I've begun to craft lessons to stretch students thinking as I engage in a research project to promote higher order thinking skills. The results have been exciting and diverse. There are a lot of articles about education that celebrate 21st Century Skills and while just what those skills are or how they will be obtained is somewhat vague there is a surprising amount of agreement. There's a premium placed on creativity, on students being able to work on problems that might have more than one solution (a recognized trait of higher order thinking) as well as students being able to make connections between seemingly disparate ideas or subjects. Another thing that the writers of said articles seem to agree on is that these lessons or projects need to be diverse and not tied down to a simple set of solutions that can be easily tested.
The work I've been doing with the class has centered around our reading work primarily as we develop "Big Ideas", what might also be called thesis statements or literary essays. We've pushed past simply predicting what might happen to Annemarie, the hero in Lois Lowry's Number The Stars to talking about whether or not her experiences during the Nazi occupation of Denmark and helping to smuggle Jews to Sweden has made her a better person. Students have begun to think about, talk about and write about whether adversity can be a powerful motivator for good along with other ideas of that expansive and thoughtful nature. This week we sang and read Woody Guthrie's famous song "This Land is Your Land" and students began talking about the "No Trespassing Sign" verse and seeing the sign as a metaphor for life's challenges. You can read more of their comments as well as notes from the lesson on our classroom blog.
All of this work seems to fit right into 21st Century Skills and as excited as I am to be a part of such interesting and thoughtful discussions I am, from time to time, pulled back into a realization that in our current test heavy school culture we're living and working more in the 19th Century. Especially as new laws come on the books where a teacher's continued employment may be determined by student's test scores, how many educators will feel comfortable trying for something that is creative and dynamic but might not measure well on a multiple choice test, a test which might count for 50% of your own "grade" as a teacher?
I also wonder if it makes sense to try to develop higher order thinking skills if the gold standard remains standardized tests which do not measure those skills effectively. At times it feels like trying to teach students to paint like Michelangelo when they're being measured on their ability to draw a straight line with a ruler. I might ask if it's worth it, but listening to kids pouring over Woody Guthrie's words and finding meaning in their own lives through a seventy year old song I know the answer, but I do wonder if others see it that way.