I came across this article by chance as I was seeking information on Instructional design. The title interested me, as did the date of the article, which is 1987.
The author is Dr. H Ward Hill, Vice-president and Dean of Union College, Lincoln, Nebraska. At the time of the article he served as Chairman of the Dept. of Religion and the Division of Humanities. With this introduction, the audience can immediately understand the religious implications of the article, but on the other hand he shares many interesting points on the issues that arise when schools attempt to teach students to think. Dr. Hill describes “true education” as training youth to be:”thinkers, and not mere reflections of other men’s thoughts.” (p.7)
Dr. Hill states that teaching critical and independent thinking does not appear to hinge on the controversy between the merits of teacher-centered or student-centered learning. He goes on to say that most undergraduates don’t go to college to learn to think; most teachers don’t see their role in teaching students to think. In reflection, I tend to agree, as most of my undergraduate and Master’s classes were for my preparation to enter my career choice. There was not really time in the class to probe and question philosophies in education. As a matter of fact, there was really not much time to discuss, debate, or have any real type of dialog. The difference with the doctoral level is the amount of time that we are allowed to think. We are operating in an environment of thinking. Students at this level do not have to worry about standardized test scores, right or wrong responses, and feel the freedom to challenge without repercussion.
Dr. Hill goes on to argue on the lecture style of teaching and the teacher-centered classroom. He goes on to state that an expert lecture can include techniques that challenge the audience to the highest level of thinking. Good lecturers can intellectually awakened students to explore other aspects of the subject. Many student-oriented classrooms may amount to little more than a pooling ignorance, especially if students do not receive guidance in ranking the relevance of ideas and observation. (p.8)
Questioning can serve well in teaching students to think. Believing that “asking questions” can be an art form, it is essential to pursue a line of questioning that progressively builds to an understanding causing the student to savor the solution. (p.9) With a series of questions the teacher and students can explore together the solution to questions. Dr. Hill suggests that it is useful to let some time elapse before asking for solutions, and so as to not let students be “left hanging,” he shares his own preferred solutions, not favoring one over any other. I remember in one post Dr. Lowell responding to one of my questions, with a comment that he wanted to wait and see what others wrote before sharing his thoughts.
I find this to be a successful strategy. We often view our professors on another level of intellect and authority. As students we have a hard time viewing this authority as just being another peer sharing opinions in discussion. We were raised to respect authority and part of that respect was to not challenge aloud. I have had very few of my middle school students challenge my authority in any way. This article makes me reflect on my own classroom environment. I usually have questions to stimulate discussion, but most students respond looking for a right answer, and the discussion is often directed at me instead of the rest of the class.
Dr. Hill encourages teachers to seek to stimulate a higher level of thinking by using a series of questions paralleling the sequence of Bloom’s taxonomy, with questions moving from lower to higher levels of thinking. (p.32) Teachers should encourage students towards deeper reflections on their own ideas. Lastly, he points out that some teachers like to move students into unexplored terrain and directly challenge their ideas.
We all recognize the pitfalls that come with questions and discussions. Some students monopolize the conversation. It can lead to arguments and controversy and there is never enough time to fully explore ideas. As John Milton wrote in the 17th century, “Where there is much desire to lean there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinions in good men is but knowledge in the making.” (p.33) I say “good” for the students that speak up and want to be heard. Just because you aren’t talking in a discussion does not mean that you are not thinking and learning. Both students can be equally engaged, just in different ways.
In our rapidly changing world it will be important for our students to think and adapt to different situations. There is still a place for the teacher-led classroom. It is important that teachers define what they want the students to learn. Sometimes there is a practical necessity of helping students obtain specific knowledge and this will take precedence over more idealistic concepts.
Hill, H. (1987). Great Teaching Must Inspire Great Thinking. Adventist Education. October/November 1987. Retrieved on November 26, 2010 from: http://circle.adventist.org/files/jae/en/jae198750010706.pdf