Thursday, March 8, 2012

New AP Courses

Ed Week blogged about two new AP courses that will be offered in some pilot schools. One of the AP courses will focus on critical thinking skills and the other will focus on research skills. One of the things I thought was interesting in the blog is that it stated "The research courses are not designed to replicate a college course, but rather prepare students for college-level work and be an indication of readiness for elite college admission."

I agree that these are skills we do not focus on exclusively in a course designed for them (although it is my belief that we should) because most schools assume that these skills are being interwoven into the current curriculum. I think the assumption is there because they tell us that it is important. They tell us to ask questions that promote critical thinking skills. And if a student can produce the desired outcome at the end, then it is assumed that they had to think critically to do that.

I believe that instructors are trying their best to bring critical thinking to the classroom, but may lack the training to do so. But what is the real evidence that critical thinking is being evaluated properly in our secondary schools? The blog quoted Packer as saying "[college admissions officers] said U.S. students are not coming to college having developed research skills and the ability to integrate knowledge across a variety of academic disciplines". I have not sat on a college admission board but I can say from my experience in a classroom that many students do have difficulty pulling from one subject and applying it into another subject without a great deal of prompting and guiding.

Sometimes it is true within the same discipline!

In my programing class, which is a high level thinking and critical problem solving class by nature, I set up the formative assessments by levels (1-4). At level 1 there are fill in the blank questions, sometimes matching, sometimes multiple choice. I consider these warm up questions. Level 2 will usually ask a student to find erroneous code and fix the problem. Students can usually plug the code into the compiler, have the compiler find the problem and fix it until the code runs. Still a bit assisting. At level 3 is when I get the most questions. Level 3 usually presents code that they are told is broken, then they are asked "Why?"

It's giving the explanation as to why the code doesn't work that throws them. They often ask if they can just put it in the compiler and run it, fix it and give me the results. It is the knowing of, and explanation of why the code doesn't work that I can tell they have a deeper understanding of how the code is functioning. I explain to them that the compiler can't find everything wrong in the code and if you run bad code, you get bad output. Unless you can understand, just by looking at it, why code might not work, then you can become a better troubleshooter. Level 4 is the backwards engineering of the program. All they get is an output screen and a few guidelines on how input is expected to be gathered and they are released to create the program from scratch. Do they like this? NO. Do they do it? YES. How do they feel about it when it is done? Amazing! Their is so much joy in their face when they accomplish that level 4 task because it was not only a test of their doing, but of their thinking as well. Once a student starts a level 4 task, I have never had one give up. They become fully invested.

I applaud the idea of these AP classes but at the same time I feel that it would be more beneficial to do this type of work with students from when we get them as 9th graders until they walk across that stage 4 or 5 years later. Critical thinking, problem solving and research skills are needed at all levels in our adult life. Offering it as an AP class will only draw those kids who are college bound. Since it is such an integrated part of life, it should be just as integrated in our teaching and we need more creative professional development in the field to show us how we can integrate it into our curriculum without losing the time we need to cover all the important items in our curriculum.

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