7/30/13

Education and Critical Thinking in Mississippi

I have certainly done my share of complaining about the state of public education in Mississippi, focusing mostly on what I see in the context of higher education. And while I am frequently appalled by what I see in this context, I would be remiss in neglecting the positive experiences that give me hope. There are students in Mississippi's public universities who have not only benefited greatly from our public schools but who have demonstrated a passion for learning and an ability to think critically. I suspect that many represent the future of skepticism (and atheism) in our state.

The biggest difference I have observed between Mississippi and a few other states in terms of what I see from college students involves how abilities are distributed. The typical grade distribution elsewhere resembles the normal, bell-shaped curve in that grades of C are most common, followed by B's and D's, with A's and F's on the tails of the distribution.

Normal grade distribution

This shouldn't come as any surprise because what it shows is that most students are average. Imagine that! It also reveals that there will be exceptionally good and exceptionally poor students in the mix too. Some of those at the top will end up with very impressive GPAs; some of those at the bottom will likely drop out.

This is NOT the sort of grade distribution I typically see in Mississippi. Instead, I see what we call a bimodal distribution. While the details vary a bit from course-to-course, the general pattern is that I see few C grades but lots of Bs and Fs (or As and Ds in easier courses).

Bimodal distribution
The top students I encounter in Mississippi would be competitive anywhere. They are every bit as talented and hard-working as students I've seen elsewhere. They are invested in their education, they write well, and they are excellent critical thinkers. They do not blindly accept what they are told but uncover and test the assumptions upon which the information is based. They can tackle complex subjects (e.g., separation of church and state, crime and race), cut through the controversy and media hype, and get to the root of what is going on.

The challenge, from the perspective of an educator, is how to keep students interested and challenged without losing those at the bottom part of the distribution. A quick look at the figures shows why the commonly cited "teach to the average student" strategy is less viable here in Mississippi. We simply don't have a large number of average students here. We have some who are outstanding and many who are struggling.

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