Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Reason for Teaching HOTS Demonstrated

Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) are becoming a hot topic in education reform, and that’s a good thing.  The trouble is that some people misconstrue the idea of teaching HOTS as a replacement for establishing a wide (and deep) knowledge base rather than a vital complement to a wide knowledge base.  This misconception, and other false dichotomies, are often put forth by people or institutions with a vested interest in the status quo.  One component of HOTS is the ability to recognize this, and figure out what’s really being “sold”.

In an article that appeared recently in the Vancouver Sun (Purdue University Study Confronts Edu-babble) Michael Zwaagstra makes a number of spurious points, and misleading claims.   For instance, when he says;  “Over the last decade, Manitoba eliminated most provincial standards tests, while at the school level, many administrators expect teachers to reduce their use of tests in the classroom. These administrators claim that students benefit more from hands-on activities than from memorizing items scheduled to appear on the next test.”  He is purposely misleading the reader into conflating tests with assessment.  And that if  “tests” are eliminated they will simply be replaced by “hands-on activities.” Surely the elimination of standardized tests does not mean that students will no longer be assessed on their work using other means?

Though Mr. Zwaagstra goes on to make some valid points regarding the value of memorization, the whole premise of his article is based on the false assumptions that a) teachers and administrators universally agree that all memorization is bad (they don’t) b) that teachers and administrators don’t understand the necessity of a solid knowledge base upon which to build HOTS (they do).

Mr. Zwaagstra quotes the author of the study (Professor Jeffrey Karpicke) as saying "But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practising retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy."   Mr. Zwaagstra, however, then goes on to conclude that,  “However, we must ensure that testing remains a central component of what happens in school.”  This conclusion does not follow from the results of this study.  The conclusion of Professor Karpicke’s study is that traditional memorization, combined with continuous self-testing, often leads to better recall (or retrieval) than does other methods of studying.  In other words, traditional memorization and retrieval exercises lead to improved memorization and retrieval.  His study makes absolutely no claim whatsoever about keeping testing as a “central component of what happens in school”.

The biggest irony here is that without HOTS, readers of this article may accept the false dichotomies and contrived logic of Mr. Zwaagstra’s argument.  Without the ability to analyze and think critically, they may also miss the fact that Mr. Zwaagstra is a ‘research fellow’ with the Frontier Centre, a “conservative/libertarian non-profit think tank,” whose radio commentaries include such titles as “The Deception of Human Caused Global Warming”.  It’s no wonder then that writers of Mr. Zwaagstra’s ilk emphasize the value of rote learning, and downplay the necessity of teaching critical thinking and other HOTS.  After all, a paucity of critical thought is what allows ultra-conservative thought to thrive in North America.

Educators everywhere would agree with the necessity of teaching (among other things) factual knowledge, working knowledge and HOTS.  And given the rate at which much of our “working knowledge” and even some of our “factual knowledge” is changing, teaching HOTS is becoming an ever more important component of what we do as educators.  Critical thinking, problem solving, logical reasoning and other HOTS will always be useful and necessary skills, knowing the exact dates of the Winnipeg General Strike?…not so much.