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Posts published by “Ulrich Boser”

The Importance of Critical Thinking

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The Importance of Critical Thinking
We need better reasoning skills throughout our society.

As 2020 nears its merciful end, I wanted to post a few words about critical thinking. From elections to COVID-19 transmission to the climate science behind extreme weather, this year has demonstrated the need for better reasoning skills throughout society. This goes not just for the consumers of information, but for journalists, politicians, and academics as well. We’ve seen again and again that a great education and sparkling credentials are no guarantee of sound reasoning skills, especially online. 

Recently, I’ve been working with the Reboot Foundation to try to begin to remedy this situation. Reboot — and its founder and president Helen Lee Bouygues — believe that integrating critical thinking and media literacy education into schools is the first step to improving our reasoning skills as a whole.

To that end, Reboot just released a “Teachers’ Guide to Critical Thinking.” The foundation worked with 13 state and county teachers of the year, from different disciplines and grade levels, to develop this comprehensive toolkit for educators. From teaching argumentative writing to critical thinking in science to philosophy and critical thinking, the guide offers short, digestible articles that give teachers the theoretical background and concrete lesson ideas they need to get up and running. 

Reboot’s approach is based on critical thinking research that suggests teaching critical thinking is best learned not as a standalone subject, but along with content knowledge in various disciplines. Critical thinking doesn’t “come for free” when we learn ordinary subject matter, but, rather, requires explicit modeling and metacognitive reflection. 

Reboot’s guide responds to a genuine need. Teachers surveyed by the foundation in its latest look into “The State of Critical Thinking” indicate that they prize critical thinking, but lack both the materials and the institutional support to teach critical thinking well. 

The survey also found that members of the general public value critical thinking at a theoretical level, but don’t do the concrete tasks, like engaging with other viewpoints, that good critical thinking actually requires. In other words, everyone wants to think they think critically — but unless we start to commit to teaching it with a sound pedagogical foundation, that thought is unlikely to become a reality.

The Learning Agency

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The Learning Agency has been far more successful than I imagined. I started the agency in 2018 to help people — and organizations— harness the power of learning.

Part consultancy, part communications group, part service provider, the Learning Agency has grown significantly over the past six months.

All to say: I will not be posting here much anymore. Please visit the Learning Agency if want more learning and development insights.

Notes from the field: How people are learning to learn

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Reader email is often my best email. While there’s the occasional snide note, most people send thoughtful responses to my work. Some point out errors. Others flag their own projects on learning strategies.

My favorite, though, is people who use my work to change the way that they learn. For instance, I got a note late last year from Allen Johnson. He used my book to improve his West Coast Swing dancing. Among other things, Johnson tried to get more "immediate feedback on my errors, so that I could repeat correctly rather than perpetuating my old ways."

The new approach to dancing helped Johnson learn far more effectively. He even went to France in search of more attentive and demanding teachers and group classes that reinforced the private lessons. “It made a huge difference," Johnson said in a note. "I entered my first-ever dance competition, at the Newcomer level, the lowest skill level, and placed first. It was the good teaching that made it happen. Self-esteem comes from results, not false affirmation."

More recently, Ted Maynard reached out. A professor at Wake Technical Community College, Maynard told me that he read the book "to grow professionally.” Maynard wrote up a detailed report on the book for his school’s faculty, outlining the ways in which the book could improve instruction. (You can see Maynard's report here.)

Among other things, Maynard himself planned to use more hypotheticals in his classes. “I want to use 'what if' questioning to get students thinking more in depth about things,” Maynard told me. "Use of such questioning is a more student – centered approach rather than a lecture delivery approach, which has been shown to be too passive to be effective"

Writer George Lawton might be my favorite, though, because he came up with an idea that I really wish that I had come up with on my own. Specifically, Lawton created a set of flash cards around the book. See here.

So you can now ask yourself: "How effective is testing yourself?" I'm sharing these tools here because, well, they'll help you learn more about learning. But more than that, the approaches show that all of us can take effective learning strategies and apply them in new ways.

The Science of Learning in Action: A Visit to Iron Range

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There are not that many universities that have fully embraced the science of learning. Some schools might have clickers in a few classrooms for example. Others may have intense mentoring programs. But broadly speaking instructional practice hasn't changed much in higher education since it was first pioneered.

This makes Iron Range Engineering in northern Minnesota pretty unusual. The program has fully embraced the research on how people learn and it's made for a very different educational experience.

I visited Iron Range engineering recently and was really impressed by their approach. When it comes to assessment, they use a lot of oral tests. As co-founder Ron Ulseth explained to me, the oral assessments allow students to explain what they know, both elaborating on their knowledge as well as showing it to the assessor. In this sense the assessments are both a form of learning and a form of evaluation.

The school's faculty has also taken some innovative approaches to retrieval practice. One educator showed me this scratch-off that she uses to help students learn.

A spacing approach to learning is also encouraged, and once students learns a principle in any of their courses, they are accountable for being able to describe and apply that principle right up until graduation.

It helps that the program is small. It only has about a hundred students. It's also well supported financially. There is funding from a regional economic development agency that gives the school a lot of flexibility.

The program has won some recent kudos. MIT recently listed IRE as one of the best engineering programs in the world. For Ulseth, that’s not enough. “Engineering education should always be changing. That’s the nature of engineering. You’re always looking to improve for the betterment of people."

--Ulrich Boser

This post first appeared at The Learning Agency.