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Creating experiences where critical thinking happens

Our new accountability system should not be based on mastery of specific skills, but on the ability to synthesize skills and apply them to solve real problems. By George Manthey


ohn Wilson, former executive director of the National Education Association, observed in a recent blog that “critics of 21st century skills … insist that we have always taught critical thinking, creativity, communication, and

collaboration. The truth is that we have taught these skills in the most prestigious, elite schools or in our classes for gifted and talented students. We have not taught them to every stu- dent nor have we taught them in the context of the technology that is available today. It’s the combination of those skills with technology that makes for 21st century teaching and learning.” When I review the Common Core Standards,

I find that: • in eighth grade, students are expected to

“analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new;” • in sixth grade, students should “conduct short research

projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and refocusing the inquiry when appropriate;” and • in third grade, students should “use technology to produce

and publish writing (using keyboarding skills) as well as to inter- act and collaborate with others.” I realize that the standards are not kidding about critical

thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. I am also reminded that they are called “common” standards because they’re meant for all. But at this point I begin to experience a bit of déjà vu. Haven’t

we heard language like this before? Wasn’t it, in fact, in the origi- nal No Child Left Behind Act that the goal was set to have all students be proficient by 2014? It doesn’t look like we will reach that goal. In response, we have set a new and even higher one. I wonder if we really believe that all students, and not just

some students, are capable of such “21st century learning.” But here’s the thing – all students do think critically, create, commu- nicate and collaborate. It’s just that they don’t all do so in school. (Especially in one state, where a major political party platform includes a statement that schools should be forbidden to teach critical thinking.)

Many school and district mission statements include the

words “all students can learn,” but how many say something like “all students are capable of critical analysis and higher-order thinking?” I think creating experiences where that happens is closer to our true mission as educators.

Learning and teaching to solve important problems Whatever our mission, it is too easy to have it compromised

by an externally imposed accountability system. For that reason I think it’s incredibly important that we build a new system of accountability based not on mas- tery of specific skills, but on the ability to synthe- size skills and apply them to solve real problems. Fortunately, that’s a process that is currently

under way in California. Our state superinten- dent of public instruction recently conducted a survey to help inform this process. I was con- cerned about the one question that asked how the results should be used. Of the eight choices

offered, only one was about “feedback to students, teachers and parents.” One response was open-ended, but the other six were only about accountability. Is it too much to expect that we build a state assessment sys-

tem whose purpose is to improve learning and teaching – and specifically, the learning and teaching of critical thinking, com- munication and collaboration to solve important problems? If we did, I believe all of our classrooms would become more excit- ing places to be. Right now our state is in the process of designing a new as-

sessment system. Follow the progress at sa/ab250.asp. More importantly, influence the process by partic- ipating in the opportunities to do so that you’ll find at that site. We have a great opportunity right before us. Let’s not just im-

prove our current system; let’s re-form it as a critical part of the process of creating the 22nd century system of public education that we want for the grandchildren – and the great-grandchil- dren – of today’s students.

George Manthey is assistant executive director, ACSA Educational Services.

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