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September 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 1

Facts or Critical Thinking Skills? — What NAEP Results Say

Teaching for meaning improves student achievement, but the ideal instructional approach varies by subject area and grade level.

Facts or Critical Thinking Skills? — What NAEP Results Say- thumbnail
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In the past 30 years, policymakers and educators have debated whether schooling should emphasize facts or critical thinking skills. Proponents of the first view argue that students need to know when the Civil War happened before they can accurately interpret its causes. Proponents of the second view counter that students will soon forget the exact dates of the Battle of Chancellorsville, but they will probably remember the insights that they gain from studying this battle's causes, leadership, military reasoning, and human costs.
State policymakers have responded to this shifting debate. Thus, the California legislature has gone back and forth between emphasizing phonics and whole language approaches in its reading curriculum. Maryland emphasizes critical thinking skills in its state standards and tests; just across the Potomac River, Virginia emphasizes basic facts.
For the most part, however, this debate has not been informed by actual empirical data. Fortunately, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) offers relevant information. Administered every year or two since 1969 in various subjects—including mathematics, science, reading, and civics—the NAEP assessments are taken by representative samples of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders throughout the United States (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). Because each student takes only a small subset of the examination, the full examination can cover a substantial breadth and depth of material. Test items include both multiple-choice responses and more complex written responses so that they assess both basic skills and critical thinking skills. In addition to the test, students and their teachers and school administrators also fill out questionnaires that furnish information about student and teacher backgrounds and the instructional practices used in the classroom.
By measuring the relationships between specific instructional practices and student performance, we can use NAEP data to compare the effectiveness of teaching for meaning with that of teaching basic skills. Using advanced statistical techniques, we can even take into account the potential influence of student and teacher background characteristics on student achievement, thus isolating the effects of instruction oriented to teaching for meaning.
When we examine various analyses, some published and some unpublished (Wenglinsky, 2000, 2002, 2003), a clear pattern emerges from the data: Across subjects, teaching for meaning is associated with higher NAEP test scores. Although students must learn basic skills and facts at some point, these results suggest that instruction emphasizing advanced reasoning skills promotes high student performance.

Math and Science: Early Teaching for Meaning

In mathematics, some educators advocate teaching students basic skills, such as the times tables, and reinforcing those skills through drill and practice. Others advocate teaching students mathematical reasoning, such as the principles behind algorithms for multiplication and division, and emphasizing such complex topics as data analysis and probability early in the curriculum. The NAEP data support the latter approach. Among U.S. 4th and 8th graders, teaching that emphasizes higher-order thinking skills, project-based learning, opportunities to solve problems that have multiple solutions, and such hands-on techniques as using manipulatives were all associated with higher performance on the mathematics NAEP. Such methods reflect the idea that learning mathematics is an iterative process, rather than a linear process in which students progress from simple facts to more complicated ones (McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993).
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) provides further evidence. Stigler and Hiebert (1999), analyzing videotapes of classes in the United States, Germany, and Japan, found that the Japanese 8th grade teachers were more likely to emphasize critical thinking by having students fashion their own solutions to problems and by introducing advanced material (for example, algebra) at a relatively early stage. And overall, Japanese students outperformed their U.S. and German counterparts in mathematics.
In science, the curricular debate has been between those who advocate teaching students the facts of science and those who emphasize hands-on activities that allow students to explore theory. Basic skills advocates do not necessarily object to the use of hands-on activities, but they assign them a different role, in which the teacher defines laboratory procedures and students carry them out to demonstrate, for example, what happens when heat is placed under a balloon.
The NAEP data again suggest the benefits of teaching for meaning. Students tended to score higher on the 4th grade and 8th grade NAEP science tests when they had experienced science instruction centered on projects in which they took a high degree of initiative. Traditional activities, such as completing worksheets and reading primarily from textbooks, seemed to have no positive effect.

Reading and Civics: A More Linear Picture

In contrast to the NAEP results for math and science, the results in the humanities demonstrate the benefits of a more linear approach to teaching.
In reading, one debate has centered on how students should learn to identify words and develop fluency, and a second debate has centered on how students should develop reading comprehension. The first debate has played itself out in the reading wars between phonics and whole language advocates. The phonics approach emphasizes teaching students to sound out words, whereas whole language emphasizes identifying unfamiliar words from their context. Because the NAEP does not test students until grade 4, its results shed little light on this first debate. Reports by the National Reading Panel (2000) and the National Research Council (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) have supposedly resolved the issue in favor of a balanced approach that focuses on phonics but leaves some room for contextual approaches (although some reading researchers question the reports' findings).
The second debate—regarding reading comprehension—has not been fully engaged. Some scholars have simply staked out positions on reading comprehension analogous to their positions on word identification and fluency. Yet here, NAEP scores do offer some guidance—and they strongly suggest that when it comes to comprehension, basic skills approaches are inappropriate.
In both 4th and 8th grades, NAEP scores in comprehension favor teaching for meaning. Students tended to perform better on NAEP comprehension questions when they had experienced instruction in metacognitive skills (drawing meaning from text by asking questions, summarizing the work, identifying key themes, and thinking critically about the author's purpose and whether that purpose was achieved). In addition, students' comprehension was higher when they had been exposed to “real” texts—books and stories rather than short passages in basal readers. Finally, students improved their comprehension skills by reading literature and then writing about that literature, which gave them the opportunity to apply their metacognitive skills.
Thus, it appears that learning to read follows a linear trajectory. Previous studies suggest that students first need to learn the basic skills from phonics to sound out words and develop fluency. Once they have done that, however, the NAEP scores indicate that students should move on to develop reasoning skills and critical thinking skills in order to comprehend texts.
In civics, the story is also linear. The debate in civics centers on whether students should learn facts about the government through textbooks and homework or through more hands-on civics activities, such as community service. The NAEP data indicate that 4th graders benefit most from a firm foundation in how the U.S. governmental system works through a textbook and homework approach. Eighth graders, on the other hand, benefit both from reading textbooks and from such hands-on activities as service learning. Thus, in the case of civics, students will likely do best with a developmental model in which they begin by learning the content and then go on to make sense of it through civic practice.
Teaching for Meaning Practices Positively Associated with Student Achievement Scores on the NAEP

Facts or Critical Thinking Skills? — What NAEP Results Say - table



Reading (4th grade only)

Civics (8th grade only)

Problems that involve multiple solutions Hands-on activities Real-world problemsHands-on activities Project-based learningLearning metacognitive skills Reading real books Writing about literatureService learning Using the Internet

Basic Skills and Teaching for Meaning in Partnership

These analyses of NAEP results suggest that although basic skills have their place in pedagogy, critical thinking skills are essential. In mathematics and science at both the 4th and 8th grade levels, practices that emphasize critical thinking skills are associated with higher student achievement, whereas practices that emphasize basic skills are not. Apparently, students more effectively learn simple content, such as the times tables, if they understand the conceptual framework that lies behind that content. Educators do not need to choose between basic and advanced skills in math and science, but we should introduce advanced skills early to motivate students to learn the basic algorithms—which, let's face it, are not very interesting in and of themselves.
In the humanities, on the other hand, the data suggest the value of a more linear process. Students should not begin their school lives as readers developing their own rules for spelling or creating their own vernacular language. But once they know how to take language from the page, students need opportunities to construct sense out of text by interpreting it, writing about it, and reflecting on what they have written. Similarly, civics students need to know what the branches of government do, what freedoms the Bill of Rights protects, and how to influence their elected officials. Once students have learned these facts, however, they need to put their knowledge into practice by performing community service activities, going on field trips, and communicating with elected officials on matters important to them. (When I was an 8th grader, I wrote a letter to my senator about how Congress should spend money on a manned mission to Mars. The response that I received—too expensive, but keep writing—made the political process real to me.)

Implications for Policymakers and Educators

These empirical findings about the importance of teaching for meaning suggest certain actions that public officials and education administrators need to take.
At the school level, principals need to encourage their teachers to spend more time teaching for meaning across subject areas—especially in math and science in the early grades. In the humanities, students may need to learn basic skills in reading and civics in elementary school. But by the time students reach middle school, teaching for meaning becomes crucial.
Unfortunately, school principals and superintendents may have difficulty moving in this direction because federal policy now intervenes in state and local curriculum choices in favor of basic skills and against teaching for meaning. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) constitutes an unprecedented level of federal involvement in education.
NCLB's goals are highly laudable. Despite the complaints of many educators, creating a national infrastructure that holds schools accountable for the performance of their students and sanctions schools for a pattern of repeated failure is an appropriate role for the federal government. When the states demonstrated their inability during the Great Depression to provide social insurance and welfare benefits to their unemployed and elderly, and when states were unwilling during the civil rights era to educate black and white students together, federal intervention became necessary. These days, where the states have demonstrated their inability to educate our children well—particularly minority children and those living in poverty—the federal government is again obligated to act. Only the federal government can create a common yardstick for measuring performance and take action against states that do not make the fiscal effort to provide good schools for all students. My own state of New York provides a case in point: Education in New York City and other urban systems is woefully underfunded, and, as a result, school and teacher quality is manifestly lacking. In the sense of holding states accountable, then, NCLB could do some good.
But NCLB has overextended itself. It has moved beyond accountability for student achievement results by providing professional development funds that exclusively support a basic skills approach. To qualify for the funds, such cities as New York—which desperately need the money—must teach a basic skills curriculum across the board. In addition, the federal government is rewriting the NAEP so that the tests will reflect a greater emphasis on basic skills instead of their current balance between basic and higher-order skills. By squeezing out critical thinking skills, these actions put the cognitive development of our students at risk.
Many education leaders oppose NCLB on the wrong grounds. They should embrace the notion of being held accountable for the achievement of their students but demand autonomy in how to improve that achievement. And as the NAEP data suggest, the best way for school leaders to raise student achievement is by placing more emphasis on teaching for meaning.

McLaughlin, M. W., & Talbert, J. E. (1993). Introduction: New visions of teaching. In M. W. McLaughlin & J. E. Talbert (Eds.), Teaching for understanding (pp. 1–10). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: Committee on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world's teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

U.S. Department of Education. (2000). Trends in academic progress: Three decades of student performance. Washington, DC: Author.

Wenglinsky, H. (2000). How teaching matters: Bringing the classroom back into discussions of teacher quality. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Wenglinsky, H. (2002). How schools matter: The link between teacher classroom practices and student academic performance. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10, 12.

Wenglinsky, H. (2003). Using large-scale research to gauge the impact of instructional practices on student reading comprehension: An exploratory study. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11, 19.

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