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Information Literacy - Deeper Dive

Continuing an analysis that started here and continued here, we want to use the tools of Information Literacy – vital for obtaining the background knowledge needed to think critically about a subject – to answer the question of whether or not the Republican Party of Texas tried to ban the teaching of critical thinking in Texas schools.

This Information Literacy demo was drawn from a case study from Critical Voter, one I wrote back in 2012 when this issue was making news.

As you learned from reading about results from an initial web search, Texas Republicans did not ban critical thinking, or anything else, from Texas classrooms. Rather, they added a plank to their 2012 party platform which said the following:

"Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority."

Notice that this language does not criticize critical thinking per se. Rather, it criticizes what its authors claim to be a bad educational method called Higher-Order Thinking Skills (a rebranding of something called Outcome-Based Education) which hides its real agenda (behavior modification and undermining of fixed beliefs) behind the virtuous façade of critical-thinking education.

Now it may turn out that this condemnation was dead wrong. But even if it was, we need to recognize that we are dealing with a different issue than an attempt to ban the teaching of critical thinking to Texas students. Rather, we are dealing with an argument that implies a question those of us who favor the teaching of critical thinking shouldn’t automatically dismiss, which is: do teaching strategies that do not involve the teaching of critical thinking (or, worse, fad or quack educational theories) try to take advantage of the halo effect associated with critical thinking to their own advantage?

Getting back to our analysis, the Texas GOP’s criticism seemed to ultimately center on something called Outcome Based Education (or OBE), so the next stop in my search campaign will be to find out more about this subject using “Outcome Based Education” (in quotes) for my next key word search. And, as expected, the first link that pops up when I search for this topic comes from Wikipedia.

Given the nature of that source (which allows anyone to edit any article anonymously), I tend to avoid Wikipedia for any subject that smacks of political controversy since partisans tend to try to rewrite Wiki-entries to suit their biases and agendas. So as tempting as it might be to click on that link, or on one of the many links that talk about controversies related to OBE that appear on the first pages of Google, I’m instead going to log into my public library’s web site where they maintain access to a number of professional edited and scholarly information databases to see if I can get a handle on what OBE is really all about.

A search through those databases, which are no harder to use than Google, gives me a long list of results about both OBE and the controversies surrounding it. And while there isn’t the time and space to go through all this material here, the upshot seems to be that Outcome Based Education was once a conservative proposal to measure the success of education by outputs (student achievement of certain skills) vs. inputs (spending per student, classroom size and the like). Given that standardized testing designed to measure outcomes is now a cornerstone of public education, it looks like this educational theory succeeded in going mainstream, which is why we now tend to measure school success based on test scores, rather than spending levels.

But, at least according to critics, OBE lost its way when those outcomes became defined not in terms of knowledge and skills mastered, but in terms of behaviors and beliefs. As one critic put it, today’s outcomes “show little concern for core academic content, describing instead mental processes such as attitudes, dispositions, and sentiments. In short, the focus was on behavioral and social outcomes rather than knowledge and skills.”

Keep in mind that understanding that this controversy isn’t as dire as headlines covering the story seemed to indicate doesn’t let the Texas GOP off the hook. After all, their attitudes towards OBE are rather narrow (there are other opinions on the subject, after all), and they do seem to be conflating a number of educational ideas (OBE, Higher Order Thinking Skills, Mastery Learning, critical thinking) into a single issue. And while many people (including many educators) may also be confused over what these modern educational theories are and how they fit together, most of us have not assigned ourselves the task of denouncing them in an important political forum.

Now that I have a better understanding of the issues involved, I’m ready to go back to some of my original search results, including criticism of the decision (with a focus on sources that actually covered the Texas GOP convention – such as Texas newspapers) and explanations of the decision (such as that interview I mentioned with the head of the Texas GOP).

Next up – Synthesis!


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