Thursday, November 14, 2013

Debate across the curriculum

There are two interesting curricula I have run across recently. Stanford has an "Reading Like A Historian" curriculum, available free of charge: The goal is to ask students to read primary sources carefully, evaluate each speaker's motivations and claims, and arrive at a nuanced, triangulated interpretation of events. They have had excellent results so far.

Sounds a lot like debate to me!

Another curriculum I ran into is Deanna Kuhn's program, which is a philosophy class for middle schoolers. They set this up as an experiment: some kids did philosophy through debate, while the control group kids did philosophy through lecture, reading, and writing alone. The results were quite impressive.

I've been a fan of Deanna Kuhn for at least a decade. She has a new book, Education for Thinking. Here is an excerpt of her writing (but not necessarily her book) from her website:
But aren't children naturally inquisitive? Are inquiry skills something that really need to be developed? The image of the inquisitive preschool child, eager and energetic in her explorations of a world full of surprises, is a compelling one. But the image fades as the child grows older, most often becoming unrecognizable by adolescence, if not middle childhood. What has happened to the "natural" inquisitiveness of early childhood? In part its nurturance into adolescence and adulthood rests on a set of values that parents and teachers must convey and support. But equally important is the channelling of this inquisitive energy into development of the cognitive skills that make for effective inquiry. The skills originate in early childhood, with achievement of the epistemological understanding that knowledge originates in human minds, is fallible, and has the potential for disconfirmation in the face of evidence. Only then does the coordination of theories and evidence that is a hallmark of authentic scientific inquiry become possible. In sum, the so-called "natural" curiosity that infants and young children show about the world around them needs to be enriched and directed by the tools of scientific thinking.

Her book was interesting. She described several investigative tasks; the music club one was easily replicable from her thorough description and sounded quite neat. She also had some interesting things to say about how to structure an introductory debate activity that would be neat for coaches who work with very novice debaters. Dr Kuhn had a key point about bootstrapping: when students knew little about the context and had few critical thinking skills, the teacher needs to have good structure set up so the students can bootstrap their way into both subject and skills.

Dr Kuhn's clearest call for reform was to create a specific focus across all classes on critical thinking skills. As she wrote in the book,
By examining causality in a biological context, a geographical context, a mechanical context, an interpersonal context, a sociological context, and any number of other contexts, students begin to understand and appreciate features of causality itself.

I think the goal of education is not information transfer, per se, but the ability to make a sustained argument, to critically evaluate sources and ideas, and to learn to investigate systematically (which could be a scientific experiment or a comparison of all available historical sources).

Putting the child at the center -- by asking him to debate an issue, to do an experiment, to discover a mathematical idea -- has two main benefits. First, he is actually spending his time on the important task itself (instead of endlessly preparing with rote memorizing for the day -- way off in grad school -- when he might be allowed to investigate anything on his own).

Second, the child is far more engaged in his work, because he has been given agency and purpose. Purpose: answer this question. Agency: it is up to you to answer this question, with some help if you need it, but no one is going to do it for you!

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