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Cognitive-thinking skills, problem-solving skills, higher-order thinking, and deep learning are viewed by many as more important in education today than ever before. Yet, there are wide disparities in the relative attainment of these skills between racial and socio-economic groups.

School District 65’s recent Achievement Report presented to the School Board on Jan. 28, reflects wide disparities in the attainment of these skills between racial groups and socio-economic groups in the District.

As one way to address the disparities, School District 65 has adopted a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, based on Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain (2015).  In her book, Dr. Hammond acknowledges the gaps in higher-order thinking skills. She says, “The achievement gap in most American schools has created an epidemic of dependent learners unprepared to do the higher order thinking, creative problem solving and analytical reading and writing called for in the new Common Core State Standards.”

Dr. Hammond says schools have often underestimated what disadvantaged students are capable of doing, and as a result have postponed more challenging and interesting work until educators believe they have mastered “the basics.” By focusing only on low-level basics, she says, “we deprive students of a meaningful or motivating context for learning and practicing higher order thinking processes.”

District 65 is working toward implementing Dr. Hammond’s framework and to implement culturally responsive teaching strategies, including strategies to prepare all students to do higher-order thinking. See link to article below.

While there is much research on higher-order thinking, the RoundTable solicited the views of James W. Pellegrino, who chaired a national Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, and was an editor of the Committee’s 193-page report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable  Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century (2012) (the Deep Learning Report). The report, published by the National Research Council, defined deep learning, discussed its importance, and identified strategies to motivate and engage students in ways that would promote deep learning for all students. Mr. Pellegrino is Co-Director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute, and a Liberal Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor, and Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The RoundTable also solicited the views of Paul Zavitkovsky, a leadership coach and assessment specialist at the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mr. Zavitkovsky was the lead author of Taking Stock, which provides an extensive analysis of trends in student achievement in Illinois for the period 2001-2015. In 2010, at the RoundTable’s request, Mr. Zavitkovsky prepared an extensive analysis of student achievement in School District 65 for the period 2001-2009.

Research on higher-order thinking and deep learning demonstrates that it should be taught to all students in very engaging learning environments, and that it should not be deferred or denied to students on the premise they need to first master basic skills. Research also confirms that teaching children higher-order thinking skills and deep learning skills from the time they enter kindergarten is essential to reduce achievement gaps and to prepare children for success in life.

 Deep Learning Defined

The Deep Learning Report defines deep learning “as the process through which an individual becomes capable of taking what was learned in one situation and applying it in new situations (i.e., transfer). … While other types of learning may allow an individual to recall facts, concepts, or procedures, deeper learning allows the individual to transfer what was learned to solve new problems.”

Dr. Pellegrino explained, “I think the essence of the idea is that we want students to develop knowledge in various areas of the curriculum, including in areas of literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies, where the knowledge that they develop is of important core ideas or principles that apply across a range of situations or contexts – so the knowledge that they develop is not what I would call fragments of specific facts or procedures like how to do something, but knowledge of what are the important concepts and approaches that we use in that domain [e.g., literacy, mathematics, etc.].”

As an example, Dr. Pellegrino said, middle-school teachers teach students how to solve a lot of problems involving fractions, and students can solve the problems by memorizing the procedures. What teachers sometimes do not do is teach students “what a fraction is as a real number so that students can actually reason about the magnitude of a fraction and do what we call proportional reasoning. That’s really the essence of the mathematics they need to understand to be able to use that in some other context that isn’t just solving a mathematical problem.

“Critical thinking, problem-solving, higher-order thinking – these are terms that people like to use to capture the idea that we want students to be able to do the kind of thinking and reasoning that goes beyond just merely recalling facts or demonstrating that they can do certain kinds of calculations or do certain kinds of things in science.

“We talk about higher-order thinking and problem solving and critical thinking, and what that is trying to capture is individuals using the factual and procedural knowledge they do have in ways that are a bit more creative in the sense that they pull together and are able to think about, ‘How do I solve this problem?’ or ‘How do I reason about what’s going on here in such a way that I can solve a new problem in the domain?’”

Dr. Pellegrino adds that it is a mistake to think about problem-solving, critical thinking, higher-order thinking, or deep learning as a “generic skill or ability.” In order to do that kind of reasoning and problem solving, a student needs to have knowledge of the facts, procedures, concepts, important ideas and principles in the domain, such as mathematics, literature, or history.  He added, “Quite frankly, if you don’t know anything in the domain, you can’t think critically in that domain, you can’t solve problems in the domain.”

The Achievement Gap

“Part of what contributes to the achievement gap, and of course, there are many factors,” said Dr. Pellegrino, “is that we sometimes construct our curriculum or create our learning environments for students who are of different socioeconomic status or have different backgrounds, such that we essentially try to give one group of students what I call basic skills and facts knowledge. … We try to make up for what we think is the ‘deficit,’ by essentially focusing on what I call the ‘details.’ What we don’t do is create environments that encourage them to think and reason with that knowledge.

“Instead we’ve engaged in more rote instruction, more rote exercises. I think that may be one of the reasons that contributes to the gaps that we have or that keeps them ever present, because we’re not doing something to create learning environments that help these students actually develop the kinds of knowledge that they need to have to be able to engage in transfer and problem solving.

“Kids sometimes come into school with differences in the kinds of knowledge and skills that they’ve developed in the home, in the community. … Then current school practices oftentimes essentially magnify those types of things over time, rather than essentially reduce or eliminate them.

 “What we don’t want to do is just remediate one group of kids and then create interesting learning opportunities for another group of kids,” he said.

Engaging Environments for Students  

The Deep Learning Report identifies strategies to teach deep learning, which include carefully designing questions that require students to think about what they have read, modeling for students the importance of asking good questions, asking students to solve challenging problems while providing appropriate and specific cognitive guidance along the way, and engaging students in project-based learning.

The report also summarizes ways to motivate students by providing materials that relate to their background, culture, and interests, by instilling the belief that intelligence is changeable rather than fixed, and by reducing stereotype threat.

“One of the things that we need to do is to recognize that we can create very engaging environments for students to learn the important ideas and principles in math and science and history and literature,” said Dr. Pellegrino. “The more they’re engaged in the environment, when they’re actively engaged in problem-solving and reasoning, and about the material they’re working with, they’re more likely to stay interested and engaged and develop the kind of understanding and kind of knowledge we want them to have.

“One of the most powerful methods to create interesting learning environments is to develop problem-based learning,” said Mr. Pellegrino. “Problem-based learning oftentimes means individuals are working together to solve a problem, but they’re also working with others and they’re learning how to express their thoughts in ways that can clarify what they are understanding and not understanding.

“One of the kinds of competencies we want students to develop is the ability to communicate and collaborate. … We want individual students to learn, but one of the most powerful ways in which that occurs is to create environments where people have to engage in collaborative problem-solving, and that can be extremely engaging and very powerful to teach, not just the content in the domain, but also the process of how do you communicate with others, how do you express your ideas, how do you understand each other to answer a question or pose a problem.”

 “One of the things we have to recognize is that biases or stereotypes exist,” Dr. Pelligrino added. “One of the ways to overcome that or minimize it in classrooms is to first recognize that it exists. And then to create situations where everyone feels valued in the learning environment and everyone has a contribution to make.

“I think this is why problem-based learning and other strategies can be very effective. We’ve come to understand that all students can make contributions if we give them the space to do so, as opposed to creating the kind of environment where only some kids know the answers and they shoot up their hands all the time and they’re the ones who always get called on.

“We want to create an environment where all kids are engaged in this kind of learning and everybody is benefitting, rather than just focusing on one part of the distribution. We want all kids to be able to develop the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college and life.

“It really takes some skill to put those kinds of environments into place in the regular classroom because in many cases regular classrooms are not set up for it.” Dr. Pellegrino added that where students are working together to solve a problem, it might appear to an observer as “chaos,” but this may be “the most productive learning environment.”

Engaging Students to Think in Class

Mr. Zavitkovsky says that culturally-responsive teaching can often get sidetracked by the widespread belief that basic skills need to be mastered before students can understand and work through more challenging and interesting questions. Modern learning science research clearly shows, however, that basic skill building, deeper conceptual learning and problem solving are best done simultaneously, he says.

Mr. Zavitkovsky points to a 15-year study conducted by James Stigler, James Hiebert and an international research team that analyzed thousands of hours of videotaped instruction from around the world.

“The pattern that Stigler and Hiebert found in every single American classroom they studied was that teachers spent large amounts of time reviewing material and practicing mathematical procedures without expecting students to grasp the underlying concepts on which skills and procedures were based.

“By contrast, teaching strategies in every one of the world’s higher-achieving countries regularly engaged students in active struggle with core concepts and procedures.”

Stigler and Hiebert characterized what they found as a “culture of American teaching” where, with the best of intentions, teachers do most of the thinking for their students.

“When most teaching is about telling and most learning is about remembering, you’re into a very different way of thinking about teaching and learning than when teachers ask students to size up and work through developmentally appropriate problems that they have not been explicitly taught how to solve. 

“Of course,” he added, “there is nothing in this research that implies all, or even most, teaching should be directed toward deeper learning.”  In Hong Kong and the Czech Republic, for example, the vast majority of teaching is still lecture-based. In Japan the balance is a little closer to 50/50.

“The thing that is consistent across all high-achieving countries is that substantial portions of students’ learning experience involve challenging questions or problems that students have to wrestle with as a group and have to solve as best they can before discussing them as a class.”

Mr. Zavitkovsky added that common misconceptions about standardized tests also pose a serious obstacle to deep learning and culturally-responsive teaching.  “You often hear teachers say, ‘I’d like to spend more time doing real-world problem-solving, but I’ve got to prepare kids for high-stakes tests.’

“It’s a terrible irony that the learning experiences which consistently produce higher test scores are exactly the ones people feel like they have to sacrifice, because they’ve been led to believe tests are mostly about rote skills mastery.”

The Need for Deep Learning in the Modern World

Dr. Pellegrino said it is important for students to develop deep learning to succeed in college and to obtain a job that has room for advancement.  “I think it’s more important than it’s ever been because … we don’t even know what some of those jobs are going to be … and we want students to have the kind of deep learning that allows them to be flexible.

“In fact we need them at a higher level than we’ve ever needed them before because of the demands of the modern world.”