Saturday, January 22, 2011

Higher Order Thinking

Recently, I was humbled and honored to discover that I had been cited by another blogger, Mr. Lou Judd, regarding my work with "Sports and Spirituality", a presentation I gave at 2010's Living Eucharist Initiative in the Diocese of St. Petersburg (SportsLeader). Not only did Mr. Judd include a link for the hour plus audio-visual presentation, he also highlighted the way in which I concluded the presentation. Synthesizing the Olympic motto with our Catholic faith, I challenged listeners (more specifically coaches) to think of Citius, Altius, Fortius-- Faster, Higher, Stronger--not in terms of athletic prowess but rather in terms of how quickly we respond to the needs of others, how elevated our thoughts are (is God a focus or a footnote?), and how we are strengthening ourselves and others to carry out the good work that God has in store for us.

A rather lofty set of goals for coaches and athletes and the world of sports.

A rather lofty set of goals for any of us.

As workers in faith-based, Catholic institutions, our work-- no matter what area-- must move beyond the temporal and touch on the eternal. We must have loftier, higher goals for our students (or athletes, or choir members, etc.) than merely winning games or acing tests. We must ensure that all we do points toward God.

But, success in these earthly endeavors is important. As Catholic educators, we must ensure that we offer a top-notch education to our students in addition to offering them instruction in the Catholic faith. The spiritual is more important, and it's what separates us from our public and private non-denominational colleagues, but we are obligated to uphold standards of academic excellence. Catholic educators must not only make students better, faith-filled people, we must also make them smarter.

Another rather lofty set of goals.

In a concrete way, our teaching must encompass a move from lower to higher order thinking skills. We must educate our students in such a way that they move from very basic skills (defining, identifying, listing) to ones that require a deeper level of understanding (compare/contrast, evaluate, infer, analyze, create).

In 1956, Benjamin Bloom, along with a team of educational psychologists, identified six levels of the cognitive domain (from lowest to highest): knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. His taxonomy was revised in the 90s, and updated names were given for the levels (again from lowest to highest): remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating (click here for more information on Bloom's Taxonomy).

Knowledge at the lower levels is not as firm or intimately known as knowledge applied to one of the higher levels. For example, we may be able to read the word "connotation", define it and even be able to paraphrase or summarize its meaning. But, a deeper understanding of this word is required in order for us to compare it to symbolism, defend the associations we've attached to certain words, or even create a story in which the connotations of words used throughout it help to advance its plot, characterization or theme.

In order to advance from one stage of knowledge to the next, one must pass sequentially through the stages. In other words, in order to analyze, evaluate or create, one must first be able to remember, understand and apply. Therefore, information presented must be broken into manageable chunks and skills must be appropriately scaffolded. Just as we learn to walk before we can run, we must learn simple addition and subtraction before being able to solve word problems using either forms of arithmetic. Similarly, we must look at the steps involved in either addition or subtraction and present them to students in such a way that is logical, sequential and manageable.

To abuse yet another cliche: We eat an elephant by taking one bite at a time.

If we take enough bites we will have eaten the entire thing.

To impart knowledge that is meaningful, useful and enduring we must show students the connection between the ear and the trunk, the tail and the body. We must be able to get students to see the connections between and among their pieces of knowledge if it is to persist years, months, days or even minutes after a test or quiz.

We must get students to make these connections for themselves.

We must get students to leave the caves of lower order thinking and allow them to see the actual objects that had cast the shadows in the recesses of their former captivity.

We must liberate them, in the true sense of a liberal arts education, so that students can use their higher order thinking for some Higher Order working.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Their Deepest Fear; Our Greatest Task

This pasted Sunday our Church celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The official end of the Christmas Season, this important Feast Day marks the beginning of Jesus's public ministry, His association with our humanity, and His membership in the community of the Kingdom of God.

But, for John the Baptist, it also marked a very important event.

It was the moment that--despite any feelings of inadequacy, shortcomings or low self-esteem--he fulfilled the mission for which he was created. It was as if Jesus asked John the Baptist to take a shot at the buzzer, pitch in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded, or kick a game winning field goal. John's response would most likely be ours, too, unless instead of blood we were blessed with ice running through our veins:

"I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?" (Mt. 3:14)

Or, in other words, "You want me to do what?"

But Jesus shows a confidence, belief and faith in John that John doesn't have in himself. Jesus, despite being the 'best player on the team', puts the game and its outcome into John's capable, albeit anxious, hands.

"Allow it for now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."

Or, in other words, "John, you can do it. I know you'll make it."

I apologize if the sports' analogies diminish the magnitude of this event.

In the world of education, this would be the moment that the teacher reveals an utmost confidence in the abilities of a insecure student. It's the moment that the teacher tells a struggling student, "I believe in you. You've worked hard. You've studied. You are going to do such a good job on this assignment."

It's different than being blindly optimistic. It would be foolish to encourage a student knowing that he/she hasn't studied. It does no good to merely blow sunshine toward a student who hasn't adequately prepared or mislead a student without the basic skills needed for success on a particular assignment.

At some level, though, the greatest task of education is to get students to believe in themselves. As Marianne Williamson puts it in her book, A Return to Love,
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light , not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
It's easy to be mediocre. It's safe. You'll never fail if you never try anything beyond your suspected abilities. Who was John to baptize Christ? Who are we that God has a similar plan for us?

Marianne continues,
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
As educators, it is our greatest task to get our students to shine brilliantly. Our greatest task is to show students that God has a magnificent plan for them, one that probably stretches them beyond the limits of their own confidence.

Baptize me. Lead my people. Go and sin no more. Become a priest. Open a medical clinic for people in financial distress. Marry her. Be a wonderful father. Go back to Haiti. Pray.

Become the person I created you to be.

But, do not be afraid...for you are My beloved child, for whom I have a wonderful plan and with whom I am well pleased.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Inspiration of the Incarnation

Having gone through the labor and birth experience somewhat recently gave the Nativity an entirely new meaning for me this year. I've always been amazed by the Incarnation and that fact that our God would become fully human, but having a small baby of my own gave the fragility of this Event a depth I had never experienced before. To think of baby Jesus, completely dependent upon Mary and Joseph for His food, shelter, warmth-- everything-- makes the Incarnation that much more amazing than it already was.

Our God entered humanity in exactly the same way that we all did. And unlike the song "Away in a Manger", Jesus probably did shed an inconsolable tear or two, albeit maybe not at the lowing of a cow. He probably frustrated and confused Mary and Joseph ("He's been fed, changed and burped, what else could He need?"). Mary and Joseph probably had grandiose dreams for their Son, maybe even a Messianic one.

I pledged a long time ago to never be the type of parent who thinks his child(ren) are perfect, but I do understand the immense potential that Elizabeth, and every child and even person, contains. I believe that God has a wonderfully important vocation in His plan for Elizabeth and that realizing it and eventually fulfilling it is the most essential task of her life.

St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (2:10).

God had a plan for Jesus, prepared in advance for Him to do. Similarly, He has a plan for Elizabeth and every child/person, prepared in advance for us. It should be our life's work to figure out what that is and then do it to the best of our abilities.

Essentially, this is the goal of our educational pursuits. Every student/person has been given good work to do in this world. As educators, we should do all that we can to help our students realize all of their potential and carry out the good work in store for them as part of God's plan. It may be too much to think that like Jesus they could forever change the world, but it may limit God's power too much to think otherwise.

The Incarnation is proof of this. It should change all that we do as educators. Christ had to be born to realize His potential and carry out the work God had laid out for Him. Like every child, Christ had to grow, mature and be nurtured in order to realize God's plan for Him and have the strength and conviction to execute it. The baby Jesus, despite being fully divine, could not have saved the world. But, along with Him in the manger laid the potential to do so.

As Catholic educators, let us be inspired by the Incarnation and realize that the good works prepared in advance for us to do may be to help our students come to know the good works prepared in advance for them.

It may not save the world, but it just might change it for the better.