As I read through The Activist Learner by Wilhelm, Douglas, and Fry, I kept thinking about another book that I recently read, America’s Critical Thinking Crisis by Steven J. Pearlman. Both books discuss the need to move beyond teaching facts; instead, the author’s advocate giving students more autonomy in terms of inquiry and focusing instruction around solving problems. While Wilhelm et al. focus on K-12 education, Pearlman looks largely at higher education; still both emphasize the need for asking questions and thinking critically about the problems facing our communities and world.
Wilhelm et al. argue for service-based learning, finding ways for students to serve themselves, their school, their community, and the world. “Recognizing students as innovative agents of change makes teaching an act of empowerment and love, not only toward our students but also toward people and environments outside our classrooms,” the authors state. “We as teachers are simultaneously empowered by the knowledge that our students are activist learners in a world that needs them to assume a dynamic, agentive, activist mindset” (Wilhelm et al., 1-2). Similarly, Pearlman notes that in a world in which new knowledge grows exponentially, teachers need to emphasize more than simply having students be a critic of the knowledge coming at them; more importantly, he says, we need to assist students in “generative” or creative thinking beyond just the invention of devices to make life better. “We don’t just need the products of innovation; we need to view and assess its process, “Pearlman contends. “…no thingamajig will ever attend to some of the most important challenges facing the world…We need students who are adept at engage in the abstract” (118). And while Wilhelm et al. promote service learning and Pearlman promotes Problem Based Learning, their thinking when it comes to changing education are remarkably similar.
Pearlman refers to the concept of “wicked problems” throughout his text. Problems are wicked when they are both high-stakes and difficult to resolve (because they are human created). In The Activist Learner, Wlihelm et al. outline a process that begins with framing the curriculum around “existential questions,” which are “a compelling problem to be solved with personal and social consequences in the real world” (13). Moreover, both of these books emphasize the necessity of having students pose these questions then go through an inquiry process to reach a solution. All of the authors clearly argue that we need to somehow turn students loose–working on their own and with each other–to develop a problem-solving mindset through a process of inquiry. As Pearlman summarizes it: “Problems first. Information second” (85).
Interestingly, both texts focus on writing and composing. Wilhelm, Douglas, and Fry are professors at Boise State University and lead the local version of the National Writing Project. Pearlman spent many years as a college composition instructor before founding The Critical Thinking Initiative. Wilhelm et al. don’t take a deep dive into the “why’s” of writing, but they consistently point out how teachers use compositions as a capstone project in a learning unit, a way for students to summarize and demonstrate what they’ve learned and how they’ve learned it. Similarly, Pearlman argue that “writing should hold eminence in education” (123) as long as the writing tasks emphasize “the thinking process” (122) and are assessed accordingly (123).
One clear difference between the two texts’ underlying philosophies–and one that I greatly appreciate–is that Wilhelm et al. affirm that critical thinking and inquiry have a positive impact on the affective domain, the way one thinks and feels about themselves and others. When addressing the need for critical thinking, we too often think in terms of rationality. We also think about recognizing another viewpoint, but we may fail to understand how that recognition can lead to empathy and stronger relationships. In their afterword, Wilhelm et al. affirm, “Education is not educative in the final sense, unless it draws us out of our narrow self-interest and gives us interest in things larger than ourselves” (125). Perhaps, this touching on the affective domain proceeds from their focus on K-12 education; however, even as a college educator, I believe we need to touch on the personal and emotional or we have not done our job.
For several years, I have been searching for ways to address the paradigm shift that I feel many educators simply have yet to perceive. I have colleagues who fret that students don’t read the required text and find the homework answers on the internet. My silent response is always, “If the required text isn’t telling them anything they can’t find on the internet, what’s the point of the requiring the text? If you’re only asking questions that can be found easily through a simple Google search, are you asking the right questions?” We are able to access almost all of human knowledge using the small device we shove in our pockets, secure on belts, stow in our purses; yet, too much education is about simply the ability to spit out such facts on a test. As addressed in Prince Ea’s video essay, “What Is School For?” many of our students view such education as worthless, a hoop they must jump through to be accepted, to get a job.
Instead, I want my students to see what we do as something with real world significance. Pearlman’s book helped me to reframe my Composition II course, making it more responsive to the concerns of students and opening up the discussions and topics in way that were meaningful to them–as well as making them responsible for their own learning. Interestingly, I accidentally even found my students creating service to themselves, each other, and our college in the ways that Wilhelm et al. discuss. Now, I want to do a better job at “foregrounding” the work we do in Composition I, framing an “existential question” with those students. That push for “behind the scenes” structure to inquiry learning–controlling the chaos as I like to say–is my biggest takeaway and next step in developing an open and engaging student experience.
Pearlman, Steven J. America’s Critical Thinking Crisis: The Failure and Promise of Education. Stephen J. Pearlman, 2020.
Wilhelm, Jefferey D., et al. The Activist Learner: Inquiry, Literacy, and Service to Make Learning Matter. Teachers College Press, 2014.
Note: I wrote this post as part of my Summer 2021 participation in the Red Cedar Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute.