Monday, September 20, 2010

Critical Thinking is Critical

A few years ago I was selected for jury duty. As the lawyers were interviewing potential jurors, details of the trial were somewhat revealed. We learned, among other things, there would be DNA evidence and that the trial would probably take several days.

When the lawyers finally got to me, they asked me if I watched television shows like "CSI" and "Law and Order." When I said "yes," they asked me if I thought all evidence could be collected, analyzed, and conclusions drawn in a one hour show. If I remember correctly, I said that I knew television shows had to condense story lines for their viewers and that the actual processes took weeks or maybe even months. The interviewing lawyers called it the "CSI Effect" and said that many people think that all evidence, investigations, arrests, and trials should only take short amounts of time. They also made clear that the science and technologies on television dramas, while possible, were usually far more advanced than what anyone would find in real life.

At the time I thought how sad it was that the lawyers had to take time to tell prospective jurors that television shows are not real; they are television shows; they are stories. Obviously, the lawyers had learned that many people called to jury duty do not have the critical thinking skills to realize that television, while based on real-life stories, is not real life. That's kind of sad.

This is one reason why critical thinking skills are so stressed in schools. It also happens to be one of the areas in which students have trouble. The skills include observing, interpreting data, analyzing, making inferences, evaluating, explaining, and coming to accurate judgments. It involves open-minded thinking processes that lead to intelligent conclusions.

It's understandable that students will have some trouble with this kind of thinking because they are still learning to think critically. It is hoped that by the time students leave high school, they will be proficient in these skills. Unfortunately, that is not happening as evidenced by the number of adults who lack these skills. When lawyers have to interview prospective jurors about their critical thinking skills, it's obvious that many adults still need help in this area.

Schools definitely need to do a better job. My first day of high school chemistry, my teacher lit a candle and told us to watch it. We watched it and watched it until it was gone. At the time I thought it was just about the most stupid thing I had ever had to do in school. But then he asked us about our observations. As he wrote them on the chalkboard, we started interpreting what we had seen, we started analyzing and evaluating, we started to explain why the candle burned. This led to a discussion of the chemical processes involved in burning, a discussion of plasma, and how important it is to just observe.

As it turned out, this one activity of watching a candle, led the class into the world of science and critical thinking. Teaching these skills can really be just this simple, but must be done over and over in all subjects. Give students a math problem and let them come up with different ways of solving it. Let them write a story in Language Arts class about an observation they've made, perhaps something they saw on the way to school that morning. Analyze a current event for a Social Studies class and have students come to intelligent judgments of that event. With just a little imagination, the opportunities for teaching critical thinking skills are limitless.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

10 Educational Responsibilities of Teachers

As a teacher, I found that all teachers know they must teach, but there are many other aspects of teaching of which a responsible teacher should be aware. Here are ten that I think are important.
  1. A teacher's first responsibility should be to take care of himself or herself. Teachers are no good to anyone if they don't feel good or are not healthy. This means getting enough sleep, eating properly, exercising daily, and finding time for family, friends, personal interests, and hobbies.
  2. Teachers must learn and practice patience. Many aspects of teaching can be exasperating. It's easy to answer a question the first time it's asked during the day. But at the end of the day, when it's the fiftieth time you've answered the same question, it's easy to lose patience. Remember, it's the fiftieth time for you, but it's the first time for the student.
  3. Be on time. It sets a poor example if the teacher is always late getting to school or getting to class. It also becomes difficult to justify disciplinary action to students who are late.
  4. Write out classroom rules and grading procedures. Give copies to students and parents.
  5. Decorate your classroom and keep it clean, organized, and clutter-free.
  6. Have lesson plans. In most cases, they don't have to be elaborate (unless the principal or school system requires this), but they should be complete and well-written. Any substitute coming to your class should be able to completely take over.
  7. Teachers should keep up on legal issues affecting education. Many of these impact the classroom, the curriculum, the teaching, and the operations of the school. Don't rely on department chairs, principals, or school district administrators to keep you informed of all these.
  8. Teachers should keep up on their teaching. There are new teaching methods, new technologies, new materials, new philosophies, new resources, and new research. While you may not incorporate all these, you may find something that really works for you.
  9. Teachers should get papers and tests back to students as soon as possible. Students may act like they don't care, but they really do want to see their scores. It does take time to check papers properly and that may need to be explained to students and their parents.
  10. Teachers should be friendly to students but not become their friends. It's good to attend student activities, but there is a line that is not to be crossed. Some students need friends and will want to be close to their teachers. They may be clingy or even develop crushes, but the teacher is the adult and must keep the relationship professional.

Friday, September 10, 2010

10 Educational Responsibilities of Students

A few days ago I posted 10 responsibilities of parents. Today I have 10 responsibilities of students. These are the tasks that I believe every student needs to do to be successful.
  1. Students need to make education their #1 priority. They must have the will and determination needed to succeed.
  2. Students must get enough sleep.
  3. Students must eat properly.
  4. Students need to read each day.
  5. Students must do homework. Even if there is nothing assigned, students should review their notes, read their textbooks, and work through example and sample problems.
  6. Students need to follow school rules. The rules exist so that the school runs in an orderly and safe manner.
  7. Students should be involved in extracurricular activities and community service, but not so much that it interferes with their school work.
  8. Students must make every effort to learn their subjects. If there's something that's difficult or not understood, the student should try to figure it out on their own. Only when that doesn't work, should they ask their teachers for extra help. At this point it is their responsibility to ask their teachers for help. Teachers often do not know a student is having a problem unless the student asks.
  9. Students must attend class everyday and be on time for those classes.
  10. The only exception to rule #8 is if the student has an illness, especially illnesses that could spread to other students. In this case it is the student's responsibility to meet with every teacher to find out what they missed while gone and to get that work done as quickly as possible.
If students meet these responsibilities, they will find they enjoy their school years, will do well in school, and will be prepared for whatever comes next in their lives.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

10 Educational Responsibilities of Parents

When it comes to a child's education, the parents, children, and teachers all have responsibilities. You would think each would know what those responsibilities are, but sometimes they get forgotten. The following are the ones I believe belong to the parents. These are the things children need in order to be successful in school.
  1. Parents should make sure their children have all needed school supplies.
  2. Parents should make sure their children are allowed to get enough sleep.
  3. Parents should make sure their children get proper and adequate nutrition.
  4. Parents should make sure their children are properly clothed for school.
  5. Parents should make sure that education is the number one priority for their children and should make sure the children know how important it is.
  6. Parents need to give their children reasonable daily chores and make sure the children do them.
  7. Parents need to give their children unconditional love and make sure the children know they are loved unconditionally.
  8. Parents need to make sure their children meet their responsibilities especially concerning homework. Parents should not do their children's homework for them.
  9. Parents should never make excuses for their children's bad behavior.
  10. Parents must discipline effectively without abuse.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Who's to Blame?

Last week I was talking to my neighbor. She is an elementary school reading teacher and had only been back to school for a couple of days. I asked her how everything was going. That was probably a bad question because she started telling about all the testing she would be required to do, all the programs and initiatives she was expected to implement, all in an effort to meet standards.

She said that while teachers were expected to do all this, the students coming in are less ready than ever before. She said that children are coming to kindergarten having never held a book; not even knowing how to hold one. She said that many come to school hungry, not dressed properly, and some are not even toilet trained. The big problem here is that their parents are simply not taking the time to be with their children and prepare them for school.

I thought about these children all week and about the problems they will have throughout their school years. While a few will be able to overcome these disadvantages, most will not. They will continue to be behind and at some point, a teacher or school will be blamed for not educating these children. Teachers can lose their jobs if these children do not meet achievement levels.

I would be the first to admit that there are some bad teachers, but in my experience here in Iowa, they are few and far between. And in my opinion, I don't think good teachers should lose their jobs because parents aren't doing theirs.

Yes, I know. Teachers blame parents. Parents blame teachers. Actually, everybody blames teachers. But the truth is, there are thousands of factors that influence a student's achievement, only some of which can be attributed to the teacher. When a child starts kindergarten and is already two years behind, that is not the teachers' fault. And if this child continues to be two years behind, the teacher should not be blamed.

At some point these parents have to take responsibility if their children are not performing well. Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done about them. It's just easier to fire teachers.

But what could be done? There are people who see these children before they get to school. There are relatives, neighbors, and pediatricians who could refer these parents and their children for help. Children could be enrolled in early preschools or Head Start programs. Parents could be required to attend parenting classes. While some of this currently exists, it obviously is not getting around to all the parents and children who need help.

I know there are costs for these programs that the parents probably cannot pay. This means that, once again, taxpayers will be left to foot the bill. While that may not set well with many, I think that helping these parents and children, while the children are young, will actually save the taxpayers money in the long-run (reduced special education costs for schools, fewer families in the court system, and fewer children entering the prison system when they grow up). It's certainly something to consider.