Here's a thought: What if there were more critical thinking in our schools?
"Re: Thinking," a new documentary, spends time at several public schools that are said to be teaching students how to think, as opposed to what to think.
A school administrator explains early in the hourlong film that young children are naturally curious and teach themselves to walk and talk.
"Over those first few years of life, everything they learn is based on the fact that they want to learn it," the educator says. "And all of that seems to come to a screeching halt when they get into formal education."
The film by Deborah C. Hoard and Rachel Ferro is set to have a premiere in Washington on Wednesday, with the requisite panel discussion by some of the educators who appear in the film, as well as a representative from the U.S. Department of Education. The film is going to be available for free online from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2 at www.rethinkingmovie.com.
The documentary does not spend a lot of time laying out criticisms of overly rigid educational practices, although there seems to be plenty the filmmakers could have pointed to, from schools that focus too much on teaching to the test to charter schools with inflexible behavioral rules. (Writer Scott Santens had a recent commentary in Education Week on the topic of teaching critical thinking.)
The three schools featured in "Re:Thinking" seem to be on the progressive side. The film says the three embrace "a culture that values thinking over memorizing information" while still meeting state standards.
The three are Green Hills School, a K-8 school in the Green Township school district in New Jersey; the Bard High School Early College program in Long Island City, Queens, a partner with the New York CIty school system; and the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, N.Y.
Derek Cabrera, a cognitive scientist at Cornell University, explains four fundamental patterns of thinking: distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives. (The film is based on the work of Cabrera and his wife, Laura Cabrera, the founders of the Cabrera Research Lab at Cornell.)
The goal of teaching thinking "is to produce a citizenry capable of thinking critically and thoughtfully and prepared for the rest of their lives," one educator says in the film.
There are quite a few talking heads, but this short documentary succeeds in showing aspects of this theory in action at the three schools.
At the Lehman Alternative school, we see students engaged in exercises designed to teach the them to view some hot-button international issues from the perspectives of various stakeholders, including terrorist groups.
At the Bard High School program, educators are implementing the Common Core State Standards while also trying to keep the focus on thinking skills.
"Straddling both worlds is what we're doing now," a teacher there says.
At one of the other schools, a student tells his classmates he's reading the Dale Carnegie classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
"It says that 85 percent of your job is based on how well you work with people, and the other 15 percent is your knowledge," the student says.
"Re:Thinking" seems designed to foster a conversation about teaching methods and how critical thinking can be incorporated in different kinds of schools facing different organizational and accountability pressures.
Consider the conversation started.
A growing body of research suggest that if we teach children to become critical viewers, we do more than give them the ability to analyze the construction of isolated images; we also give them the ability to think critically about the composition of the picture, enhancing their ability to read words and worlds.
Although many continue to regard television viewing as a passive process, other see the potential of the video age to develop new literacies while reinforcing traditional literacy. A 1990 issue of The Harvard Education Letter, for example, reported: "The video screen is helping children develop a new kind of literacy — visual literacy that they will need to thrive in a technological world … In television or film, the viewer must mentally integrate diverse camera shots of a scene to construct an image of the whole."
Although television can be used to develop reading skills and promote traditional literacy, it is essential that educators also recognize that television is a unique medium and that to understand it fully we must be conversant with its codes, conventions, and characteristics. That means acknowledging the power of the picture and accepting the fact that seeing is not believing. Jack Solomon said, "Television images lull us into thinking that they are real, that they aren't iconic signs at all but realities. Since we see them, we trust them, often failing to realize that, like all signs, they have been constructed with a certain interest behind them."
Deconstructing these media representations requires relinquishing the powerful and pervasive notion in our culture that seeing is believing, that what you see is what you get. The real issue, however, is whether we "get" (i.e., understand) what we see. The process of reading television addresses some of the following elements.
- Interpreting the internal content of the program.
- Interpreting the internal construction of the frame.
- Recognizing the external forces and factors shaping the program.
- Comparing and contrasting media representations with reality.
- Recognizing and responding to the potential impact of television form and content.
Essentially this involves a narrative analysis or the ability to recall and recognize what happened and why, with reference to genre codes and conventions.
This process focuses attention on media form and style. It includes the overall design and look of the picture and involve such things as camera angles and the various shots used.
This industrial/sociological approach looks at issues such as media ownership and control in an attempt to understand how these factors shape programming. A simple example would address the relationship between media ownership and the depiction of women and minorities in the media. Can a patriarchal white industry fairly depict women and minorities?
This might include comparing television's depiction of the Vietnam War (Tour of Duty, China Beach) with documentaries or histories of the war. It might also include studying incidents of violence on television compared to the national crime statistics or examining the depiction of groups, races, religions, and nationalities to detect stereotyping and bias.
This focuses attention on appropriate responses and viewing behavior including writing to producers and sponsors, as well as using television more selectively.