PTA Coffee Break: District leaders discuss new initiatives

PTA's adult-education arm welcomed more than 70 parents and educators last week for its inaugural meeting at the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course. There was a feeling of excitement and change in the air due to the new venue, and the speakers continued the theme.

Supt. Sherine Smith and Assistant Supt. Nancy Hubbell announced the very exciting news about the Laguna Beach Unified School District's Academic Performance Index (API), which hit 904 this past year in a system where anything over 800 is considered excellent. This represents a 7% increase over the past five years.

As we move into the 21st century with such a strong showing, LBUSD is also moving toward adopting "Common Core Standards." Education in our country has been described as "a mile wide and an inch deep," where standards are unclear and curricula not rigorous.

In fact, 48 states, including California, will be adopting these Common Core Standards in which fewer areas are mastered in more depth, and where a higher-order of active thinking is engaged. Described as the "four C's," these skills are: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. The immediate goal is to be ready when in 2014-15 the new assessment system addressing these Core Standards is begun.

Whether students move on to college or into vocational schools or other jobs, there is a 90% overlap of skills required, according to recent studies conducted by ACT and the American Diploma Project. This simplifies the goals of primary education and reinforces just how important it is to develop these skills.

Coffee Break Chairwoman Cindy Newman-Jacobs then introduced Dr. Enoch Hale of the Foundation of Critical Thinking. Hale is a fellow at the Foundation for Critical Thinking, and has been a teacher and researcher for many years. Hale works with teachers, educators and parents to help them understand the value of critical thinking and how they can foster it. Hale defines critical thinking as the "art of analyzing and assessing thinking in order to improve it."

Hale enlivened the group with many examples of how teachers can deepen the level of thinking in their classrooms in a refreshingly old-fashioned way. No white boards, computers or special effects are needed. To learn anything, you must actively bring it into your thinking.

For example, instead of asking a class to "break into small groups and discuss the significance of Plato's Crito…," Hale suggests setting up a game plan or "lens" through which to work.

"Break into groups. Choose a list of 10 significant ideas expressed in Plato's Crito. Then vote among yourselves to choose the top three. Develop criteria by which your choices were made, and be prepared to present to the class at the end," he said.

There is no doubt that the second approach will be more fun for the class, and the ideas will be more developed and enduring.

Hale confessed that he himself had been an educated "gamesman" who knew how to get good grades without really learning. Quoting 19th century author Booth Tarkington, "he had learned how to pass exams by cramming … he could retain the information necessary … just long enough to give a successful performance; then it would evaporate utterly from his brain, and leave him undisturbed."

Hale countered, "Education should mix up the waters of our minds!"

Too often we reward students for simply regurgitating the facts or opinions they have been fed. Understanding one's perspective is essential to thinking critically.

Hale discussed a study where 45 people read a detailed description of a house. They were then asked to highlight the "significant" information. The answers differed widely. When the same people were asked to highlight from the perspective of first a thief, then a prospective buyer, the answers were tighter and more uniform from person to person. The thief would be interested in the location of the cash and jewelry. The buyer would be interested in the kind of tile on the kitchen floor. This is why it is important to reread important texts to fully grasp the different perspectives.

Teachers and students often complain there is "too much content to cover in too little time." However, they are focused on, and often overwhelmed by, the discreet, compartmentalized information.

Hale showed a slide where scattershot points were displayed randomly, representing facts. He emphasized that the key is to look for connections between the points, to discern a pattern or a system that organizes the seemingly random data. A set of concentric circles was then superimposed on the points, powerfully illustrating his point. Once information and experience can be interrelated and understood as part of a larger scheme, it is not only easier to grasp but easier to use in problem-solving.

Critical thinking is "disciplined, self-guided thinking aimed at living a well-reasoned life." It is simple in its essence, yet has many facets to work with. In little more than an hour, Dr. Hale provided us with essentially a "trailer" to the greater "movie" of his lengthier seminars.

Notably, Laguna Beach High School Principal Joanne Culverhouse will be looking into engaging Hale to work with the high school teachers. There are many techniques that, though simple to apply, can raise the level of thinking and learning to a higher, more powerful plane.

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.

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