Program Summary

This program offers an approach to teaching critical thinking skills, creating supportive cultures, and targeting underlying academic skills in middle and high schools.

1. CRITICAL THINKING – The goal is to provide students a toolkit to approach any problem (outside of mathematics). Almost all of the terms presented here can be used to analyze issues in history, literature, science, and politics, and many are equally effective in the social realm of adolescents, which can be notoriously difficult to navigate. This model has four pillars:

a. Inferences – Skill: The ability to make good guesses based on available data and to avoid relying on weak assumptions. Terms include: Strong/Weak inferences, Causal/Predictive inferences, and the logical fallacies and biases that lead us to and rely upon weak inferences: Hasty generalization, Post hoc ergo propter hoc, False Dichotomy,  Slippery Slope, Confirmation Bias, Suggestion Bias, Availability Bias, Sunk Cost Fallacy, Fundamental Attribution Error, Perspective Gap, Correspondence Bias, Transparency Effect, the Spotlight Effect, and the Impostor Syndrome.

b. Evidence – Skill: The ability to analyze and evaluate sources of evidence and to generate strong evidence for arguments. Terms include Eight Types of Evidence: Personal Observation, Personal Experience, Case Examples, Research Studies, Analogies, Appeal to Authority, Testimonials, and Intuition. And the pitfalls and fallacies of each, which include fallacies like Appeal to Questionable Authority, and Appeal to Popularity, among others.

c. Values – Skill: The ability to generate and analyze arguments based on the underlying values involved, to recognize and dissect the underlying values that motivate people in various situations (historical, literary, real-world), to analyze value conflicts and value assumptions, to resolve value conflicts, and to use values as a rhetorical technique. Terms include: Value conflicts (which lends itself immediately to conflict negotiation), Values as motivating forces, Anti-values ,which we treat as regular values despite the fact that they are predictably disastrous (dominance, revenge, ideology, sadism, and exclusivity). Providing a list of values offers students a quick access to this key vocabulary. I have come to think of it as a periodic table for the humanities.

d. Rhetoric – Skill: The ability to manipulate emotion both to win arguments and to craft compelling speeches, essays, and creative work. Terms include: The list of rhetorical techniques is long. I like to cover the basics to distinguish rhetoric from reason, to point out logical fallacies rooted in emotional manipulation (ad hominem, straw man, etc.), and to simply give students these extraordinarily powerful tools to help make the world a better place (I specifically ask them not to use these powers for evil).

  • Key Resources: Asking the Right Questions by Browne and Keeley is an exceptional overview of critical thinking terms.  Other wonderful resources include  Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student by Edward Corbett, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, Difficult Conversations by Stone, Heen, and Patton, and the The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. Paul Bloom’s psychology lectures available through iTunesU are also an incredibly valuable (free) resource. See also this resource list.

2. COMMUNITY BUILDING – The goal is to create a high-achieving culture of support. The following material can easily be woven into any curriculum or used in an advisory and non-curricular programming (assemblies, “community life” periods, reflection periods, etc.).

a. Managing the Social World – Students are profoundly shaped by the way they treat one another, and offering a vocabulary of social terms helps them recognize motivations, solve social problems, accept certain irritations, and help one another socially, emotionally, and academically. I work hard to drive that the term “culture of support” into the students’ vocabulary. We try to avoid a “culture of humiliation.” I use a grid with humiliation and support on one axis, and high achievement/low achievement on the other.The anti-values are important here – we are motivated by different values in each quadrant of the grid. The conflict negotiation and values materials are equally important. Much of the vocabulary of Difficult Conversations offers a means of viewing emotionally fraught conflicts. These terms include: intention vs. impact, exploring the story, and mapping the contributions. For value conflicts, this diagram helps students see how we project the opposite of our values on the person we are in conflict with (this is useful for analyzing Antigone by Sophocles). Other useful terms: Amplifier/Muffler (either for positivity or negativity, see grid), and drama vs. bullying (from Emily Bazelon’s Sticks and Stones). Role-playing and scenario-discussions help students see the value of these terms and concepts. Most conflicts can be effectively dealt with, though there are some that are truly difficult. A group of students helped boil them down to three unsolvable problems: 1. Friend Drift, 2. Accidental Exclusion, and 3. Unrequited Love. Recognizing these can help students avoid at least some of their ego-crushing consequences and may keep them from spurring revenge cycles.

b. Status and Status Currency –  Students constantly discuss one another and which behaviors, products, and qualities are acceptable or taboo. Despite the fact (or because of the fact) that these conversations are at the heart of their lives, they rarely analyze status and status currency from a detached perspective. Understanding the structure of status and the ever-changing currency of what’s cool and what’s not allows students to put their interests into perspective and to analyze the motivations of others around them. The analysis and status and status currency is also a profoundly effective lens of analysis in history and literature.  To make status hierarchies concrete, a visual diagram of a “status ladder” allows students to understand social classes, social mobility, and other crucial concepts of social psychology. Every status ladder puts elites at the top and outcasts at the bottom. Every community uses a different gradient between the two, and every society uses a set of qualities, products, skills, and actions that serve as a currency for moving up or down the ladder, so called “status currency.” For example, in the US we generally talk about social class in terms of five factors: 1. Wealth, 2. Education, 3. Influence, 4. Pedigree, and 5. Creative freedom. An effective introduction to these concepts is to ask students to list the status currency of their 1st grade classes and how that currency changed through the years. I have never seen students stumped by this question; they are hyper-aware of what was cool and what wasn’t. Adolescent groups often value appearance, fashion, humor, athletic ability, willingness to take risks, kindness, exclusivity, and material things. Some status currency, like kindness, is incredibly valuable, while others, like physical aggressiveness is, obviously, incredibly destructive. A useful exercise if for students to list status currency for their grade-level and list an ideal set of status markers (kindness usually tops that list). This can be valuable if students are able to analyze peer pressure in terms of status and recognize that status is fluid, temporary, and a social construction. It can give many kids hope that there are brighter days ahead.

c. The Things that Define Us, Unite Us, and Divide Us – We all embody a complex mixture of psychological mechanisms that lead us to alternatively embrace one another in the beautiful spirit of common humanity and to  dehumanize one another with shocking coldness and brutality. The goal is to analyze these psychological motivations, to demonize destructive norms and anti-values, and to lionize constructive norms and values. Not to by overly hyperbolic, but this may be the greatest hope for the survival of humanity. This model focuses on five obstacles to achieving a full appreciation of our common dignity: 1. Tribalism, or Us-Vs.-Them Psychology, 2. Labels and Categories, 3. Status and Rank, 4. Value Lenses, and 5. Miscommunication and Conflict.

3. ACADEMIC SKILLS, PSYCHOLOGY, AND HABITS – The goal here is to create a culture of achievement by emphasizing the practical habits, assumptions, and practice of academic success. The material below follows the old “teach a man to fish” ethos. Teaching study habits and habit formation is time consuming, but the benefits can be long-term and life-altering.

a. Educational Psychology – This has been another major part of the program, with the ultimate goal of instilling an appreciation of the power of effort, the plasticity of ability, and the importance of good habits. I lean heavily on Carol Dweck’s growth mindset model and K. Anders Ericsson’s work on Deliberate Practice (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers). I use a little “Mount Education” graphic to describe how a student might be ahead of the curve or fall behind. It has a lot to with opportunities, timing, and positive/negative associations with a subject. I feel that understanding the latter is crucial – why hating your piano teacher shouldn’t mean you hate the piano (but it does). I like to start every year with a the quick Dweck article linked above and readings from Brain Rules by John Medina and Bounce by Matthew Syed. Ultimately, the hope is that students will see that they’re ability level is inextricably linked to their past experience, which has given them a set of likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, habits, expectations, and beliefs about themselves. I want them to see that everyone has advantages and obstacles, and the only real debilitating obstacle is the belief that you can’t get over an obstacle.

b. Intelligence – Once students are introduced to deliberate practice, we try to apply it to academics, and ultimately to intelligence, which is a tricky term. I start with IQ – what it is, how to raise it, – pulled largely from What is Intelligence? by James Flynn. A recent American Educator article provides a good summary. I like to emphasize that intelligence is large set of skills, none of which are fixed, and that there are both biological and cultural factors that play key roles. Basically, when we talk about analytic intelligence we are talking about three discrete measures: 1. Processing Speed, 2. Reasoning Ability, and 3. Content Knowledge. Flynn does a really good job of breaking these down further, but his book is heavy lifting, and I try to simplify things as much as I can while retaining the essential parts. Flynn has a great website exploring components of IQ and it’s deep methodological challenges. A really simple and entertaining book introducing the vocabulary of IQ is Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson. I also like to introduce Emotional Intelligence, but other than offering it as a meaningful term, I don’t do much with it – I just like them to have the term to help analyze some of the social scenarios we deal with.

c. Building Effective Habits – I spend a lot of time on this, and it tends to be really effective to help a handful of kids and to have shared vocabulary to advise students who are struggling. The bible of this for me is Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. I basically just teach a summary of it, which boils down to a few key ideas: 1. There is only one tank of mental energy and we burn it whenever we do anything difficult: work, restrain our emotions, avoid temptations, etc. 2. Change only one habit at a time – otherwise you are taxing your tank too severely. 3. To-Do lists and other organizers save mental energy by allowing our brains to outsource the task of remembering to do something. 4. Don’t try to do any heavy lifting while your tank is low – before dinner, before lunch, after a heavy conversation with your mom, etc. Schedule your work time carefully. It doesn’t always make sense to do your homework right after school. 5. Changing one habit often has a multiplier effect. (There is a great discussion of “anchor habits” in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which is a quick and entertaining read, though not as substantive as Willpower). I like to do 30-day challenges with the students. I usually give up tv or video games for the month, though I have also given up desserts and gluten, which has been more challenging. We check in every week to discuss our progress and obstacles. We also talk about the impact of giving something up vs. adding something (giving up sugar vs. adding a five-mile run to your day) – generally the former is easier, and it tends to free up a lot more time, which our over-programmed students are in dire need of. I like to break down a month like this: Week 1: Novelty helps ease the pain of habit change, Week 2: Novelty has worn off. Pain and boredom set in. Week 3: This is the crucible. No one is interested in your new habit anymore, but the pain is still there, more acute than ever. Week 4: The pain fades and a “new normal” takes its place. Some students try to change negative social habits or to mend troubled relationships, which provides rich discussion.

d. How to Study/How to Memorize – I have found  a high rate of return in teaching very specific strategies for memorization and studying. These strategies including Cornell notes and memorization techniques, especially those found in this excellent overviewMoonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer is another great source, and it has  also offers a great summary of Ericsson’s Deliberate Practice research. 

I plan to keep updating this overview and the site in general as new materials and ideas change my approach. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact me:

Mike Wilper

Note: The banner picture represents the eternal value conflict of liberty vs. equality, individuality vs. community, capitalism vs. communism, and bald eagles vs. grizzly bears.

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