Teach Them to Think


This post is about teaching. Or rather, about my failings as a teacher.

The regular school year is coming to a close here at HOPAC and students will be starting exams next week, so the last two weeks have been a flurry of revision, review, and exam preparation. The Cambridge International Examinations for English Literature are solely analysis-based, and students at all levels are required to study a number of texts throughout the year and then, in the exams, write critical responses to questions on those texts. Questions are typically along the lines of, “How does the author create sympathy for Thornhill in The Secret River?” or “Comment in detail on the language and dramatic effects in the following extract, considering ways it is characteristic of Fugard’s dramatic methods in the plays” or “In what ways, and with what dramatic effects, does Ayckbourn present social ambition in the play?” The marking is rigorous and students are expected to complete two full critical response essays in two hours, and should have memorized quotations to use as textual support in their responses. As a part of preparing for exams, I require each class to select and memorize a list of quotations for each text, and to help them evaluate their memorization of those quotes, create fill-in-the-blank quote quizzes. Its simple: do they know the quote or not? Unlike the in-depth analytical thinking required for the exams, memorizing quotes is a matter of just that: memorization. This year, I observed something I haven’t noticed in the past: students who do the most poorly in their written critical responses are doing the best on the memorization quizzes. The only conclusion I can arrive at is that I’ve failed. These students aren’t struggling with the analytical responses because they are incapable or do not know the texts, but because I have not succeeded in teaching them how to think. Bloom’s Taxonomy, long looked to in the field of education, identifies different levels of knowledge, or, it could be put, levels of thinking. The most simple and basic way of thinking is simple recall. Memorization quizzes. The most advanced levels of knowledge include analysis, evaluation, and application–all things required by the exams. In short, I look with disappointment at the results of my teaching, because perhaps I have taught these students to read books, to write papers, and even to memorize facts about said books, but I have not taught those same students to think. As a result, they will (most likely) do extremely poorly on the CIE exams in just two weeks. Yet, what can I do differently? I have scaffolded analysis and critical thinking; I have asked questions to prompt students to think analytically in order to arrive at a response; I have marked paper after paper after paper, asking questions that challenge assumptions and simplistic thinking. And for what? If, at the end of the year, my students still cannot think, I have failed. And that’s a sobering thought.

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