Ward M. Cates

Ward M. Cates

It’s interesting to me how little time we devote in schools to teaching critical thinking. Lots of folks seem to think it’s important (for example, funders like NSF, multiple consumer and or/business groups’ reporting on what schools should do, professional organizations like ISTE, AECT, AERA, and NRC), but that does not seem to translate into a tangible focus in schools on helping learners acquire such skills.

Clearly, saying this could make me look like a teacher-basher, just another person lining up to take a swing at teachers, as if they were at fault for all the shortcomings of society. Let me make it clear: I feel great empathy for teachers. I am a former classroom special education teacher, a former high school English teacher, and a former elementary language arts teacher. I work in a program called Teaching, Learning, and Technology. My daughter is a high school English teacher, and my wife works in an elementary school.

What worries me is that we spend so much time now in K-12 classrooms focusing on facts that we do not have enough time to focus on thinking. And no one seems to have a test to measure critical thinking skills that carries with it a similar level of public trust as our standardized achievement tests (whether they deserve such trust or not).

For many years those of us in the instructional technology community have been talking about how technology might be used to scaffold thinking skills, how we might allow teachers and students to focus on learning content through the solution of realistic problems using primary and secondary sources, while at the same time getting support for thinking skills development.

Almost 20 years ago, working as part of a design group at George Mason University funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I built a HyperCard-based prototype that used videodiscs to help learners focus on exploring Ken Burns’ The Civil War series while they were provided with scaffolding in the form of “TQEs” (Thinking advice, Questions to consider, Exploring advice). Then 14 or so years ago, I worked with a different development team under funding from DARPA and then NSF to develop a Web-based application that formally taught thinking skills and provided enhanced scaffolding on analyzing primary and secondary multimedia sources using those thinking skills. We even were awarded a patent on that product.

But the market wasn’t ready for it, and as we came into No Child Left Behind, the at-that-time-new focus on thinking skills faded and we never really got past building prototype versions to demonstrate capability.

As I write today, I find myself wondering what kinds of technology products to support thinking skills are out there now about which I know nothing. I haven’t seen much in the literature. What are people doing to support thinking skills? How have things changed over the last 10 or so years? Is anyone doing anything innovative and would he/she be willing to talk about that work?

In fact, I’m wondering whether a group of folks out there might want to work with me to co-author an article on the state of technology-supported critical thinking. Maybe it isn’t one article, but rather a special issue, perhaps like the special issue of Educational Technology on design decisions I guest edited a few years back. So, what are you doing and is anybody out there interested?

Guest blogger:  Dr. Ward Mitchell Cates is associate dean for Lehigh University’s College of Education where he is professor of Teaching, Learning, and Technology. He has published over 70 articles, monographs, book chapters, instruments, and proceeding papers related to educational technology. Contributing or consulting editor for two journals, he reviews for several more. He has been involved in numerous grant projects, principally focusing on the use of technology to enhance instruction. Dr. Cates is a former international president of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology and serves on its Foundation Board. This past November he received AECT’s Distinguished Service Award.

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