Teaching How to Think Instead of What to Think

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Since yesterday’s post, I’ve continued to think about the whole relationship between reading well and writing well hand how it all works together. This time, my mind wandered to the topic that sparked that classroom conversation in the first place: teaching literary criticism to students. (Or, rather, the insanity of not teaching literary criticism to students and expecting them to figure out how to do it to our satisfaction.) The above graphic pretty much says it all in terms of what I think of high school lit classes. When I was in high school, I sat through way too many classes calling themselves “Advanced English” in which we were spoon-fed and told what the passages of what we were reading meant. All too often, we were told there was so much subtext under the most innocuous of things like blue curtains. All too often, the question on my mind was, “Why do we have to over-complicate this?” It seemed to me that most English teachers were never happy unless they turned the smallest detail into a Whole Big Thing.

How well I did in these classes depended on the teacher. Sometimes I would be encouraged by someone who liked that I thought different thoughts, and I got an A. I would be appreciated for my thoughtful and often irreverent take on things. One teacher called me an iconoclast and I wore it like a badge of honor — once I’d looked it up and found out what it meant.  On the other hand, if I got a C or worse in the class, I was being taught by someone who disliked the way I deviated from her little script. Eventually I would push back the only way I knew how: I wouldn’t do the work at all. I was labeled lazy, irresponsible, and mouthy by the teacher. My poor mother probably had no choice but to believe her because I offered up little in my defense. I wasn’t the adult in the situation. I didn’t believe I had any power.

I am fortunate that I knew better than to believe that the interpretation and criticism of a text was not necessarily always the teacher’s way. Sometimes the curtains really are just blue. But what about the poor kids who bought into it because the teacher is the authority in the room and, therefore, he or she must always be right? What about the kids who don’t entertain the idea that there just might be another way to think about what they just read because it doesn’t even occur to them?

What about the kids who don’t even think about what they read at all?

Don’t misunderstand me. Modeling the behavior you are trying to teach is perfectly valid, even if that behavior is a thought process. When learning a new skill, the student should see what it looks like. But the student eventually needs to try it on his or her own. It isn’t fair to keep leading students to one and only one conclusion. The breakdown occurs either when the teacher’s own thinking is inflexible, or when a well-meaning teacher accepts that the students understand what they’re supposed to do because they’re nodding back at her, deer-in-headlights stares notwithstanding.

It isn’t enough to simply ask, “What do you think?” when asking students to dissect a piece of writing in front of them. “Why?” “So what?” and “Prove it!” are the critical questions that I often found lacking in high school classroom discussions. These questions actually boomerang back to writing. “Why?” “So what?” and “Prove it!” are precisely what we’re asking for when we ask students to explain a topic, incorporate evidence, and convince us why it’s important when we ask them to write papers in just about any discipline in college. Perhaps I’m fortunate that my mother pursued her college education while I was in elementary school; her instructors were asking her “Why?” “So what?” and “Prove it!” on a daily basis, so it’s reasonable to assume that she made sure I was asking them, too, as she helped me navigate my own homework. She modeled the behavior through our discussions as she proofread my assignments, but in the end, the burden was on me to explain myself. She was teaching me how to think without telling me what to think.

In retrospect, I can’t help think about how different my academic career might have been different had I been armed with that little bit of knowledge during parent-teacher conferences.

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~ by Shanna Gilkeson on March 11, 2013.

One Response to “Teaching How to Think Instead of What to Think”

  1. You are too right on with this. My 15 year old brother was filling out a preliminary essay type of worksheet for Of Mice and Men and when I critiqued one of his points he said “But that’s what the teacher said.” Not cool. I’ll have to use this “Why, So What, Prove it,” method on him and see what happens.

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