Death by elective

Got a problem? There’s a course for that. That’s generally how we problem solve in education. Maybe that’s one reason why so little seems to change.

Last week I was lucky enough to spend three days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, talking with and learning from entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, designers, activists, journalists, policy makers and of course other educators. While the discussions covered a wide range of fields and subjects, a handful of themes seemed to cut across most of them, all of which seemed relevant to our work at the Workshop. In this series of posts I’m trying to do some thinking out loud about those themes and their implications for our work. 

At the opening session, 15 speakers were asked to present one big idea each, in three minutes or less. It was a fun way to kick things off, and a good way to jumpstart discussions. One woman, a journalist with CNN international, worried that with the internet effectively democratizing access to information, young people were incapable of differentiating good information from bad. In her words, they lacked critical thinking skills.

Her proposed solution? Require every high school student to enroll in a Journalism 101 course.


This is the story of school reform in America. Whether the needs emanate from the education system or not, we seem to think we can solve an awful lot of problems by simply adding to the curriculum. On the flip side, we seldom consider how the way we organize schools, or how we actually teach, might figure in the equation. I can see it now: mandatory Journalism 101 is passed, textbook companies dutifully generate Journalism 101 books, and in classrooms all over the country, students slog through chapter by chapter, reading about how to think critically. There will be a quiz on Friday. And yes, it will be multiple choice.

Don’t believe me? Look at how we teach history. If ever a subject lent itself to the cultivation of critical thinking skills, this is it. And yet in far too many schools what’s in the text is treated as fact, presented to students to memorize and regurgitate at the appropriate moment. (This is why we have curriculum wars in social studies. We’re fighting over how “truth” is represented.)

I absolutely agree that our students need critical thinking skills more than ever. But if you take that idea seriously, I don’t know how you think about teaching any subject in the ways we have usually taught it. Critical thinking comes from having to sift through ideas and information, develop strategies to distinguish good information from noise, and cull that information into something useful. You don’t get there by offering a course about it. You get there by changing how you plan, teach, and assess all of your courses.

My hope is that the Common Core Standards, with their emphasis on building and supporting arguments and engaging with complex texts, will give teachers more freedom to do this kind of work. Most of the teachers I know would welcome it.