Reducing the Gap by Accelerating Disadvantaged Students After the Third Grade Via A Thinking Development Approach

 

by Dr. Stanley Pogrow, stanpogrow@att.net

Published in New Horizons for Learning. Fall 04

Dr. Stanley Pogrow is currently the William Allen Endowed Chair distinguished visiting professor at Seattle University, on leave from the University of Arizona where he specializes in school reform for reducing the gap, instructional leadership, and the application of technology.  He can be reached at:  stanpogrow@att.net.  Information about the HOTS program is available at:  www.hots.org


INTRODUCTION

 

Those of us who share a passion for helping the disadvantaged and a strong belief that education is a, or the, key to reducing inequity, need to step back and reexamine many of our fundamental assumptions about how to best help the disadvantaged.

 

Despite waves of both progressive and tradition reforms and increased spending, the gap has not been reduced since 1975.   The achievement gap in reading between white and blacks is the same in 1999 as it was in 1975 and by 2003 approximately half of minorities at the eighth grade remained below basic levels in reading, and only about 13% were proficient. 1 

 

Nor is there reason to believe that NCLB will work any better than the accountability approach of the early 80's, or the restructuring movement of the late 80's and early 90's.  Since the beginning of the Federal effort in 1965 to reduce the gap, we see the same pattern occurring, disadvantaged students making progress k-3, stalling at grade 4, then declining-with the resultant gap widening at an increasing rate thereafter.

 

Within this dismal picture, there has been one major, quiet, behind the scenes success, the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) program.  This program was notably successful in accelerating disadvantaged students after the third grade-in all respects.  Students' developed intellectually and socially, and there test scores grew dramatically-all without additional teaching to the test or basic skill development.  In addition, this success was replicated on a large scale, all over the US, and with all types of minority populations.  Based on this success, over the past 24 years HOTS was quietly adopted as a supplemental program to help Title I and LD students in 2600 schools and served half a million disadvantaged students.

 

However, this large-scale grassroots effort was not just about a successful program, but one that became a research tool.  Over time it has produced counter-intuitive knowledge that unlocks the reasons for the failure of both progressive and traditional reform movements over the past 100 years, and that, more importantly, demonstrates the conditions under which education can indeed accelerate disadvantaged students after the third grade. 

 

But to tell the story, I need to start at the beginning. 

 

My journey starts in the classroom:

 

Many, many  years ago (more 'manys' than I want to admit) I was a public school teacher in New York City, trying to use a discovery approach to teaching disadvantaged middle and high school students from Harlem and Hells Kitchen.  Please keep in mind that I was a highly motivated teacher who loved his students.  I think I was a hip (that is how we spoke back then) teacher who was liked by his students.  I was committed to the ideal of using progressive approaches to education with disadvantaged students and was as knowledgeable about the research of the times as a teacher could be.  All the advocacy and theory would therefore predict that I and my students would experience great success.  However, amidst the successes that I had with individual students and different topics it was not an overall success.  There was one stumbling block that I never was able to overcome.  Whenever I asked an open-ended question, or any question that required real generalization or abstraction, the students would stare at me.  My hyperactive students suddenly became silent and stared at me.  The more I urged them to 'think' the harder they stared and the more puzzled they seem to be.  Then the silence would become unbearable and they would averted their gaze.  I then faced the dilemma that many of you face daily of: "What do I do now?"  The only available choices appeared to be to either simply the questions, which would defeat the goal of bringing higher forms of learning to the students, or be happy with the same two or three students answering the more open-ended questions.  

 

Frustrated by my inability to reach my students on a deeper level, I set off on a personal quest to understand why my students had stared at me and what the meaning of the stares were.  I have devoted my professional life as a professor and researcher to finding the cause of the stares and to discovering a way to transform the stares into active, higher level forms of learning in students I know to be bright and caring.  I believe that overcoming the 'stare' is the key to making education more successful and equitable.

 

This article reflects what I have learned.  It is devoted to all of you who are also frustrated and puzzled by student stares whenever you try to draw your disadvantaged students to reach into the world of reflection and abstraction.  The good news is that these students are tremendously bright, and with the right approach we can succeed with them at higher levels of thinking-and do so in ways that produce even higher levels of test score results.

 

 

DESCRIPTION OF THE HOTS PROGRAM

 

The HOTS program was started 24 years ago based on the belief that disadvantaged students were bright, and that the top priority for available supplemental help should be focused on helping them channel that innate intelligence into learning at a higher level.  The program started with Title I students and later expanded to students with learning disabilities (LD).  These students were treated as intellectually 'gifted' students.  At the same time, the goals of the intervention were to not only increase thinking and socialization skills, it was to also simultaneously increase test scores and overall academic performance as a byproduct-all without extra drill or teaching to the test.  It was also designed to work in the post-grade 3 period where early progress dissipated, gaps rewidened, and disadvantaged students fell increasingly farther behind. 

 

The approach taken with HOTS from the beginning was to generate a very creative and intensive conversation environment.  This approach was taken because the amount of home conversation varies dramatically by economic status.  A recent study of home discussion patterns among caring parents found that working class parents made half as many statements to their young children per hour as professional level parents, and welfare parents made half as many statements to their young children as working class parents did.  By age 4, the number of spoken words experienced by children in caring professional households was 50 million, with the vast majority being positive words, while children in caring welfare households experienced only 10 million, with the majority being of a negative, admonishing nature.   Reduced levels of home conversation not only limits the vocabulary of disadvantaged students, but it also inhibits their overall cognitive development and their ability to process ideas-a problem that primarily shows up as a limiting factor after the third grade when the curriculum becomes more integrative. 2

 

The approach developed in the HOTS program was to replace the missing conversation in the home by to provide a rich conversation environment that combined the use of technology with Socratic teaching techniques, i.e., teaching by asking.  The computer was used to heighten student interest and to allow them to test the consequences of their ideas-but not to directly teach anything. The primary instructional characteristic of the HOTS approach was to shift the nature of talk that goes on during instruction in the typical classroom with disadvantaged students.  Instead of lots of teacher talk and a few words spoken by a few students, HOTS provided an environment where there was little teacher talk and direction, and lots of student talk.  In essence, HOTS replaced the dinnertable conversation that the students did not have in the home. 

 

The nature of the student talk, and teachers' questions, is highly systematic and sophisticated.  The Socratic teaching and conversation process is driven by a combination of a creative yet systematic curriculum designed in accordance with brain theory, and a Socratic system for analyzing students answers.  In addition, intensive teacher training is provided that develops new reflexes for listening to, and analyzing, student answers, and inventing appropriate followup probes.  The teachers are trained to guide students without simplifying problems, reducing ambiguity by breaking down questions, or telling students what to do.

 

The conversations are designed to lead students into engaging in the following key cognitive processes that underlie all learning: a) metacognition, i.e., the ability to think about, develop, and articulate, problem solving strategies, b) inference from context, c) decontextualization, i.e., generalizing ideas and information from one context to another, and d) information synthesis.   The four key thinking processes cannot be formally taught.  Rather, they are developed in students by a cultural process in which they repeatedly encounter situations they are interested in that require the use of these skills to resolve problems.  It is the accumulation of sufficient such experience that induces students to internalize the skills and spontaneously incorporate them into everyday life and learning.   It is a process akin to teaching an infant to talk.  You provide an ongoing process even though the individual is not initially responding-and then one day the process kicks in, i.e., the infant starts to talk, and the HOTS students starts to think and verbalize analytically.

 

The role of the computer in HOTS is to provide a shared setting around which students discuss ideas for solving the problems, and interpreting the events and language, they encounter.  This mirrors how dinnertable conversation evolves, using life experiences as a shared basis for family conversation.  This computer use technique is called 'learning drama'.   The learning about thinking comes from the discussion rather than the successful use of the software. 

 

The learning drama approach made it possible to incorporate problem solving tasks that are extremely difficult; so difficult that the students invariable fail at them initially.  However, because of the captivating nature of the tasks, rather than giving up, students persevere, and eventually figure things out, and develop a successful strategy.  Once students have gone through this 'controlled floundering' process of initial failure being converted by their thinking into success, they come to expect success and are not deterred by initial difficulties; no matter how difficult the task.  Indeed, no matter how difficult the task, the students persevere and are successful.  After 24 years, I still do not know what the upper level of their ability is.

 

The use of HOTS in lieu of supplemental drill and test prep was, and is, a major strategic shift in school improvement.  Such a shift is as relevant under NCLB as it was in the last accountability movement in 1980 when HOTS was started.  Piling on lots of extra drill and test prep did not work then and will not work now.  Yet, once again, schools are reflexively reacting to accountability pressure by increasing drill and test prep even though the HOTS approach produces far better test score results-and far better individuals. 

 

 

HOTS OUTCOMES

 

Test score gains

In a series of evaluations conducted by this author and independently by school districts, HOTS students generally made twice the gain in overall reading as compared to comparison groups, and about three times the growth in reading comprehension.  The students also made substantial growth in math.  In some cases, the gains were extraordinary. One school reported that students gained 5.6 years in reading in the first year of HOTS, and 20% of the fifth and sixth grade students scored above the high school level. 

 

The relative advantage and the large gains found on nationally normed tests have also carried over to state tests and NCLB criteria.  For example, research compiled by Cleveland County Schools in North Carolina found that schools using HOTS not only exceeded state expected growth targets, but also exceeded exemplary growth targets, while the non-HOTS schools were on average below even the basic expected growth targets.

 

Transfer

Of course, test score gains by themselves are highly suspicious.  Anyone can produce gains by teaching to a test that increases scores only on that test.  However, such gains do not transfer to other tests and do not represent real literacy development.  Indeed, the goal of interventions is to produce transfer to a variety of measures.  In the absence of transfer you need to increase the time to teach everything the students are behind in, which is impossible. 

 

What is significant about the HOTS test score gains was that the intervention was not geared to any test-or even to specific content skills.  The gains were similar across a wide variety of tests since the program did not mandate specific tests and schools continued to use whatever test they were using.  As such, the gains appear to reflect real gains in literacy.  In addition, schools report gains on both reading and math, and when more than one test was used students generally make gains on both tests.  For example, Estelle Elementary in Jefferson Parish School District in Louisiana found that not only did their scores in the HOTS grades go up substantially on the state Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) test, they also went up substantially on the Iowa normed test in reading and math.

 

In addition, anecdotal reports of visitors to schools who observed HOTS classes generally assumed that the students were in the top quartile rather than the lowest. There have also been reports of HOTS Title I students being diagnosed as, and subsequently placed into, Gifted programs.   

 

In addition, research by Mary Ann Darmer (1995), a HOTS teacher in a very high-poverty school measured student growth on 21 outcomes. 3.  These included: a) metacognition, b) writing, c) components of IQ, d) transfer to novel problem-solving tasks, and e) grade point average.   While the HOTS students were taken aside to develop their thinking skills.  The comparison students received extra content help under the direction of the classroom teacher, or those who worked with a HOTS specialist on developing their thinking skills divorced from the classroom content.

 

One would expect that the students who received extra content help would do better.  However, the reality was that the HOTS students did much better across the board.  While HOTS students increased substantially in all 22 pre-post comparisons, the comparison students made no gains in the fourth grade, and declined in the fifth.  HOTS students significantly and substantially outperformed the comparison Title I students in all 12 comparisons between the groups.  For example, the average GPA for HOTS students went up a whole letter grade while comparison students made no progress.  This is a seemingly amazing and counter-intuitive result given that HOTS had nothing to do with the classroom content and grading practices.  Thirty five percent of the HOTS students made honor roll at the end of the first year and 44% entered the science contest.  In addition, HOTS students made more than four times the growth in reading comprehension, and the divergence was even greater in the fifth grade when the comparison students declined.  Most importantly, a followup study showed that the benefits were retained in later years. Of the 28 students in HOTS, 20 had middle school records in the district, while only 7 of the original 24 control students were in the district's middle schools.4  Of these remaining students, HOTS students had an average GPA half a letter grade higher by the end of the eighth grade.  Half of the HOTSsed students in the eighth grade had an average GPA of A-.  Only 4 of the HOTSsed students had been retained a grade or semester by the end of middle school. 5  By high school, 16 of the 28 HOTSsed students were still enrolled in the district's high schools, while only 3 of the 24 control students were still enrolled.  These data suggest that developing a sense of understanding produces dramatic differences in later years-though it does not guarantee success.

 

As a result, it appears that the HOTS test score gains result from the thinking activities transferring into overall literacy, academic, and cognitive growth.   The overall gains from this single intervention stands in contrast to what happened in the "celebrated" reform in the Chancellor's schools in New York City.  The three hours of daily drills and test prep in reading in that reform did result in an increase in reading scores.  However, there was no transfer to anything else.  Math scores did not increase, and there was no time to teach science or social; studies so these scores are declining.   

 

HOW TRANSFER IS PRODUCED FROM THINKING DEVELOPMENT

 

HOTS appears to be the first thinking program to produce substantial and consistent gains on test scores with students in Title I and those with learning disabilities after the third grade, and to do so in ways that transfer to other types of learning. Why did HOTS succeed where so many others failed?

 

There were three main reasons for its success.  The first was that thinking skills were not only viewed as an important end to be valued for its own sake, but also as a means to improve test scores.  Typically the goals of improving thinking and improving test scores are viewed as incompatible.  The second reason for the unique success of HOTS was how it combined knowledge, intuition, and creative intuitive leaps in its design.  The third was that we experimented on a large-scale over a long period of time to optimize the approach.  If something did not work it was discarded.  In addition, we kept on improving all aspects of the program, from curriculum, training, Socratic system, software, and most importantly-how it was implemented, particularly with respect to the amount of service provided.   We particularly learned in the early years from situations where we did not see transfer to test score gains.

 

The optimized implementation design that emerged from the large-scale research was to provide HOTS as a supplemental program for 35-40 minute periods 4-5 times a week for most Title I students and those with learning disabilities in grades 4-8. 6  This can be provided during the school day or after school. 7 A teacher can work with up to 10 students at a time, and teacher and paraprofessional with up to 13.  There are two modes for using the program.  For low to medium poverty schools, the disadvantaged students meet with a specially trained HOTS teacher outside the regular class as a separate period either during, or after, school.  For high poverty schools with a good staff, all the teachers in the targeted grade levels are HOTS trained, and the entire class receives HOTS training.  Half the class is taught by the regular classroom/content teacher, and the other half by a HOTS specialist in a common area. 8  At the middle school level HOTS is usually done as a separate period in the students' schedule.

 

 

KEY RESEARCH FINDINGS ON HOW TO ACCELERATE DISADVANTAGED STUDENTS AFTER THE THIRD GRADE

 

It turns out, that producing transfer from thinking development activities is a powerful force that can accelerate disadvantaged students after the third grade.  However, this only occurs under specific conditions; conditions that are generally not put into place even under progressive reforms.  The large-scale research with the HOTS program revealed the following:

 

#1)       Most disadvantaged students have normal to high levels of intellectual ability.

 

#2)       The key learning problems of disadvantaged students are very different in grades K-3 as compared to grades 4-8, and require totally different approaches.   The biggest learning problem after grade 3 is that students do not understand 'understanding'.

 

The biggest learning problem after the third grade is that disadvantaged students do not understand how to deal with ideas, generalizations, or abstractions as a result of a lack of experience in talking with adults about ideas. They have so little sense of how to deal with ideas in general that they do not understand what it means to understand. The lack of a 'sense of understanding' becomes a problem in grades 4-8 because the curriculum becomes more complex and requires more advanced forms of thinking.  Indeed, a recent analysis of differences between white and black and Hispanic/ Latino high school students by Ronald Ferguson of Harvard, concluded that the only significant difference was that the minority students were twice as likely to report that they did not understand what the teacher was saying or what they were reading.

 

#3)       Until a sense of understanding is developed, the cognitive wall prevents the majority of disadvantaged students in grades 4-8 from succeeding in quality content instruction-even though they have the potential to succeed.

 

So little has been written about the 'understanding' gap that people do not realize how profound it is.  For example, it takes at-risk students in grades 4 through 8 three to four months of daily work just for students to understand the difference between guessing and using a strategy or a system to solve a problem.   As a result, well intentioned progressive efforts to place disadvantaged students into thinking-in-content, problem solving courses will not succeed unless and until students first have developed a sense of understanding.

 

#4)       In order to develop disadvantaged students' ability to succeed in problem solving content after the third grade, and to maximize test score gains, you must first develop their general sense of understanding. 

 

#5)   Developing a sense of understanding in most disadvantaged students in grades 4-8 takes almost 2 years of specially designed conversation activities in a small group setting for 35-40 minutes a day, 4-5 days a week, with a good teacher.

 

A sense of understanding cannot be produced via casual effort and occasional thinking experiences.  The large-scale research around the use of the HOTS program, with many systematic variations tried over the years, has shown that it takes 1-2 years of 35 minutes a day of intense daily conversation and reflection, in which students verbalize sophisticated ideas to develop a sense of understanding.  Students then spontaneously apply their thinking skills to regular content learning.

 

It takes this much time because the prior deficit of home conversation described earlier that causes the understanding gap results is so extensive.  As a result, you cannot develop a sense of understanding by teaching a set of skills.  Rather, it is developed from extensive accumulated student experience in verbalizing thoughtful responses to complex questions, and obtaining feedback as to how adults process their ideas.  It is a cultural process that takes time for sufficient experience to occur to compensate for the earlier conversation gap.   

 

In addition, given the huge prior conversation gap, the intervention has to be intensive for the 1.5-2 year period.  It requires small groups, with teachers constantly asking questions and probing student responses.  In classrooms with a large number of educationally disadvantaged students it is impossible to provide each student the extensive interaction opportunities needed to develop the sense of understanding in the context of a full sized classroom-just as it is impossible to have in depth conversations with 30 guests at a party.

 

The biggest problem in creating the needed learning environment is that the students involved are initially, understandably, reluctant to verbalize, and that teachers want to compensate by telling rather than asking. When HOTS teachers first begin to engage Title I students in Socratic dialogue, the students seem genuinely puzzled as to what the teacher is up to. It's as though this is the first time these youngsters have encountered this way of interacting with adults - and it may well be.   It takes quite a bit of time for students to gain confidence and sufficient experience to verbalize spontaneously.  For example, it takes about 4 months before students will give a reason for a response without first being asked, and about 6 months before they will disconfirm a prior answer.

 

During the early acclimation period teachers need to patiently ask questions and probe the tentative responses.  Teaching by asking is difficult; the education equivalent of heart surgery in medicine.  It is very hard for teachers to hold back and not direct the student process of making meaning and overtalking. Complicating matters further, is that for this process to work the curriculum must pose problems that students are interested in so that they will exert mental energy; energy which can then be channeled by the conversation environment as described earlier.

 

The good news is that HOTS has demonstrated that, despite the enormous conversation gap that exists prior to students entering school, much of the subsequent deleterious effects can be overcome in a reasonable amount of time of intensive work.  It takes just 1.5-2 years for most Title I students and those with learning disabilities-if the above conditions are met!

 

For those schools that invest the needed time and talent, approximately a year and a half later the students have developed a sense of understanding.  The students are poised, highly articulate, youngsters who enjoy thinking about ideas, developing and testing problem-solving strategies.  They are now ready to succeed in challenging content curricula-and their test scores have risen. 

 

The previous two findings explain why historic efforts to develop the thinking skills of the disadvantaged in grades 4-8 were inadequate, inappropriate, and thereby unintentionally exacerbated the learning gap.

 

Historically thinking development was usually done by incorporating challenging thinking-in-content activities into regular courses instead of first developing a sense of understanding.  This mistake has been made repeatedly over the past 100 years because well-intentioned reformers grossly underestimate the extent of the 'understanding' problem.  It is of little help for the disadvantaged to upgrade the curriculum without first getting them ready to benefit from it.   The inevitable result from integrating thinking into content coursework as the initial effort to develop problem-solving skills is that the disadvantaged not only do not learn to think symbolically, they also do not learn the content.  It is a double whammy.

 

Having disadvantaged students succeed in thinking-in-content is the desired end; one that is achievable.  But it cannot also be the means for developing the sense of understanding they need to be successful in thinking-in-content curricula. That needs to be done via a conversation based self-contained general thinking program.  A sense of understanding must be developed first, before you can expect disadvantaged students to succeed in content learning after the third grade. This is the 'Theory Of Cognitive Underpinnings'.

 

In addition, because the profession does not understand how profound the lack of understanding is in most disadvantaged students and its consequences, it has historically relied on techniques of staff development and programmatic approaches that can at best provide only simple and occasional interactive thinking opportunities.  Such well-intentioned efforts are simply not sufficient to develop a sense of understanding.  Something more intensive, systematic, and sustained is needed.    

 

Consequence: The combined effect of these two mistakes explains why most of the well-intentioned progressive reforms of the past, which tried to help disadvantaged students, did not work.  

 

 

#6)       From a learning needs perspective, the labels Title I and LD each encompass a variety of overlapping learning needs that require different interventions -and this causes most students to receive the wrong help after the third grade.

 

Approximately 80% of Title I students benefit from HOTS.  Over time, we found patterns that explained why the other 20% were not benefiting, and how to identify those students.  It appears that approximately 10% of Title I students are students who are borderline Educationally Mentally Handicapped (EMH), and about 10% have undiagnosed physiological issues, most often dyslexia.  A solely basic skills approach after the third grade at best benefits the 10% of students who are borderline EMH while inhibiting the growth of the vast majority who need help developing a sense of understanding.  It is this phenomenon of unmet needs that accounts for much of the failure to accelerate the learning of disadvantaged after the third grade.

 

There is a similar problem of multiple needs with students labeled LD.  Our research showed that the majority benefited from the use of HOTS-as long as they were above 80 verbal IQ.  In other words, most students also classified as LD do not understand 'understanding', while the minority below 80 verbal IQ have a very different learning need.  

 

Indeed, there seems to be more similarity between the learning needs of the majority of students labeled Title I and LD  than there is within each category. 9 This means that under the current designation system, monies and interventions are not being directed at the fundamental learning needs.  A more precise way of categorizing these students for the purpose of helping them would be to get rid of the Title I and LD labels, and place them in categories according to whether their fundamental learning blockage is not understanding 'understanding'.

 

Summary of findings

Taken together, all of these findings from the HOTS experience paint a picture of how, under the right conditions, it is possible for education to in fact accelerate the learning of the vast majority of disadvantaged students in powerful ways that transfer to a wide range of academic, test performance, and social interaction gains.  Unfortunately, these conditions have not been put in place by either progressive and traditional reform approaches to date.  Instead, we have either over-drilled disadvantaged students, or placed them directly into thinking-in-content curricula without the needed preparation for them to succeed, and/or did thinking development in a haphazard, diluted fashion.  None of these approaches will work.  Most importantly, the findings suggest that the need and opportunity to accelerate the learning of disadvantaged students is great, but very condition specific.  Meet these conditions for developing a sense of understanding and you get growth; don't meet them and education ideals fail-no matter how much money is spent or staff development provided.  Unfortunately, these findings and conditions remain as counter-intuitive today as when HOTS started 24 years ago. 

 

POLICY IMPLICATIONS OF THE HOTS SUCCESS-A TWO-TIER APPROACH TO REFORM

 

 

HOTS did more than pioneer a thinking development approach to Title I students and those with learning disabilities.  Its success represents a new conception of how to design and incorporate interventions. Rather than used as a philosophy or an overall solution, HOTS is a very focused specialized solution for a specific major problem, and for those students with that problem-but not as a catchall for all problems.  Interventions that meet the above conditions are hereafter referred to as 'micro-targeted learning environments'.  It is called 'micro' because it is not for all students or ongoing forever.

 

The success of HOTS demonstrates that the best way to accelerate disadvantaged students after the third grade is a combination of different approaches-with a proper balance of skill development and the specialized HOTS program to develop a sense of understanding.   Too much skill development, or insufficient thinking development, or the wrong type of thinking development, and disadvantaged students will once again start to decline after the third grade. Rather than dramatically increasing time spent on skill development and test prep after the third grade, we need to increase the quality of these fundamental services, and then develop a second, more flexible, level of services, that eliminate fundamental blockages to learning.  These need to be a variety of sophisticated specialized services such as HOTS, that exist for a finite amount of time for specific, well defined students and learning needs.  This results in the two-tier model of school improvement in the figure below:

 

A Two-Tier Model Of School Improvement

 

 

Tier 1

 

Aligned/coordinated structured skill development/test prep

 

+

 

Tier 2

 

Creative, micro-targeted learning environments

to develop thinking, social, and academic skills

 

HOTS has shown that: a) using supplemental time for providing a creative micro-targeted learning environment produces better results than additional Tier 1 activities, and b) that it is possible to accelerate the learning of disadvantaged students after the third grade and thereby reduce the learning gap.  Simply stated: 60 minutes of reading skill development + 35 minutes of HOTS produces better test results and real literacy than 95 minutes of reading skill development.  Schools teaching reading for 3 hours a day are way off base.  When the best teaching and most creative curriculum are provided to disadvantaged students, even for only a part of the day, they flourish.  Such schools need to reduce the time spent teaching reading, improve the quality, and use the time saved to develop a sense of understanding in students.

 

 

USING HOTS AS A REFORM TOOL TO IMPROVE SCHOOLS

 

HOTS has shown that it is possible to dramatically accelerate the literacy and learning of disadvantaged students after the third grade in ways that transfer to multiple forms of real gains.  These widespread gains not only increase test scores to a far greater extent than sole reliance on traditional approaches, but they also enhance students' social/emotional development.  The academic gains appear to result from the general ability to deal with ideas in more sophisticated, flexible and efficient ways, and the social/emotional gains come from the experience of verbalizing in more sophisticated and confident ways.

 

These unique effects and knowledge are as significant in the NCLB era as it was when HOTS started during the last accountability movement.  In terms of the mandates of NCLB, HOTS produces unique ongoing progress in subgroups after the third grade.  More importantly, it demonstrates that in all times of accountability pressures, the best way to respond, both for short-term test score gains and long-term overall development, is to make sure that disadvantaged students have access to creative and powerful learning experiences that can develop their sense of understanding, followed by state-of-the-art content courses.

 

Regardless of what one thinks about NCLB, responding with over-drilling is wrong and ignores the reality validated by HOTS that: After the third grade, providing an intensive, creative, and sophisticated general thinking development effort not tied to the test, even for a small part of the day, in combination with basic amounts of skill development, produces better short-term test results than adding more skill development and test prep time.

 

At the same time, since HOTS is a 'learning enabler', it is only a piece of the overall solution-a beginning piece.  Ideally, schools and districts would take advantage of HOTSsed students' new intellectual capabilities by offering better followup creative and problem solving oriented content learning opportunities.  In addition, it would ideally be used systematically in a feeder pattern to improve receiving schools.  When only one elementary school in a feeder pattern adopts the program this does not create a critical mass of disadvantaged students in the middle school who are ready for advanced work.  As a result, while the HOTSsed students have benefited, the middle school is unable to upgrade the sophistication of its content instruction.

 

Alternatively, if students are HOTSsed at all the feeder elementary schools, this provides a critical mass of incoming students that would raise the intellectual potential of the receiving middle school.   The good curricular initiatives already in place, or initiated, at that school would start to become more effective.  Alternatively, middle schools in a region would provide HOTS to all entering sixth grade students who fit the profile (underachieving disadvantaged students). This would then produce the potential to increase the sophistication of the curriculum and student learning at the upper middle grades.  Then if all the middle schools in a feeder pattern engage in this process, this would provide the critical mass of students to upgrade the performance of the receiving high school. 

 

In either example, once disadvantaged students have been HOTSsed they should ideally be placed into at least one high quality content course with high performing students.  This then completes the 2-3 year cycle needed to transition students from individuals who do not understand 'understanding', into successful content learners.  Thereafter a substantial portion of these students will be successful in advanced placement courses.

 

As a result, while we will continue to work with individual schools, we are hoping that there are districts out there that are willing to work more systematically with HOTS for at least one entire feeder pattern.  The goal is also to shift HOTS research from demonstrating the effectiveness of the program, to studying the combined two-stage effects of disadvantaged students who have been HOTSsed at one level of schooling, and who are then subsequently placed into a creative content learning experience/program. 

 

We have only scratched the surface of what disadvantaged students are capable of and what we are capable of getting them to achieve. We can eliminate the stares.  We can use the power of education to transform these students from passive to eager learners, from starers to thinkers whose eyes shine brightly at the thought of a new learning challenge. All we need to do is mobilize our resources to provide them for only a small part of the school day with the most powerful education technology of all-a good teacher engaging them in sophisticated and interesting conversation. They will then be able to take full advantage of good teaching and curriculum as well as any student.

 

1 The corresponding figures for whites were: 18% below basic, and 39% proficient.

 

2 B. Bower (1996) Talkative Kids Make Parents Smarter.  Science News. Report on a presentation at AERA by researchers Betty Hart of the University of Kansas and Todd Risley of the University of Kansas. Vol 150, 100.  See also: Betty Hart and Todd Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Paul H. Brooks, Baltimore MD, 1995.

 

3  Mary Ann Darmer (1995)  Developing Transfer and Metacognition in Educationally disadvantaged Students:  Effects of the Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) Program. Unpublished dissertation, University of Arizona.

 

4 It was difficult to tell how much of this differential retention was due to higher dropout rates among the control students as opposed to the possibility that more of them moved out of the district.  At the same time, the data is strongly suggestive of a higher dropout rate among the control students.

 

5 In all 4 cases there were unusual circumstances that caused the retention, e.g., getting pregnant, or in one case the students father lived in another state and the student was often absent to visit the father, or in another case the mother was in jail and the brother had died.

 

6 Students can start in HOTS in the middle of the third grade.  In addition, Linda Schoolcraft of Cleveland County North Carolina has been experimenting with a variation of the program starting in the second grade.

 

7 When HOTS is done after school, the students can meet fewer times a week for HOTS, e.g., three times a week, but must meet for the same number of total minutes, i.e., 165-180 minutes per week.

 

8 Alternatively, high poverty schools who decide to use HOTS as a specialty program may choose to place only their stable students in HOTS, and provide an alternate supplement to the mobile students.

 

9 An example of those who argue that Learning Disability is not really a category of learning problem is: Spear-Swerling, L. & Sternberg, R. (1998) "Curing our 'Epidemic' of Learning Disabilities."  Phi Delta Kappan, 79(5), 397-401.



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