The argument: Self-driving cars shouldn’t be allowed on city streets.
The evidence: A commercial says most car accidents happen on busy streets.
Is this a strong argument? About half of Washington’s students in grades 6-12 thought it was. But it’s not, because the evidence isn’t from a credible source.
Those numbers come from NoRedInk, a San Francisco-based company, started by a former high-school English teacher interested in boosting students’ critical thinking and writing skills. Teachers in Puget Sound-area districts like Northshore, Kent and Edmonds use NoRedInk’s curriculum in their classrooms, and, according to the company, it’s used in about a third of middle and high schools in the nation.
On the NoRedInk online platform, students answer questions on topics like the components of a sentence, how to use citations or the difference between facts and opinions.
To find out the reading, writing and analysis skills students struggle with the most, NoRedInk analyzed answers from 213,000 kids from across the nation who used the company’s platform.
The survey isn’t a scientific one, since the students aren’t a representative sample of enrollment across Washington or the nation. Still, the results weren’t encouraging. Less than 50 percent of the 3,400 Washington students in the analysis could correctly make logical deductions, analyze evidence or distinguish between claims, evidence and reasoning.
Making logical deductions: NoRedInk found that 53 percent of the state students in its analysis could tell if an argument leapt to an unjustified conclusion based on the evidence provided. That’s 1 percentage point better than the national average and 3 percentage points below the average in the Northwest region — which includes Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana as well as Washington state.
Distinguishing among claims, evidence and reasoning: Students were asked to highlight the claim, evidence and reasoning in a paragraph. Only 44 percent of Washington students were able to do so. Those results are 5 percentage points below the national average and 6 percentage points below the regional average.
Analyzing evidence: As with the self-driving-car question, students were asked to label evidence as strong or weak. They then were asked to say whether a weak argument didn’t support the claim, wasn’t a fact, or didn’t come from a credible source. The 50 percent average was in line with the national average, but 3 percentage points below the regional average.
NoRedInk’s goal is to teach students ways to deconstruct arguments so they can advocate for themselves, said CEO and founder Jeff Scheur, who started the company after grading thousands of papers as a high-school English teacher.
“If students don’t have the ability to use language confidently to express their views, then they don’t have a voice in the conversations they want to be a part of,” he said.
Asked about NoRedInk’s analysis, area district officials said they are focusing more on critical thinking than they have in the past.
Northshore is developing districtwide standards on how students should analyze and understand real-world problems and issues, said Obadiah Dunham, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Social-studies students, for example, use primary-source documents and participate in government simulations — and students in English classes engage in Socratic seminars.
In Seattle, the language-arts curriculum pushes teachers and students to point to evidence whenever they make a claim, said Kathleen Vasquez, Seattle Public Schools’ literacy and social-studies program manager. In a kindergarten class, for example, if a student answers a question about a character in a story, the teacher might ask the student to point out where in the story he or she found the answer.
Critical thinking is difficult to teach systematically, she added, but important and necessary. And Vasquez agrees teachers should spend more time on those skills.
For students to be able to determine whether sources are credible, or when information is false, allows them “to argue things on their merits,” Scheur said. “And the underpinnings of a successful society are a mutual commitment to rational arguments.”