Critical Thinking About Critical Thinking


Fayetteville Public Schools have been hypnotized by Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap.  They’ve bought 2,000 copies, which they’ve distributed to administrators, teachers, and members of the community.  They’ve organized three public discussions of the book.  They are bringing in Wagner himself.  And they’ve indicated that they would like to use this book as a guide for planning a new high school and other changes.

My colleague, Sandra Stotsky, applies her critical thinking skills in today’s Northwest Arkansas Times to Wagner’s call for more emphasis on “21st Century Skills,” like critical thinking, adaptability, and creativity, and less emphasis on subject content:

“Who can argue against teaching students ‘agility and adaptability’ or how to ‘ask good questions?’ Yet these ‘skills’ are largely unsupported by actual scientific research. Wagner presents nothing to justify his list except glib language and a virtually endless string of anecdotes about his conversations with high-tech CEOs.

Even where Wagner does use research, it’s not clear that we can trust what he reports as fact. On page 92, to discredit attempts to increase the number of high school students studying algebra and advanced mathematics courses, he refers to a ‘study’ of MIT graduates that he claims found only a few mentioning anything ‘more than arithmetic, statistics and probability’ as useful to their work. Curious, I checked out the ‘study’ using the URL provided in an end note for Chapter 3. It consisted of 17, yes 17, MIT graduates, and, according to my count, 11 of the 17 explicitly mentioned linear algebra, trig, proofs and/ or calculus, or other advanced mathematics courses as vital to their work – exactly the opposite of what Wagner reports! Perhaps exposure to higher mathematics is not the worst problem facing American students!

Similarly, while I agree with Wagner that too many public schools fail to teach ‘effective oral and written communication,’ I am utterly puzzled by his contention that teachers’ obsessions with teaching grammar, test-prep and teaching to ‘the test’ are the problem. Really? Which English teachers? A lot of parents would kill to get their children into a classroom where they knew the teacher cared about grammar, or at least was brave enough to try to teach conventional sentence structure and language usage.

As for too much testing in schools, another of his complaints, Wagner again cites no relevant research. On the other hand my colleague Gary Ritter finds that here in Arkansas public schools the most tested students – those in grades five and seven – spend only 1 percent of total instructional time being tested, probably less time than spent in class parties or on field trips. And without testing, how can we figure out what our students know, and which programs successfully teach them?

Wagner’s book is engaging and sometimes points to real defects in American schools. Yet it fails to use research objectively to ascertain what is truly happening in America’s 90,000 public schools. Moreover, like all too many education ‘reformers’ Wagner is simply hostile to academic content. Wagner does not seem to care if students can read and write grammatically, do math or know something about science and history – real subjects that schools can teach and policy-makers can measure.

Unfortunately, Wagner dismisses measurable academic content while embracing buzzwords like ‘adaptability’ and ‘curiosity,’ which no one could possibly be against, but also which no one could possibly measure. Do we really care if our students are curious and adaptable if they cannot read and write their own names? “

I have my own op-ed on Wagner pending at another local paper.  Meanwhile my colleague Stuart Buck has an excellent blog post on a related topic — Alfie Kohn’s attack on Core Knowledge.  Even worse, Stuart notes, Kohn accuses people who disagree with him of having bad intentions and not just being mistaken.

It is puzzling how this entire industry of education consultants, including Wagner, Kohn, Kozol, and Gardner, manage to have such large followings with such weak arguments.

8 Responses to Critical Thinking About Critical Thinking

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Hmm. In this post you’re puzzled why defenders of the status quo are so successful despite having such transparently bad arguments. But in a previous post you were puzzled why defenders of the status quo are so unsuccessful despite having such vast resources.

    Obviously you’ve mastered the 21st Century Skills(TM) of agility, adaptability and curiosity.


  2. Touche. (Or is it tushy. I never know when to use French and when to use Yiddish.)

    Actually, my point is not that the blob doesn’t often dominate — as they do in selecting educational consultants. My point is that given their resources the blob should win all the time. The fact that they lose as often as they do despite huge advantages in resources demonstrates the problem of having weaker arguments.

  3. Ironically, the Fayetteville Public Schools have a column promoting the Wagner public events opposite Sandy’s critique. Here is what FPS has to say:

  4. […] The Global Achievement Gap, a book proclaiming the need for 21st century skills in schools, which Fayetville Public schools bought 2,000 copies of, and quotes a critic who notes: Unfortunately, Wagner dismisses measurable academic content while […]

  5. […] with Stuart Buck’s recent blog piece, seconded by Jay Greene, it seems the spotlight is burning a bit more brightly on Kohn of late. He has richly earned the […]

  6. Just a couple of thoughts I wouldn’t mind a response to:

    I’m not familiar with Wagner’s work all that much and while according to you his attempts to find compelling research appears weak at best, I’m wondering if you have any research to contradict his claims about the necessary skills needed today?

    Also you say, “And without testing, how can we figure out what our students know, and which programs successfully teach them?” I would challenge the purpose and type of testing. In most cases, these tests are pencil paper tests done largely to rank students, not to inform instruction or help the students learn more. While ranking may have some value, I’d hope that effective classroom assessment would be designed to help students demonstrate understandings that can’t always be captured by pencil paper as well as support learning.

    I do thank you for extracting and challenging his claims. I was thinking of reading this book but now have second thoughts.

  7. Hi Dean — Thanks for the comment. See my response in this new post:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: