Almost every agriculture teacher, at some time during their career, has been asked the question, "What do you teach?" Many of us reply with the title of the courses we teach or focus on the subject matter. Yet, what we know to be true but sometimes have trouble communicating to those outside agricultural education is that, through the content in each of our classes, we teach transferable skills that help students become better problem-solvers and better thinkers. One such transferable skill is the critical thinking skill of evaluation.
Evaluation is one of those terms that everyone knows what it means yet has trouble defining the concept. A group of critical thinking experts have described evaluation as the ability "to assess the credibility of statements or other representations which are accounts or descriptions of a person's perception, experience, situation, judgment, belief, or opinion; and to assess the logical strength of the actual or intended inferential relationships among statements, descriptions, questions or other forms of representation" (Facione, 1990). These same experts included assessing claims and assessing arguments as sub-skills of evaluation. But what exactly does all of this mean and, perhaps more importantly, how can we teach students the skill of evaluation?
When I started thinking about teaching evaluation as a critical thinking skill, the First thing that came to mind was ways we teach students to assess the value of information and the credibility of sources. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students today believe the internet has replaced the library. One teacher I know stated, "Students think that if it is on the internet, it is as good as if it were in the bible." So 1 started thinking about ways to teach students the skill of evaluation using the internet. I thought about teaching a lesson on genetically modified foods and how teachers might incorporate activities designed to teach students how evaluate internet sites by comparing and contrasting information.
Through such a lesson, it would be possible to teach students how to assess the credibility of various sites and claims related to the production and consumption of genetically modified foods. This type of lesson could be very effective at teaching evaluation. But, after more thought. I realized that some of the most popular activities within agricultural education and the FFA are also some of the best activities for helping students develop evaluation skills. Whether we realized it or not, agriculture teachers have long been teaching students evaluation skills when preparing students to compete in many of the evaluation-based Career Development Events (CDEs), such as the livestock evaluation CDE.
When trying to develop students' evaluation skills, it does not really matter if you are trying to teach critical thinking in an on-line world or how to place a class of market swine. What matters is the development of the thinking process required for students to make reasoned judgments and support them. No matter the content used and the context in which it is taught, I believe there are four steps involved in teaching the skill of evaluation.
Step 1: Provide Foundation Knowledge
Before students can evaluate something, they must first speak the language. As teachers, it is our job to help students acquire the necessary foundation knowledge. In the case of evaluating livestock, students must first learn such things as the parts of each species, general terms appropriate for describing animals, specific terms appropriate for describing market animals, specific terms appropriate for describing breeding animals, and the performance measures used in the evaluation of livestock. For example, students should learn that finish is the appropriate term for describing the fat cover of market animals while condition is the appropriate term for describing the fat cover of breeding animals. Learning the foundation knowledge is an important first step in developing evaluation skills. …