Changing the conversation on college readiness: it's about more than you may think

Zinc's approach to creating college readiness tools was inspired by the following observations from our work with students over the years.

  • We almost never see a strong critical thinker who does not read and comprehend on a high level.

  • We've never seen a student read and comprehend on a high level without a strong ability to think critically.

  • It’s impossible to be college ready, without the ability to read at a high level and think critically.

We consider the last finding the most telling and took this insight into our conversations with teachers and education leaders.  When we began talking with educators about our mission to increase college readiness through advanced reading and choice, many were on board right away, but to our surprise, many senior administrators asked, "why reading?".  We quickly understood that these committed and seasoned educators saw that their students could read, so didn’t immediately understand why we’d want to rock that boat.  However, they weren't looking at what their students could read and fully comprehend.  We know that basic literacy isn't a problem in the United States, but we can’t ignore that advanced literacy is.  According to the most recent findings from the National Center for Education Statistics’ National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 30 million adults read with “below basic” skills, which means even an upper elementary level text would be a challenge for about an eighth of US adults.    

Most of the students that we come across aren't in the reading-at-3rd-grade-level camp, but most aren't at a level that will suffice for text-heavy college courses.  Equally important is the widespread void in critical thinking skills that seems to accompany the low reading level.  At Zinc, our mission is to improve students’ skills in both areas. By using engaging, but challenging, text on a variety of topics we're cracking the code for how to use technology in classrooms to build critical thinking and reading skills.

Through reading articles in USA Today or People magazine a student may be a "reader", but she won't get the chance to stretch her reading skills to a college-ready level, and she won't have a need to build her critical thinking muscles by having to evaluate complex ideas. Instead of going to these entertaining, but unchallenging sources, we ask students to go outside of their comfort zones and tackle pieces from publications like The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, and The Atlantic, to name a few.  In this diverse and culturally stimulating environment, students are given choice - to pick articles based on topics, length and difficulty level - so that they're willing to put in the effort to understand what they’re reading when the arguments need to be processed through complex syntax and advanced vocabulary.  

Further, through carefully written post-reading quiz questions, we ensure that students are interacting with the text: arguing with it, dissecting it and picking up on nuances.  We and others dedicated to increasing critical thinking know that high level questions are the way to ignite critical thoughts.  The Critical Thinking Community writes in their Critical Thinking Handbook: Basic Theory and Instructional Structures:

"If we want thinking we must stimulate it with questions that lead students to further questions. We must overcome what previous schooling has done to the thinking of students. We must resuscitate minds that are largely dead when we receive them. We must give our students what might be called 'artificial cogitation' (the intellectual equivalent of artificial respiration). "

This explanation of how a mind gets stimulated is the reason we don't ask students to read an opinion piece and simply report back what was stated.  We ask them to go a step further and question why and how it was written.  Our writing prompts ask students to engage with the text on a more personal level, often giving them the chance to question their own beliefs in relation to those of the author.  In this way, Zinc readers start to connect to the world differently -- not simply as consumers of information, but as critics and questioners.  

Our passion for empowering students with these thinking and reading skills comes from our deep caring about their future prospects and commitment to preparing them for the world and job market they will encounter. We all know that the days are long gone of factory style "good jobs”, which don't require much higher level thinking, but do pay a middle-class wage and pension for old age.  Reading and critical thinking skills from Zinc won't keep low-skill jobs from moving overseas or becoming automated by machines, but they will prepare the next generation to excel in the higher level jobs that remain.