One of the toughest jobs that a teacher has right now is to overcome the culture of standardized test prep. The pressure to pass state tests has lead us to a place where more importance is placed on memorization of factual nuggets, learning test taking tricks, and following memorized procedures than real critical thinking. For many teachers, it's tough to remember that we entered this profession to inspire the next generation to greatness when we spend the majority of our time filling our students' heads with unrelated facts. The term "problem solving" used to mean the ability to actually come up with practical solutions to real problems. It has evolved to mean "coming up with the right answer to a math problem that is written with words."
That's not problem solving. That's not critical thinking. That's the ability to read and make a calculation.
It doesn't take real thinking. It won't help you figure out how to solve the problems that will face you in life.
When it comes to reading and social studies, our demands on students are no better. We still ask for the main idea of a passage that students have no interest in reading, but never insist they read something they feel strongly about and give them a change to motivate their fellow students to action. We ask for the date of the American Revolution and the cause of the Civil War, but never insist that they find parallels to current world events.
It's as if those in power want us to pump out automatons that blindly follow orders instead of innovators who can mold the future.
Can we rise above these pressures to inspire students, demand critical thinking, and at the same time prepare our students for state tests? Is there something that can be done which doesn't take a ton of professional development, training, or an overhaul of current practices? Is there something we can do right now?
Yes. Start asking "Why?"
When your students tell you the answer they came up with on your math assignment, don't tell them whether it's right or wrong. Ask them why that's their answer. When your students tell you that the main character in the story was "friendly", don't let them off the hook. Ask them to prove why he was friendly. When your students tell you that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, ask them "why?" Make the use of "why" so ubiquitous in your classroom that your students know it's coming before you even ask.
Your students will hate it at first, and for a while it will probably be uncomfortable for you. They'll look at you with blank stares, speechless at the fact that you are making them think. After all, they've been convinced by our standardized testing culture that this type of real thinking is unnecessary. They'll hope that staying silent for long enough will convince you to give them the answer. They'll tell you "because the textbook says so." They'll hope that telling you, "I don't know" will shut you up.
Don't let them get away with it. Demand an answer that shows real understanding. Do this until the culture in your classroom is one where critical thinking is expected.
Do this, and your students will be able to do more than just pass "the test." They'll start to evaluate and judge. They'll start to wonder and debate.
Something else might happen, too. You may start to remember "why" you chose the profession that creates all others. Along with inspiring your students, you may find renewed inspiration yourself.