Most teachers would agree that teaching thinking is a major goal in all areas of education. And I am pretty sure that most teachers believe that when they ask questions, give assignments and do group work within the classroom that they are accomplishing that goal. I would have to fall into that category myself, at least for most of my career. But the question is: Are you actually teaching thinking or do you believe that thinking is a natural by-product of what you are doing? I think the latter is what the majority of people believe especially as English teachers.
I believe that a lot of the higher order thinking that goes on in an English class is on the part of the teacher not the students. Again, I don’t exempt myself from this charge but it has taken me years to understand this. I have asked myself many times why so many of my students fall short of what I would like them to accomplish; why even after I thought I had laid the groundwork for an assignment that only the top students seem to put in the effort. You could accuse the students of being lazy and disengaged. You could accuse the assignment of being too difficult. Or you could ask yourself why it is that they don’t (can’t) use higher order thinking skills. Simply put, they are not called on enough to practise these skills except when we ask them to do some type of assignment. Talking about thinking, exposing thinking, labeling thinking should be part of our daily practice. It doesn’t come naturally to average thinkers. So as teachers, we shouldn’t be content that only 2 or 3 people in the class can actually think their way through a broader question. The other students don’t learn how to improve by hearing the answers; they will only learn by practising it themselves. You can’t learn how to ride a bike by watching someone.
Let me use a personal example. I am always surprised at how difficult my grade 12 students find it to classify ideas or topics. I assumed this was not high on the difficulty scale but they don’t do it very well. I suspect that in Biology that this would be more familiar. They aren’t asked to think this way very often in English and so they don’t seem to know how to approach it. It has to be taught to them and they have to practise it before they can apply the thinking in different situations.
There is also the issue of what we are reading in English classes. Engagement is essential for learning. So many of our texts are from an earlier time period with a language and style that is foreign to them. We are giving them a license to read summaries and interpretations and in doing so, the students are parroting back someone else’s thoughts or reactions. You can’t just expect the majority of students to dive into adult books and have ” rich” experiences. Many of my female grade 12 students, for example, are reading typical chick-lit books for their silent reading. There has to be a middle ground between what they would like to read and “great literature”.
Teaching English is not about the books. I didn’t suffer because I never read Heart of Darkness in high school (thank God ). It’s about how we are using the books to make them skilled thinkers.