Tasking students to solve a real-world problem, especially one with an ethical dilemma, gives children the skills that employers are looking for, writes Tim Holt, instructional-technology director of El Paso, Texas, Independent School District. “We need to start thinking about ways of flipping the classroom that truly means flipping the way we teach — not just having kids watch videos at night,” Holt writes in this blog post. 

Remember those textbook questions at the very end of the chapter that were never assigned because your teacher wanted you to complete the multiple choice and true-and-false and fill-in-the-blank questions “first”?

The questions were always under headings like “Extend Your Knowledge” or “Display your Learning” or “Digging Deeper,” or something similar. Those questions always intrigued me, first off because we never got to them and I always wondered why. (Sort of like the last chapters of the book: Poor chapter 26. You look like fun, but we won’t get to you this year.) I also was intrigued because those questions, at least to me, were a lot more interesting than the ones that merely required me to look up the answer a few pages back.

Instead of answering questions like “What cities did the United States drop an atomic bomb on to end the war with Japan?” (look back four pages, there is the answer) the Extend Your Knowledge questions asked questions like “Was President Truman correct in ordering the Army to drop the atomic bomb on Japan? Defend your answer.”

That kind of question had some meat to it. I could answer any way I wanted to and still be correct. All I had to do was make an argument that supported my position! I had to understand the information AND I had to make a decision on my own! That was a question! It had meat, it had ethical dilemmas, it actually asked me what I thought about something instead of just asking me to be a human copy machine.

Alas, we rarely got to those questions unless we finished ahead of the other students and were assigned them as punishment for being precocious. We learned early on that being fast was a bad thing, so we learned the skill of taking our time and doing the low level cognitive questions slowly enough to match the teacher’s (and the bell’s) rhythm. Every year, in every class, in every discipline.

Years and years of low level questions, followed by low level questioning on tests. That carried into college as well, because the same companies that wrote the K12 textbooks were writing the college texts. Don’t believe that this is still happening? Check out this End of Chapter page from an Anatomy and Physiology college text from Pearson. The really good questions, squeezed over in the corner, are called “Critical Thinking.” Some things die hard.

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