Friday, February 8, 2013

A Prime Value: Critical Thinking

My father taught me to 'always examine the premise' of an argument.   He explained that if you accepted someone's premise you could be easily convinced they were 'right'.  If you looked skeptically at the basis of their argument  you would think more clearly and argue your for your position more effectively.  Dad wanted me to become a lawyer. I almost did, but chose education instead.  I wanted to work with people when they were at their best.

I've been fortunate   I've had many great teachers. The one that had the biggest impact on my 'critical thinking' was Dr. Richard Paul.

He was the keynote speaker at a education conference I attended in the late 80's.  His talk was challenging.  He took the crowd to task and spent an hour beating the educational establishment like a cheap drum for not systematically teaching critical thinking. I loved it. It felt good to have my own beliefs validated in a dramatic and Socratic manner

Dr. Paul's ideas and passion lit me up.  I was lucky to run into him in the hotel bar. We had 2 hours of fascinating discussion, part debate, part conversation. This talk changed my teaching life. I learned I could hang in with a heavy weight thinker.  I saw a way to make a change in my classroom.

Richard Paul was a man who made me think.  And it was good.

I bought his books.  I used his Socratic questioning methods in class. I printed and hung a banner that said:  Learn how to think! on my classroom wall. This became one of my foundation values as a teacher.  It remains so to this day.

Feeling the Heat

One of my most cherished memories is of being pilloried in the principal's office by an outraged parent. This particular father had a truly brilliant daughter. She had a hungry inquisitive mind. Critical thinking gave her a way to understand her world.

Dad didn't like it. His voice shook with anger as he pointed at me and shouted:

"How dare you teach my child to challenge authority!"  
I'll admit that I was very upset by this at the time. It didn't change my teaching methods but it did make me aware that some folks believe that critical thinking is dangerous. Over the years that encounter has become a badge of honor. 

Richard Paul's work clarified by thinking about teaching. I wanted to attend the summer session at his Foundation for Critical Thinking in Sonoma California but simply couldn't afford the time or money.(Being a young teacher with a growing family and a pitiful pay check had it's limitations.)  Now, I truly regret not following that path. 

Recently I found a great two part video from Richard Paul that reminded me why I wanted to learn more from him.  I watched both videos several times.  Once again his ideas lit me up.

Critical Thinking - Standards of Thought - Part 1

Critical Thinking - Standards of Thought - Part 2 Foundation for Critical Thinking:

Dr. Paul was a lot more interesting in that bar in Arizona than he is in these brief lectures. Still he lays out the foundations of critical thinking in less that a half an hour.

As I wrote this, I  thought about my access to professional development education and the long drive to Sonoma that kept me from attending Paul's training in the 1980's,  "I wish there had been an online option back then."

So I just checked and found there are two online courses offered through Cal-State Sonoma on critical thinking for instructors.  I'm tempted!

Dennis O'Connor -- Thinking about thinking in La Jolla CA while the piano player echos the halls with fine music.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Where the values meet the tarmac

As a young teacher in my prime I was riding the wave of technology integration. I was passionate about thinking and writing with tech and lucky to be in a newly created position as Technology Coordinator in a small rural school district in Nevada.

Creating change was like swimming hard up fast river.  It was easy to give up and drown. Fresh from the classroom where I was passionate about my craft I had a lot of teaching spirit to keep me going. Doing professional development helped me live my values. However, as I learned the ins and outs of district politics I became disenchanted.  It seemed to me that my bosses did not hold students as their number one priority.  This stung and I was chewing on this values mis-match when I met a wise man with enormous institutional experience and a unique experiences in ultra real pursuits.  For a brief time he became my mentor. It's a an experience I've always treasured.

The man was Alan Bean. He was the fourth man to walk on the Moon.(Yes, I asked him about walking on the moon: "Like wading in thigh deep corn flakes".) As a graduate of the Top Gun fighter school and a carrier pilot Bean had been a remarkable aviator. His two months as Skylab Commander had given him a literal global perspective. (Myth debunked: You can't see the great wall of China from Earth Obit. The materials are too similar to the background colors of China and the wood smoke pollution ruins visibility from space.) As the director of operations and training during the Challenger Mission he'd seen his crew lost to disaster.  As a fine artist he still paints space exploration events he witnessed first hand.  In every way Alan Bean is a true explorer and a remarkable man.

I'd written a grant to bring Alan to my school district to give a series of lectures to our kids. My delightful job was to be his guide. I talked to him initially about his art. My father as well as my grandfather were artists.  I understood the process. I think my unorthodox approach (Bean's art first, his explorations second) help us connect.

At one point I opened up about my frustration with the school district.  I put kids first. I was very much a classroom teacher in a temporary administrative position.  I wanted my district to put kids first too.  Alan asked me where in the top ten list of priorities the school district placed students.   I answered about 6th on the list. (Values like personal power, prestige, appearences and money were well ahead of kids.)

Bean told me something that I took to heart: " If your top priority (value) is in the top 10 of the organization you are working in, stay with it. If not, time for a change."  

Sage advice from someone who rose in the Navy and NASA to the top of the pyramid (and literally all the way to the Moon).

So I ask you: how many of your top 10 values are shared by the system you work in? Listen to Alan Bean:  If you find values congruency, stay put. If not; change the culture of your workplace, or change your work place. This is just what I did more than a decade ago when student welfare slipped off the top ten in my district.

I did take a leap into private enterprise. I went corporate for a few years as a sales trainer and tech writer for a UNIX based networking company.  There I learned very hard lessons about what it was lto carry a shield for an organization where my values had no meaning. I'd traded a teaching career where I could follow my passions for double the salary, a sharp office, and a big title.  The value of these things came home to me as I was flying into Las Vegas in our corporate jet. I was on the way to Comdex with the company elite. There was typical small plane turbulence as we landed. I held my breath waiting for touchdown. Suddenly we slammed into the tarmac.  I remember thinking thank God we're on the ground. Next thing I know we're in the air sideways with the engines screaming and a Vegas hotel towering above us. I remember thinking "I'm going to die with people I don't respect."

Our pilot flew us out a it. I got off that plane very glad to be alive. I then spent the next 3 days of my life following the CEO of my company around as he paraded his ego up and down the vendor isles.

This experience helped me 'clarify my values'. Then the time came to make a choice;  follow a friend to a Silicon Valley start up, or take a pay cut or go back to the classroom.

I followed my heart. I was born to teach.  I returned to teaching and have never regretted the move.

As I think back over the last decade to the groups of educators I've worked and learned with with at the Milken Family Foundation, ISTE, the Illinois Science and Mathematics Academy, and the University of Wisconsin Stout I feel the strength of purpose and resonance that comes from spending my time with folks who hold common values.

I earned my 10,000 hours of expertise by passionately pursuing my dreams and living these values:
  • Put the student at the center
  • Learn and teach how to think
  • Empower students with technology
  • As a teacher, always be a student
  • Do good work
  • Be grateful for the chance to earn an living with your mind
  • Show up and give the best you've got each day
  • Be an optimist about the future
  • Help teachers become writing teachers
  • Help teachers become information fluent

If I'd stayed in the Silicon Valley game I doubt my list would look like this. I'm proud to be a veteran teacher and lifelong learner. I'm endlessly excited to be alive and thinking in these revolutionary times.

I've learned that to preserve my teaching spirit I need to live my values.

~ Dennis Thomas O'Connor
January 29, 2013