Teaching Them How to Think

Assessment need not be a dirty word, an RPI prof tells faculty colleagues; when embraced, it can drive better teaching.

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Who Is Really Adrift?

Imagine that, instead of a college education as we now know it, we substituted a test-preparation course of study such as those offered by companies that prepare students for the SAT, ACT, and similar tests. The rationale for this course of study would be that the purpose of a college education is to improve performance on narrow cognitive assessments such as these. From this point of view, it makes sense that we cut to the chase. Instead of students studying English, history, mathematics, or science, they rather will prepare to do better on more advanced versions of the narrow cognitive tests used for college admissions. If the goal is to improve scores, why not teach directly to the tests?

When the goal is posed this way, few people probably would accept the substitution of test preparation for a genuine college education. It seems ill-advised. Yet the dominant trends in assessing learning in college might lead one to believe that, whatever educators may think, some of them act, perhaps inadvertently, as though this substitution of test-preparation for education would be a good idea. Which is to say: Oops, we already are moving in this direction!

Partially in response to pressure on the academy for accountability from the Spellings Commission, hundreds of institutions and entire state systems of higher education now assess learning in college via a standardized test, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), the ETS Proficiency Profile (ETS-PP, formerly the MAPP), or the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (CAAP -- an ACT product). The CLA is intended to measure critical-thinking skills. The ETS-PP measures skills in critical thinking, reading, writing, and mathematics in the context of the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. The CAAP has modules measuring reading, writing skills, writing essay, mathematics, science, and critical thinking.

These are all rather valid and reliable tests, insofar as they go, but they are narrow in what they measure. They achieve their reliability in part because they focus their assessments so narrowly. (So-called “internal-consistency reliability” rises to the extent that a test narrowly measures just a single construct.) So psychometrically, the tests are reasonably good ones. But the issue discussed here is not how “good” the tests are, but rather, how well they are used--whether they have sufficient breadth adequately to serve as measures of learning in college.

Tests such as the CLA, ETS-PP, and CAAP measure skills similar to those measured by the SAT or ACT and are highly correlated with these tests. Moreover, data collected by the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) show the CLA, ETS-PP, and CAAP to be very highly correlated with each other. Other research by Douglas Detterman and his colleagues has shown that tests such as the SAT and ACT are highly correlated with IQ, meaning that, in the end, all these tests largely measure the same thing -- what psychologists call “general ability,” or g. What then can we conclude from scores on such tests?

A recent book, Academically Adrift, concludes that students learn frightfully little in college. Its conclusion is based in large part upon small or nonexistent gains on the CLA. The authors of the book point out several important areas of genuine concern, such as lack of study time and writing experience on the part of college students. These worrying areas of concern should not be ignored. But the book’s conclusion that higher education is “academically adrift” does not fully follow from its primary data. Although the authors recognize some of the limitations of their data, these limitations may not be fully recognized by readers and certainly have not been appreciated by reviewers. What is missing?

According to a carefully researched report recently released by the Lumina Foundation, in which is presented a “degree qualifications profile,” there are five areas in which college students should make demonstrable progress while in college: broad, integrative knowledge; specialized knowledge; intellectual skills; applied learning; and civic learning. Lumina further lists five intellectual skills: analytic inquiry, use of information resources, engaging diverse perspectives, quantitative fluency, and communication fluency. But one could consider an even more diverse set of kinds of intellectual skills. Consider four important kinds of thinking:

  • Analytical thinking. The tests measure reasonably well analytical (or critical) thinking, somewhat narrowly defined. This kind of thinking is important in being able to analyze an argument, evaluate an article, or compare and contrast two ideas. Hence it is quite proper that the tests should measure this kind of thinking.
  • Creative thinking. We as college teachers and administrators want students to learn not only to analyze and evaluate what they read, but also to go beyond what they read — to think creatively. Indeed, often our biggest complaint is that students have trouble getting beyond the book. Tests such as the CLA do not measure creative thinking.
  • Practical thinking. Students can learn in a way that produces good test results but then find themselves unable to use what they learn in practical settings. They could get an A in Spanish but be unable to speak the language; or an A in statistics but be unable to analyze their own data; or an A in English or history but be unable to persuade people to take their ideas about world events seriously. Tests such as the CLA do not measure practical thinking. Although the CLA uses scenarios that come from everyday life, it does not use scenarios from the students’ everyday lives, so the problems are, to the students, nevertheless relative abstractions.
  • Wise and ethical thinking. Students need not only to acquire a knowledge base, but also learn how to direct this knowledge base in an ethical way toward a common good — one that balances the student’s own interests with other people’s interests and larger interests, over the long as well as short terms. Tests such as the CLA do not measure wise or ethical thinking.

The importance of these four kinds of thinking has been well established through research on successful functioning in real world educational and employment contexts. Individuals need creative thinking to generate new ideas, analytical thinking to ascertain whether their ideas are good ideas, practical thinking to implement their ideas and convince others of their value, and wise and ethical thinking to ensure that their ideas help to achieve a common good.

The CLA — the measure used to establish the findings presented in Academically Adrift -- at best measures one fourth of these essential intellectual skills. But it measures only a minuscule portion of the total range of outcomes highlighted in the Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile.

Creators of tests such as the CLA view themselves as assessing critical-thinking skills in serious contexts. But they are not the students’ real-world contexts, and moreover, they are not the rich contexts in which students are taught to think in the academic disciplines they study. The reason that students "major" in a discipline is not just to learn the content knowledge of that discipline but also to learn to think deeply in the context of that discipline: How, for example, would a physicist, or sociologist, or historian, or educator, or business executive think about a particular problem? Moreover, the Lumina Degree Profile turns a spotlight on the importance of integrating knowledge across multiple disciplines and multiple sites of learning — informal as well as formal.

One might argue that, in the first two years, most students do not yet major in any discipline. Even for those students who take two years of general education courses in multiple areas of study, however, the goal is to steep students in rich intellectual disciplines and their modes of inquiry. But the thinking measured by the CLA and similar cognitive tests pays no attention to the rich conceptual knowledge fostered in the disciplines.

Moreover, although we like to think that the main agenda of college is for students to learn formal disciplinary knowledge and to think with it, arguably, the agenda is as much for them to learn tacit knowledge — to learn the ropes, so to speak. Tacit knowledge is procedural. It deals with how you manage yourself so as to accomplish your goals and stay out of trouble, how you form relationships with people and network effectively, how and from whom you seek help when you need it, how you decide whom you can trust and of whom you should be suspicious, how you meet the demands of an organization (collegiate or otherwise) while maintaining a meaningful life, and so forth. These outcomes are largely the result of learning outside the classroom; so really, all those activities outside the classroom are not necessarily a waste of time or even time ill-spent. The Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile underscores the role that informal learning plays in developing essential competencies. But these skills are not measured by the CLA and its sister tests.

Of course, some will question whether the Lumina Foundation guidelines provide any kind of reasonable framework. But the leading organization for the promotion of the liberal arts in the United States, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, proposes through its Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative the following critical areas of student progress: knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world; intellectual and practical skills; teamwork and problem solving; personal and social responsibility; and integrative and applied learning. These so-called “essential learning outcomes,” developed through a broad dialogue with the higher education community and with employers, are similar to those of the Lumina Foundation’s DP. Indeed, its similarity to the LEAP essential-learning outcomes is one of the strengths of the Lumina framework.

This nation made a serious mistake in introducing well-intentioned but poorly executed legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act, which has turned many of our elementary and secondary schools into glorified test-preparation centers. Do we dare now do the same for colleges? Do we really want to make preparation for narrowly conceived cognitive tests the primary goal of a college education? Or do we want to broaden assessments, such as performances and portfolios, perhaps in addition to the narrower assessments? If we limit ourselves to narrow measures, we can say good-bye to our hopes to develop an internationally competitive, creative and ethical society. We instead can say hello to creating a nation of excellent test-takers who will shine, but only in some dystopian world in which achieving high scores on tests is the measure of one’s contribution to society.

Ultimately, the goal of college education is to produce the active citizens and positive leaders of tomorrow — people who will make the world a better place. Narrow tests of cognitive skills do not measure the creative, practical, and wisdom-based and ethical skills that leaders need to succeed. We can and truly must assess much more broadly.

Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president and professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, and a member of the board of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The views expressed in the essay are entirely his own.

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Becoming American

We have besides these men descended by blood from our ancestors-among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, … if they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, … but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and then they feel that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.

--Abraham Lincoln, Speech in Chicago, 1858


What does it mean to be an American citizen?

From all the heat generated of late over immigration, one might have supposed that some light would have been cast on this crucial question. Given the need to elevate our national dialogue over this issue, it is disheartening that this has yet to happen. It appears that the idea that is American citizenship is all but lost on America’s citizens themselves. Here our universities can be of invaluable assistance, through introducing their students to the perennial questions and issues that define American democratic theory and practice.

Any attempt to perform this task ought to begin at the beginning, with the very justification for our existence as a country—the Declaration of Independence. Its claims are meant to be universal, addressed not only to King George III, but to a “candid world.” The Declaration argues that, in the new American order, blood, creed, and national origin—the constituents of citizenship throughout history—have been dethroned. Instead, U.S. citizenship entails adherence to moral and political principles the truth of which, says the Declaration, is “self-evident” to those who reason rightly. These principles, which form what can be called the “American theory of justice,” argue for human equality; for the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; for government established by popular consent; and for the right of the people to rebel should government cease to fulfill the purposes for which it was instituted. On this basis, the United States is more than a mere address, more than its history, and more than its demographics. It is, in its essence, an idea.

Yet how many of us today, native-born no less than newly arrived immigrants, can recount the Declaration’s four self-evident truths? More crucial, how many of us have even a rudimentary grasp of the moral and intellectual foundations of the “American theory of justice”? For years, surveys have told us that the answer to both questions is precious few. This cannot help but alarm those of us who believe, with the Declaration’s author, Thomas Jefferson, that no nation can expect to be “both ignorant and free.” But neither should we be surprised at the surveys’ results, says Derek Bok. The former president of Harvard University argues in his recent book, Our Underachieving Colleges, that American higher education is not providing the democratic or civic education on which he and Jefferson deem democratic health to depend.

Bok’s title conveys an unhappy thesis: Our universities are underperforming on a number of fronts, one of which is preparing students for citizenship. He laments the fact that most colleges today do not require even an introductory course in American government, the result of which, according to Department of Education statistics, is that only one-third of undergraduates ever complete such a course. He is yet more concerned about why this might be the case, citing Carol Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, who reports that “after five years of active discussions on dozens of campuses ... I have been persuaded that there is not just a neglect of but a resistance to college-level study of United States democratic principles.”

With such a paucity of college courses, concerns over the Americanization of newly arrived immigrants need also to take account of the fact that native-born citizens are nearly equally challenged at “becoming American,” that is, at the task of understanding the principles that established and largely continue to define this country. Even those born in America are failing to become American in this, the deepest sense.

While university-bashing has become something of a cottage industry of late, this is not my intention. As a former dean and provost, I know too well that today’s colleges and universities face a multitude of challenges that are little understood by those outside academe. My intent is, rather, to persuade our universities that they will be the first to benefit from requiring that all their students undertake the serious study of the character and foundations of American democracy.

Having spent the bulk of the last quarter-century teaching in universities, I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of professors choose their profession for the very best of reasons—out of the conviction they share with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” Not the desire for wealth or fame, but the desire for knowledge, unites the professoriate at its best.

Socrates also argues that our quest for knowledge of the whole cannot take place in a vacuum. It requires that we simultaneously examine our act of examining. That is to say, it requires that we study the context in which we pursue the life of rational inquiry. This is why Socrates turned away from the study of what today is called the “natural sciences” solely and toward the “human things,” politics chief among them. Simply put, the particular study of the intellectual and moral foundations of the American republic is not merely an exercise in antiquarianism or filial piety, but rather an essential element in our pursuit of knowledge of the whole of existence. As such, it is no less essential that, like Socrates, we share the fruits of our inquiry with our students.

This is not to deny, but to place in perspective, Bok’s lesser yet legitimate point that, because our universities benefit from tax exemptions and federal financial aid, they have a duty to provide civic education as part of their claim to providing a public good. On this point, a New York Times essay published last year, “Revisiting the Canon Wars,” reminds us how Bok’s thesis echoes in some respects the late Allan Bloom’s commentary on Alexis de Tocqueville, which takes the form of a sub-chapter in Bloom’s 1987 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind. Bok’s title, itself, Our Underachieving Colleges, is reminiscent of Bloom’s subtitle: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. Of course, no one would equate Bok with Bloom. For this very reason, we need to give both a hearing. When educators who are otherwise so different agree on so critical a point, it suggests that we owe it to ourselves to examine their arguments earnestly.

Bloom elaborates on Tocqueville’s insights into modern democracy and the importance of the university within it. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville argues that, in the marketplace of free and equal citizens, the opinion of the majority takes on a power previously unimaginable, threatening us with a new form of despotism: “soft” despotism, which is not imposed by force but rather submitted to almost without being noticed. In the absence of any authority outside the majority, it becomes nearly impossible for the solitary democratic “individual” to conceive of ways of life contrary to those esteemed in popular opinion. We own the power of Tocqueville’s diagnosis when we reflect on the immense power public opinion surveys hold over us today. This hold hinders the development of intellectual freedom, the sine qua non of the “examined life.” If such freedom is not to be swallowed whole by democratic conformism, what is to be done?

In this, American higher education, and perhaps it alone, has both the obligation and the privilege to play the role of liberator. Part and parcel of democratic conformism is its unending thralldom to the demands of commerce and utility. This is understandable. The Founders and their intellectual forefathers -- Locke, Montesquieu, and Bacon, among them -- understood these demands to be important to ensuring individual liberty and domestic tranquility, as well as prosperity. A people whose government limited itself largely to physical security and material comfort (the “relief of man’s estate,” as Bacon has it) would be less likely to fall prey to the civil strife that had devastated Europe and caused many of its inhabitants to immigrate to the new American colonies in the first place.

But this very focus on utility, so valuable from the perspective of domestic peace, tends ineluctably to lower our gaze from attention to the highest and deepest -- what some would call the truly human -- questions, e.g., “What is a noble life and how might I achieve it?”

In short, our democracy urgently requires asylum from the merely urgent. It needs a place where it can transcend, for a time, its endemic attention to narrowly practical concerns in order to ask the most important questions, the questions whose examination, says Socrates, makes life worth living. Our universities, armed with intellectual courage and shielded by academic freedom, can help us declare our independence from the tyranny of utility and the seductions of conformism.

To establish such an education, the professoriate must dare to tread territory still scorched from the campus “culture wars” of recent decades and revisit the discussion of a required core curriculum. To do this, perhaps we can begin by agreeing that there are at least certain core questions that all students should examine. Here, I offer a half-dozen, along with some of their ancillaries.

First, what is the meaning of human equality as articulated in the Declaration’s assertion that “all men are created equal”? Equal in what respects? What view of human nature does this presuppose? Does the Declaration mean to include African-Americans, as Abraham Lincoln, along with Frederick Douglass and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., insisted?

Second, what does the Declaration mean by asserting that we possess rights that are not “alienable”? Who or what, precisely, cannot alienate our rights? Are all rights deemed inalienable, or only some? And why?

Third, why does the Founding generation consider government just only when it is instituted by the consent of the governed? Is justice for the Founders merely consent-based? If not, what might trump consent?

Fourth, why did the Founders opt for representative democracy over the “pure” version of democracy practiced in ancient Athens? What did The Federalist (penned by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay) assert was the inadequacy of ancient democracy?

Fifth, how does the Constitution seek to reconcile democracy, which means rule by the majority, with the rights of minorities? Stated differently, how do we do justice both to the equality of all and to the liberty of each?

Sixth, and finally, what economic conditions make American democracy possible? Why does the Constitution protect property rights? Why do its critics, such as Marx, believe private property to be the root of injustice? How would Madison and Hamilton have responded to Marx’s and his followers’ critique?

Implicit in these questions are at least ten fundamental documents and major speeches that every American citizen should study. The questions regarding the meaning of human equality, inalienable rights, popular consent, and the right of revolution clearly require an examination of the Declaration, along with Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of the Fourth of July to the Negro,” and Chief Justice Taney’s infamous opinion for the majority in the Dred Scott case (where Taney denies that African-Americans have any rights that whites are bound to respect). Against Taney, Frederick Douglass’s and Lincoln’s scathing critiques of the Dred Scott opinion need to be taught.

The Declaration needs also to be scrutinized in its relation to the pro-woman’s-suffrage, 1848 Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the National Mall in 1963. Why did Elizabeth Cady Stanton look to the form and substance of the Declaration of Independence in crafting the Seneca Falls Declaration? What did the Reverend King mean by asserting that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution constituted a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir”?

The Constitution, of course, must be taught to our students. As both critics and admirers of the Constitution agree, there is no more authoritative commentary on that document than The Federalist, the series of 85 newspaper essays defending and explaining the Constitution, written during the period that the states were debating its ratification. Specifically, the questions regarding representation, minority rights, and the economics of democracy require examination of the Constitution and The Federalist, along with Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s writings and speeches on economic democracy.

Finally, for reasons already articulated, all students need to be introduced both to Tocqueville’s defense of democratic equality and to his concerns over the intellectual conformism to which American democracy lies exposed.

Needless to say, these questions are not exhaustive; others should be added. (Professor Gary D. Glenn’s syllabus for his “Democracy in America” course at Northern Illinois University is the deepest and broadest that I have yet to find.) But my chief point is that these questions and concomitant sources are necessary to any attempt to educate our students in American citizenship. They begin to focus our attention on the deepest issues regarding “Americanism.”

To this end, there may in fact be something of a ferment already under way to establish new college programs providing civic education. Here I refer to the recent growth of faculty initiatives to establish disciplinary and multi-disciplinary programs of civic education. Among these is Princeton's Madison Program, which sponsors courses on the American Founding, statesmanship, and political philosophy;, organizes conferences on the foundations of constitutional government; and hosts a regular forum for undergraduates to discuss the philosophy, history, and institutional structures of democracy. Similar programs and measures, tailored to institutional missions and faculty strengths, recently have sprung up at Georgetown, Williams, The University of Virginia, the University of Texas at Austin, Dartmouth, and Colgate, among others.

While some will be encouraged by this development, others will point to the “ghetto-izing” of a subject the study of which should be required of all students, regardless of major. But neither this concern, nor a related worry over the bulky machinery of Center-building should blind otherwise sympathetic faculty and administrators to the fact of just how easily and inexpensively (in comparison to so many other subjects) such a course as I propose could be implemented: the texts themselves are all available in paperback, and professors across the humanities and social sciences all have the intellectual background to teach them. As for pedagogical approach, a discussion-focused seminar of approximately twenty students accomplishes the desired objectives nicely. Moreover, this initial, required seminar could spawn a series of seminars focusing on other great questions/issues, and could culminate in a capstone course reflecting the particular strengths and mission of each institution.

Again, as a former dean and provost, I know that any effort to change the curriculum is always a bumpy ride. Yet, we have a better chance of completing such an odyssey when we recognize that the questions constituting the core of my proposal for democratic education spring not from mystical, filial piety but, rather, from the requirements of the Socratic life to which we academics have committed ourselves. Filial piety is contrary to the rational inquiry to which universities at their best are devoted. It also is contrary to what the Founders intended. The Declaration’s appeal to a “candid world” makes no demands based on faith, or tradition, or blood lines. Instead, it asks us to reason about—to argue with—its assertions that equality and liberty are the grounds of justice. The Founders offer this invitation to free debate hoping, perhaps even expecting, that the world would come to see the reasonableness of their claims.

Through instructing our students in the questions that I have outlined, we continue the debate proposed by the Founders. Socrates argues that human goodness, at its peak, may well consist primarily in investigating the question, “What is human goodness?” Socrates taught Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle honors both Plato and Socrates when he takes Plato to task: “Plato is dear to me,” writes his best student, “but dearer still is truth.” In a like manner, we pay tribute to the Founders when we subject their radical reinterpretation of citizenship to the most searching scrutiny. But such tribute is far from filial piety. It is, instead, the quest demanded by the desire to know ourselves.

For the sake of the integrity of both our universities and our politics -- for our citizens both newly arrived and native-born -- let us begin this quest, and let us do so in the civil, fair-minded, and magnanimous manner that defines university life at its noblest.

Thomas K. Lindsay is deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a former university provost. His views do not represent those of the endowment.


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