Teaching for Thinking by Bob Valiant


Several years ago I wrote (but did not publish) the following. Having recently rediscovered the manuscript, I thought it not only still fits, but may even be more appropriate today. For related articles go to the Topic “What’s Hot” and look for 21st Century Basic Skills and Higher Level Thinking or read “Higher-Level Thinking Skills” above.


Reform reports by prestigious “blue ribbon” committees, business round tables, economic development councils, and educators from around the world agree that to live successfully in the 21st Century will require citizens to be able to obtain, manipulate, and apply information. That is to say, they will need to use higher level thinking skills. The trouble is…

For the last twenty years the very same groups (with a few notable exceptions and additions) have advocated a return to the basics and an emphasis on specific skills with measurable outcomes. In case you haven’t noticed…..

These two charges for the schools are out of synch with each other. Teachers have worked very hard to comply with the skills-based directives and have managed to raise the scores on the basic education components of achievement tests. Unfortunately, while we task-analyzed, identified specific behavioral objectives, and taught to the tests…..

We have had students working long hours on the wrong task! We should have been comparing, contrasting, analyzing, inferring, creating, and examining issues from different points of view. Students should have been learning logic, decision- making, problem solving and critical thinking. How in the world can we do both basic skills and higher-level thinking?


We not only can do both things, we cannot do higher level thinking without information to think about and skills to manipulate the information. “Let’s see if I have this straight…..

Students need to learn basic information and skills in order to think at higher levels. This sounds like I need to not only teach all of the stuff I have been teaching, but I need to add a whole bunch of stuff that will be hard for the kids. I don’t have time as it is! I can’t possibly…..

Do it all!” Yes you can. It just takes a different perspective. Suppose we design the skills and facts instruction around real problems and decisions that people (read “kids”) have to deal with. Real learning about things that concern us is interesting and exciting. I am willing to sit down and learn how to graph an algebraic function if it will help me find an answer to a problem I really care about. The world is full of wonder to kids. We can exploit the natural curiosity and wonder to help teach both facts and thinking, but we must adopt a new paradigm…..

The problem must come first. The lure must invite the curious child if the hook of life-long learning is to catch hold. Instead of spending long hours breaking knowledge down into facts and outcomes into skills, teaching them one-by-one, and then more long hours of grading workbook pages…..

We must spend our time identifying interesting problems, important issues, and discrepant events that invite children into the exciting world of meaningful learning. More time will be spent on identifying authentic assessment of student performance. This will not be easy, but it will certainly be intellectually stimulating for teachers and the payoff will be worth the effort if…..

We can develop students who will be able to grapple with such problems as changing demographics, globalization, international terrorism, and environmental degradation. The fact is, we must have citizens who can deal with these issues. The experts have spoken and…..


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