Core values

To meet national educational objectives adopted by the state, our students must learn critical thinking skills — skills that they severely lack in this inattentive society

BRATTLEBORO — Many people in Vermont have not heard of the Common Core Standards, which the Vermont Department of Education accepted in 2010. People have no idea what the term refers to, why it has now been accepted by most states, or how it is being implemented here.

Numerous articles by education experts published in major professional journals have shown for years that American students have fallen far behind students in other countries in English and math skills. The sad fact is that many students get high-school degrees without possessing the skills either to hold a job or enter college.

No one argues with the merit of having high educational standards, but simply adapting current methods or testing is not a sufficient response.

In a letter in The New York Times, Deanna Kuhn, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and the author of Education for Thinking, states that although it's fine to have the objective of reversing these trends, the trick is to find the methods to do so.

According to a New York Times editorial, “the intention of these core standards is to help students develop strong reasoning skills earlier than is now common,” with students by fifth grade “required to produce essays in which they introduce, support and defend arguments.”

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What skills are required in order to achieve this goal? What is the underlying skill that students severely lack? I believe the answer is critical thinking, the ability to master several skills, to distinguish between fact and opinion, to evaluate evidence used in support of an argument.

Critical thinkers are honest with themselves. They are intellectually independent and resist manipulation by the media or public speakers. They ask pertinent questions. They must search for connections between subjects.

Critical thinking is a process that takes time, energy and patience. Critical thinking skills are sorely lacking in high-school graduates and must to be taught in our public schools.

Without the ability to think critically, the average person can easily be manipulated.

I recall asking high-school students and middle-school students to tell their respective classmates the source of a statement; students were frequently unable to clarify either for themselves or others whether the source was indeed fact or opinion.

Another perfect example of this occurred when one of my college-level classes was learning the sequential steps to write a short research paper. The student (who happened to be black) included a direct quote from a Ku Klux Klan recruitment website.

How can such a thing occur?

Students are skilled at quickly scanning the Internet to find information or sources of entertainment. However, they have never been taught in school to evaluate the validity of a site.

They frequently confuse publicity, propaganda, or ads, assigning these websites the same credibility as those with the authoritative information required for a research paper, with information produced by an expert with a degree and credentials in a specific field.

To compound the problem, any task worth doing takes effort and time. Students now use laptops, computers, and mobile devices to access information, directions, and sources of entertainment with a swipe of a finger or a click of a mouse button.

Students think answers are immediately accessible. With short attention spans that require immediate gratification, they do not understand that to write a valid essay means that one must take a longer time to gather information to make an argument from credible websites and printed sources, and then evaluate that information.

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The goal of Common Core is fabulous. How to carry it out grade by grade is the challenge.

The solution will take tremendous time and effort, because even the best and most creative and innovative teachers need specific materials to actualize goals. Intention is not enough.

The goal in Vermont is to create curriculum that is in alignment with the national core standards. This is surely possible but will demand dedication, time, and effort. I spent two years creating this type of curriculum for college-level English courses, a time-consuming, detail-oriented, and difficult task that required the utmost precision and diligence.

The good news here is that it is possible to reach the goal - stage by stage, and grade by grade.

Even young students learn best when encouraged to follow their own interests. Writing a research a paper is exciting when one is free to explore his or her own interests.

One student might be intrigued by the history of gold prospecting in Vermont, while another might wish to understand the extent of pollution of our rivers. A third might be solely interested in a character in Star Wars or the various uses of Lego bricks.

Critical thinking requires the ability to define, select, and pursue what one wishes to learn; these skills can easily be incorporated in the curriculum by having peers in small groups analyze a piece of fiction or nonfiction - even a magazine article - through the process of discussing specific questions related to theme, author's purpose, or historical context, especially when reading literature in translation or from a previous time in history.

Working in a small group with a selected leader who will present the group's findings to the class serves the double purpose of students learning how to be excellent public speakers.

In my 30 years of teaching, I've seen students live up to a teacher's highest expectations. Vermont students are more than capable of not only learning whatever is necessary for success in life but leading the nation.

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