Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Critical Thinking, Public Education, and Granola Bars

In which I get all political on you.  Apologies in advance to my regular readers who are patiently waiting for mindfulness and cupcakes.  Also, you owe it to yourself to go read Garage Author's post on this subject.  Because she writes like a champion boxer.  KO.

My son is going to public school at the end of August, so I find myself paying even more attention than usual to discussions of education policy (which is saying something, considering that I'm the daughter of two teachers, and spent my entire career in higher education).  Back at the end of July, the Texas GOP released its Education platform.  Usually this doesn't cause much of a stir, but they made this objectionable little comment that got everyone up in arms, and provided some useful fodder for Steven Colbert:
Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.
Now, I do sort of understand the resistance to Outcome-Based Education.  OBE generally promotes curricula and assessment based on constructivism, which holds that people create meaning of the world through a series of individual constructs, or filters we choose in order to make sense of our reality.  While I consider myself more of a constructivist than not, and in principle this sounds like an excellent idea (and is the reason that we're beginning to see things like portfolio assessment of student work in addition to grades), in practice, it becomes a political morass.  How do you decide what the outcomes should be without getting all wishy-washy?  Where I used to work, that discussion resulted in a complicated core curriculum during the university's last revision of undergraduate education, which made no one happy.  I can't even imagine the discussion on a state level, especially when the state is the size of Texas.

But really? Challenging a student's "fixed beliefs" is a bad thing?  Should a child's lifelong beliefs be completely formed by elementary school?

A party spokesman later said ""[The chairman of the Education Subcommittee] indicated that it was an oversight of the committee, that the plank should not have included 'critical thinking skills' after 'values clarification, [...] And it was not the intent of the subcommittee to present a plank that would have indicated that the RPT in any way opposed the development of critical thinking skills."

Still, the fact that those words got written in the first place (which means they must have been spoken by someone, and read by many others before that document was released) is disturbing to me.  Isn't that what public education is about?  About encountering difference, about questioning your beliefs, about questioning what you've simply been told, about promoting democracy?  I'm reminded of the article that jjiraffe linked to the other day, about Mike McQueary, an assistant coach at Penn State who reported child sex abuse but is not being blamed for not doing enough.  At the end, the author writes, "[w]e need to find ways to teach Good Soldiers and Team Players to question authority while still respecting it. In fact, we need to go one step further and teach them that questioning authority is the best way to show respect for it. And any authority that challenges that notion isn’t worthy of respect."  As I wrote to jjiraffe, I'm not sure how we do that, exactly, but that kind of questioning is necessary if we're going to raise the next generation of heroes and whistleblowers, instead of people who stand by and watch terrible things happen.

The platform also opposes, among other things, early childhood education, sex education, and multicultural education, but supports “school subjects with emphasis on the Judeo-Christian principles upon which America was founded.”

Um ... excuse me? Wasn't it values clarification that motivated the colonists to travel here and stick it out against some pretty incredible odds in the first place?  And with growing populations of non-Judeo-Christian people who are influencing the future of the country, wouldn't it be important to discuss non-Judeo-Christian ideas?

You can read the entire policy here, if you're interested.  But I'm sorry, Texas GOP--as my son starts first grade this year, there is one thing I'm hoping he'll continue to learn: to think for himself.  And if he figures out that I've been wrong all along about something important, and can show me why in a way that is civil and respectful, more power to him.

Here's a great addition to a lunchbox for back to school, or to slip into your own bag, so that during that mid-afternoon dip in energy you can recharge your own power of critical thinking.  They're sort of like Luna bars, only more customizable and less expensive.  The basic formula from Brown Eyed Baker goes like this:

1. Rolled Grains (2 1/2 c.): Oats, Rye flakes, Barley flakes, etc.
2. Nuts, Seeds & Spices (1 c.) : Almonds, Walnuts, Pecans, Pistachios, Sunflower Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds, Cinnamon, Ginger, etc.
3. Sticky Sweetener (1/2 c., can use a bit more if you prefer): Honey, Agave Nectar, Molasses, Maple Syrup
4. Dried Fruits (1 c.): Raisins, Apricots, Dates, Figs, Prunes, Cranberries, Pineapple, etc.
5. Binder (1 c.): Pureed Dried Fruit, Apple Butter, Peanut Butter, Almond Butter, Unsweetened applesauce, etc.

Here's my variation on the theme.

What did you think of the document?  And how do you like your granola bars: chewy or crispy?

Luna Bar Style Tropical Granola Bars 

1 c. apple butter
1/2 c. raw local honey
1 t. ground cinnamon
3/4 t. vanilla
2 1/2 cups rolled oats
3/4 c. chopped almonds
2 T. raw pumpkin seeds
2 T. sunflower seeds (roasted, unsalted)
1 c. chopped dried apricot
2 to 3 T. unsweetened shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 325F. Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with parchment paper. In a large bowl, whisk together the honey, apple butter, cinnamon and vanilla extract. Stir in the oats, making sure that everything is mixed in well and that the oats are all moistened. Mix in the almonds, seeds, and dried fruit. Turn the mixture out onto the parchment and press into the pan, distributing it evenly and packing it tightly. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool in the freezer until the bars are firm, at least 1 hour. Remove from the pan and cut into bars. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.  You can even cut them into fun shapes with cookie cutters!
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  1. This disturbs me but the separation between church and state seems to be blurry in the US at the moment so it doesn't really surprise me. The combination of promoting Judeo-Christian principles and not promoting multicultural education or critical thinking skills sounds pretty intolerant (although at least the language is Judeo-Christian and not just Christian). It still leaves out an awful lot of people. BTW - those granola bars look delicious!

  2. Love this post, and thanks for the shout-out!

    I wanted to take them to task for their support of corporal punishment too--not even for any lofty idealistic reasons (though there's that), but because it's completely ineffective. But in the end I had to focus on the critical thinking thing. It's always fun when politicians pretend to be educators.

  3. The wording of that bill sends shivers down my spine. It's clear that the people in power in some parts of the country believe terrifying things but to see it in black and white, as policy guiding the education of millions of children, darkens my spirits quite a bit. I am scared for this country and this makes me more afraid.

    Sometimes I think those of us who believe in critical thinking and analysis, who encourage our children to ask questions and question authority, should have more kids, otherwise we'll be over run by the bible beating, contraception-not-allowed masses, as they over-populate the Earth.


  4. This is the kind of thing that enrages me until I'm red-faced & shaking & thanking all my lucky stars that I got the heck out of that state. (though I'm sure similar things are happening throughout the country). Teaching children to think, question, speak up...teach them how to LEARN. The most important skill you can ever give them & will get them through all aspects of life. And don't get me started on the religion thing. I agree with Esperanza, its actually quite terrifying. Already we're seeing such a backslide in human and women's rights. Unfortunately, however, some of the most reasonable people I know happen to be infertile so, the plan to outbreed may not be the best one...

  5. Thank you for anothe eye opening as thought provoking post. Preach on! I echo your concerns and as a fellow parent of a child who attends public school, I very much want my son and daughter to learn critical thinking skills in school and our home.

    I have always said that I was proud to be raised in a home and family that taught me how to think, but not what to think. Sure I was well aware of my parents beliefs, but they made me feel safe and confident to question my faith, as well as our political and social justice system.

    My father is a retired journalist and my mom a retired reading specialist/public school teacher. They both have a lot to say about the education system. Also, living in Chicago is very interesting and a bit scary right now with what is going on in our public schools. We have a new mayor and CEO of the schools. The teachers union is currently in contract negotiations and is threatening to strike for the first time in many years. If they do, I may be starting off the year home schooling come September until they work things out.

    Oh, and I prefer crunchy granola bars! :)

  6. @MudHutMama: I suspect that despite the language, the focus is more on Christian than on Judeo-Christian "values." Not many Jews in Texas. :P

    @Alexa: Politicians also think they can and should run higher ed in NJ, which is frightening, too ... aren't Republicans supposed to be for smaller government?

    @Ana: ha! Too bad, indeed, that we can't outbreed. Then again, critical thinking means that EVERYONE's voice gets heard, even people we don't agree with ...

    @Kathy: you were lucky. Not everyone has such a supportive family! Questions can feel threatening to parents. And wow, home schooling! Good luck!

  7. @Esperanza: At least it's not a bill ... it's just the GOP platform. I don't think they'd ever get that through the legislature. At least, I hope not!!

  8. Critical thinking is essential for many reasons: unquestioning drones do not build the companies that fuel the world economy, for one. I know those Texans care about Capitalism. And capitalism is the number 1 reason this is a terrible idea.


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