiment in other countries, with this topic as well as so many others, I don’t seem to share this curiosity with many others.

We do sometimes get bits and pieces filtered to us.  We know that some states and countries do health care well.  There have been many surveys of happiness comparing different cultures and countries.  In education, some school districts are acknowledged as being successful, although recent attempts to put numbers out there in order to enable easier comparisons, have far too often done nothing but muddle the situation, providing an excellent example of a case of information overload actually making things more difficult to understand.  How many people know how well their school is actually doing?  Why isn’t anybody talking about how hard it is to find out?

This then brings us to the opposite of observational learning – the “head in the sand” syndrome.  Observational learning works when both our curiosity and our desire to improve cause us to

ostrich head in sand
It’s a myth that ostriches hide their heads in the sand.  Don’t believe me?  You don’t have to.  You can look it up.

attend to what someone else is doing, hoping to emulate it.  The head in the sand phenomenon occurs when our fear causes us to ignore what others are doing because it might be uncomfortable.  The recent situation in Flint, Michigan, as well as the general ignoring of similar infrastructure needs throughout much of the rest of America are good examples.  And this happens as well in education.  And in health care, the environment, health and exercise, and a whole slew of subjects with potentially uncomfortable truths.

The good news is that increasingly, with so many subjects, the statistics are getting out there.  Sure, there is a distrust of the media, and of the internet, but it doesn’t take much to cross reference stats, and see who’s distorting what.  The first step often involves just the simple lifting of a head.

Using Plain Language at Work

An interesting story from CBC news outlines some recent research that strongly suggests the use of abstract words and buzzwords actually lessens trust with those we are attempting to communicate with.  It increases the perception that we may be lying as outlined in a 2010 study entitled “Truth from Language and Truth from Fit: The Impact of Linguistic Concreteness and Level of Construal on Subjective Truth.”

The title of the study on language clarity may be ironically obtuse, but it’s certainly possible to put it more clearly.  Plain inclusive language and some sensitivity when using technical terms, abbreviations or industry jargon just makes sense, especially when newcomers or those unacquainted with our workplace and its quirks of language are present.  Check it out here.


Why Teaching the “R” Sound is so Hard

True, this topic is a little more speech oriented than language, but as I was recently working with a relatively new speech-language pathologist (SLP) on trying to align our “R” sound judgments with several kids, the overall implications for learning just struck one of my chords.

Working with the “R” sound is hard because we’re not sure exactly why its so hard.

First, an extremely brief overview:  a lot of SLPs, new and old alike, hate working with the “R” sound.  Why?  The reasons given vary in similar ways.  Generally, they revolve around a lack of experience, and as time makes this reasoning more difficult, the resulting rationales rotate from a lack of new techniques, to a lack of motivation (from both kids and clinicians), to the frequently heard, “I don’t know why.  It’s just hard.”  In its extreme honesty, this last reason probably actually hits the nail on the head as much as anything.  Working with the “R” sound is hard because we’re not sure exactly why its so hard.

So, let me try and come up with a few reasons.  The first ones aren’t mine, but unfortunately I can’t remember to whom to give the attribution.  There is one key one though, that I haven’t heard before, which I’ll save for last.

One of the commonly heard reasons this sound gives such unique fits:  You just can’t see it.  As it requires tongue elevation in the rear of the mouth, this sound’s lack of visual cues requires us to develop an ear for discriminating what the tongue is doing that we can’t verify with our eyes.  (I’ll have to ignore an alternative method for teaching the “R” sound, called the retro-flex “R,” since its controversial nature involves more digression than I’m willing to give in this space.)

Another reason:  SLP university programs don’t do a good job of preparing us for this problem despite its affect on so many kids.  This ties into the previous reason.  You can’t expect someone to just get handed a handful of “R” kids on their first caseload, and expect them to be immediately prepared.  You have to develop the “R ear,” which is only done by hearing a lot of good ones, a lot of bad ones, and especially, a lot of in between ones, while simultaneously learning to discern the difference.  There’s no substitute for the experience itself which speech clinicians are almost always expected to get on the job, and often with little help.

This brings me to the one reason then that I believe may be unique to this post, although it still has its claws tied into the previous two.  SLPs are taught one main system for tracking data – the good ole plus/minus system.  If it’s right, it gets a plus (+), and a (-) otherwise.  This usually works well enough for most sounds, but for the “R” it carries major drawbacks; the main one being that almost all of the kids working on this sound produce many more “in between” productions than ones that are either purely good or purely bad.  So when we, as clinicians, are forced to pigeon hole productions it causes major confusion, both with the kids, and with ourselves.

The diversity of productions these kids come up with should be matched by an equally diverse range of feedback.

A better way seems to be one where we provide feedback that includes what exactly is going on.  Phrases, such as “I heard some tongue movement there,” or “That’s better!” or “That one had less tongue lift,” seem more actually descriptive, and thus, actually useful, than a method that relies on matching a particular production to one of only two possibilities.  The diversity of productions these kids come up with should be matched by an equally diverse range of feedback.  This could include statements like, “That was good at first, and then it sounded like your tongue slipped,” or “It sounded like your tongue moved a little, but then you rounded your lips instead.”  And quite often, especially with this sound, even those of us with tons of experience must sometimes say things like, “I’m just not sure about that one.  Can you do it again?”

In the past I’ve suggested something that thinking about it now increases my need to more strongly advise it from now on.  Multiple productions.  Have the kids say the target three or five times, which does two things.  One is that you can compare productions with each other, giving you more of an opportunity yourself to judge than you can get when having the kid say just one at a time.  And the other is that you can give more visual and more immediate feedback, such as questioning expressions exactly as they’re losing tongue elevation, or excitedly open eyes as they’re spontaneously improving.

The “R” is tricky, no doubt about it.  As with anything else involving learning, the trip down the road towards mastery must begin with figuring out where to place the first step.

Photon Candons

leonard-nimoy-393861_1280My son and I were building Star Trek ships out of Legos once, and he told me about one of the parts he’d built – “This is a photon candon.”

I said, “Cannon.”

He said, “No,” before emphasizing the word, “Photon.” Pause. “It’s a photon candon.”

“A cannon.”

“No!” He got very irritated with my denseness at this point. “A photon candon!”

I finally understood the reason for his frustration, and so I naturally decided to put more effort into correcting him. Until this point I’d been admittedly more absorbed in my building of the USS Enterprise (or “USF Enterprise” as my son seemed stuck on saying) than with correcting his speech.

“It’s a photon cannon. You meant to say cannon. There’s no such thing as a candon.”

One could see the wheels of his mind turning by the expression on his face. He then very quietly said, “Cannon. Cannon. Cannon,” before announcing, “This is a photon cannon.” A few minutes later he called it a candon again.

Later, this episode got my own wheels turning. My son frequently did this sort of thing. The incorrect word would get “stuck” in his head despite him never having first heard the word.  This is a point worth repeating: He’d never heard the word “candon.” Why would anyone use a word without first having heard it?

Experience also told me not to worry. Anderson would not forever be doomed to a life of being made fun of for his inability with this word. He would not have to sweat out any future job interviews, praying the word “cannon” would not somehow pop up. He would learn how this word is actually used in our language, and probably pretty soon. There had been many words like this before – breafkast for breakfast, cockapit for cockpit, college cheese for cottage cheese, hootel for hotel, and cans of city for Kansas City, among many others. All of these incorrect production have since gone extinct. But why does this happen, and what does it say for how we learn language?

Some thoughts:

– This happens in phonology (e.g. pour for four), but these are simplifications almost always; candon for cannon is not a simplification.

– My theory is that the mind records an imprint of a word the first time this word is attended to (contrasting with the first time the word is heard).  The attention can occur in self talk, or it could be misheard and then imprinted as the incorrect hearing.

– Things can also go wrong in the recall of the word. The memory may distort it just as memories are distorted all the time. The initial imprint could also have been recorded incorrectly to memory, i.e., it could have been “misheard.”

– These imprints get reinforced. They can be reinforced by talking or thinking to one’s self or by using the word without being corrected. The more reinforcement the more permanent the imprint.

– This may be a significant cause of speech and language disorders.

We Are Not (Usually) Teaching Metalinguistics

Something keeps popping up from time to time, which after its most recent occurrence, reminded me of something I can do to improve my own collaboration with teachers regarding my language teaching.  I was told something like this again:  “I don’t think (the student) is ready to learn prepositions.  We’re just working on what nouns and verbs are, and even that’s difficult for a lot of the kids.”

Many professionals do not understand that when we are teaching a language skill, such as prepositions, we are not teaching metalinguistic skills.  We are not working on knowing the different parts of speech.  Many teachers, as well as parents, think that our goals toward specific deficits are that we are teaching kids to understand what prepositions are, for this example, and not as is actually the case, using prepositions as a grouping for kids that have difficulty with specific types of words that their peers normally don’t have.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain that I am not teaching a child what prepositions are, or what pronouns or adjectives are, but rather I’m teaching them to be able to use and understand these groups of words as well as their peers can.  But, this is something I need to improve.  Too often, I’ve just assumed they know this, when I should instead be assuming that they don’t.

So, my plan is that in the future whenever I mention to anyone what specific language skill a specific child is working on, I will try to automatically include that we are working on things such as following directions with the target and using the target in conversation.  I will try to include examples.  And although I may include a bit about how it may be helpful to explain to the student what these types of words do, that is not the goal.

Using the example of prepositions again, I’m thinking it will sound a little something like this:  “We’ll be working on prepositions, such as inonabove, and below.  Although we may try to increase his understanding that we’re working on ‘where words,’ I will not be working on him knowing what these words are.  Rather, I will target the specific words themselves which he has particular difficulty using in his conversation and understanding when others are talking and giving directions.”

Maybe this is another one of those cases in which a little bit of extra work now can not only benefit the kids and teachers, but also save me from doing more work in the future.