Friday, August 15, 2008

Supporting Critical Thinking In Our Schools

A free society should want its schools to prepare its young people to think critically, make meaning, demand freedom, and bravely face the facts of existence. If a society does not want this, it means that its citizenry is ambivalent about freedom and its leaders are corrupt. If its citizenry were not ambivalent about freedom or outright antagonistic to it, it would make clear demands on its leaders. If its leaders were not corrupt, they would lead. What we see is exactly this combination of ambivalence and corruption that has produced an educational system where critical thinking is not valued, meaning is misconstrued, freedom is minimized, and the facts of existence are rarely allowed in the classroom. We see a system in crisis—one put there intentionally

It may seem paradoxical and absurd that a society should intentionally choose to educate its children poorly. Yet there is a strong pull in our culture to do just that. The reason is a straightforward one. Most people do not want their children to think. They want their children to get good grades, obey, fit in, find a job, play sports, salute the flag, kneel in prayer—but not think. Thinking is culturally portrayed as effete and funny but it is actually held as dangerous. Those who want to preserve their privileges, whether it’s their drinking habits, their bank accounts, or their fairy tales, do not want youth to ask difficult questions, dispute their authority, or threaten them with exposure. Their sense of self-interest makes them secretly wish that all schools would crumble and vanish.

This is why so little critical thinking is taught in schools. Educators agree, at least at the level of lip service, that teaching critical thinking skills is education’s number one priority. Yet classroom observers report that in 95% of the classrooms they visit no critical thinking skills are being taught. This is understandable, as an unspoken agreement has been reached by all involved—parent, politician, school board member, school superintendent, principal, teacher and, with that army aligned against them, students—that thinking is dangerous and should not be countenanced.

Therefore “learning” and not “thinking” is supported. Learning is safe. Nobody’s feathers are ruffled if you provide your students with another plane geometry theorem or twenty new French vocabulary words. The system is set up to support exactly this sort of transaction. There is a school subject called plane geometry, there is plane geometry subject matter, there is a teacher who teaches plane geometry, there is a student who learns plane geometry and is tested in plane geometry, there are uses for plane geometry, as a pillar in a liberal education and a steeping stone to solid geometry, and it all makes perfect, seamless sense. Doesn’t it?

No, it doesn’t. The tyranny of subject matter, with one subject following another from the cradle through and including graduate school, leaves little or no time for thinking. The “big” solution to this grave problem is to reduce to a minimum the teaching of traditional subjects and to completely revamp how we think of educating our children, focusing on a “thinking” model rather than a “learning” model. As this big solution is certainly out of reach, a smaller, perhaps obtainable solution is the following one: that a portion of each school day, perhaps an hour or two each day, from elementary school through graduate school, be turned over and devoted to thinking. Somebody with a new name might lead this portion of the day: not a “teacher” but a “critical thinking coach” or a “critical thinking facilitator.” This person could of course be a traditional teacher, but for this hour or two she would coach and coax, rather than teach and test.

What would occur during this two-hour block? Students would actually learn critical thinking skills. The device employed to help them learn these critical thinking skills would be “the big problem.” Students would be presented with a “big problem” and asked to think about it. They would be assured right off the bat that not only were there probably no easy answers to the problem, the problem might not actually be solvable. When a student did try to solve the problem with a slogan-sized, too-easy answer, it would be the thinking coach’s job to say, “But what if?”, helping the student, and the whole class, realize what a poor job slogan-sized answers did in addressing human-sized problems.

Here are some of the sorts of problems that might be brought forward:

• How do you decide if you should or shouldn’t support a war that your country is engaged in?

• How do you know when you’re addicted to something?

• In what circumstances would you turn a friend into the police?

• How do you know if someone is crazy and should be put in an institution?

• What should you do if your parents criticize you?

• Which should a just society more strive to uphold, the freedom to accumulate wealth or the fair distribution of wealth?

• How do you decide if space exploration is or isn’t an important societal goal?

• What is “personality”?

• If species “naturally” go extinct, what is the rationale for preserving bio-diversity?

• Under what circumstances is it ethical to lie?

It should be clear that these are questions that not even “the experts” can answer and also that these are infinitely more provocative and mind-expanding questions than questions like “What was the date of the Battle of Gettysburg?” or “Into what genre does Wuthering Heights fall?” It should also be clear that the “thinking coach” would have to remain on her toes as she facilitates the class discussion. She would need to anticipate the kinds of slogan-sized answers that students would be likely to give and be ready to help them see the paucity of slogan-sized answers.

For instance, if in the “In what circumstances would you turn a friend into the police?” discussion, a student was to say “As a matter of principle, I never turn a friend in!”, the “critical thinking coach” might reply ever so mildly, “What if your friend were engaged in a plot to kill your children?” If during the “How do you know if someone is crazy and should be put in an institution?” a student offered up, “They’re crazy if they look crazy!”, the “critical thinking coach” might respond, “So if an actor on stage were looking crazy, you would lock him up?”

These new “critical thinking coaches” would help students:

• Think for themselves
• Name problems worth solving
• Embrace complexity
• Expect to feel nervous
• Lead with skepticism
• Demand context
• Learn about the subjectivity of evaluation
• Form and test hypotheses
• Change their mind based on new evidence
• Grow comfortable with not knowing
• Think existentially
• Think big

Such sessions would dramatically smarten up students and would also partially inoculate them against supernatural enthusiasms. It is clear from countless studies that the more secular education a person receives, the less likely he or she is to believe in gods. These studies are doubtless full of confounds and artifacts but it is probably safe to say that secular education really helps in reducing religion’s grip. How much more would these “critical thinking” sessions help? Not only would we produce better thinkers and freer and more compassionate citizens, we would surely produce individuals far less likely to fall for the slogan-sized blandishments of religion.

Especially if we believe that reason is the primary sword that we employ to combat belief in gods, it would be wise if we added “more reason” to our current secular education system by lobbying for the introduction of these “critical thinking sessions” at every educational level, from elementary school to and through graduate school. Since every educator pays at least lip service to the idea that critical thinking is an admirable educational goal, it should be possible to nudge at least some schools and some school districts in the direction of revising the school day to include, in addition to subject matter classes, “critical thinking modules.” And you might think about becoming a “critical thinking coach” yourself and volunteering your services at a local school. What could be a more enjoyable pastime for you and of more value to society?


Dale McGowan said...

Nicely done. An additional problem for critical thinking in education is the lip-service paid to it. All three of my children (including the first grader) have come home with curricular descriptions of "critical thinking components" that add up to very little.

The (Catholic) college where I taught for 15 years never tired of trumpeting critical thinking as a watchword. Whenever the rubber hit the road, it was always clear that they'd never given the meaning of the phrase much actual thought.

Jim Aikin said...

Nail on the head, Eric! Should be read aloud at the start of every school board meeting!


Melissa LaFavers said...

Part of the problem, I think, is that the government is invested in its citizens not thinking critically. If we were taught to think critically, politicians could not get away with the kinds of shenanigans they do.

The government being in control of education, I think we have great hurdles in our way on this venture, but it's definitely a venture I'd like to see undertaken.

Anonymous said...

Critical thinking is critical for our society. We need to observe teachers and how they respond to questions. If they tell the student to wait, wrong! If they do not know the answer, but bluff, wrong!

In addition, we must know how students think. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

druidbros said...

I taught all of my children to think critically. They all got into trouble at school when they questioned the lazy thinking which prevails in education today. Even the high school principal was simply interested in conformity. I told her if her teachers were not smart enough to convince my children of their viewpoint then maybe they were wrong (or meybe they needed to find another line of employment). This didnt go over well. Too bad.
But this country is in trouble for just this reason. We have not taught the ones who will be replacing us how to think. Instead we have taught them to believe in the big daddy in the sky and how he/she/it will save us all.

elisabeth grace said...


In just one email, you have erased the shame I have felt for doing so poorly in school when young. It was not about being "lazy, stupid, rebellious and averse to authority" (ok, maybe the last two!) -- it was about not embracing or believing in the subject matter that was being taught. I did not care to memorize the date and details of such-and-such (still don't). In fact, I was more interested in the details that were purposefully omitted from our history books.

Encouraging kids to think critically would raise self-esteem and feelings of capability, erase the perceived need for competition, and finally put to death the sense of entitlement I see in our younger generation. What better way to empower our youth than to teach them how to think -- and to not give in to what we are told to think? It is a very insidious means of control OVER by the powers-that-be. Fear and greed are definitely the things running our country and world -- a perfect recipe for self-destruction by ignorance.

Andrew Kirby said...

No disagreements here BUT this is only exacerbated by, not necessarily caused by, the prevalence of religious thought. As Kuhn argued over forty years ago, all parts of the academy--especially science--have a professional interest in deciding what tiny puzzles everyone should work on. The result is that the ability to ask big and pathbreaking questions is severely limited for all, from kindergarten on.

Dr. Laura G. Sweeney, Ed.D. said...

I agree it is essential schools encourage students to ask questions, think critically and creatively while also utilizing imagination. As an educator, I believe social studies and creative arts need to rise to the forefront in our schools and that students need to learn to think for themselves in a democratic society.
Laura Sweeney, EdD

jonezart said...

melissa lafavers wrote: "If we were taught to think critically, politicians could not get away with the kinds of shenanigans they do."

Along with corporate and church interests. The rise in recent years of evangelicals, Dominionists, the Rapture Ready crowd and everyone other group vying for power and dollars is frightening.

With regard to the religious groups, they get away with precisely because not only does no one dare question the word of God, but with cradle to grave "training" by these groups, no one even thinks to ask those questions.

Its truly frightening to me that religious wingnuts are growing their own law schools, for instance.

Prashant said...

Eric Maisel for President...or at least School Superintendent. This really deserves a well-thought out response but since I'm packing to travel today, a quick one will have to do...

Having been a high school teacher for five years early in my life, I can only say I wish I had been encouraged to do this. As it was, I tried to sneak it in between all the topics in the required curriculum but it took so much time to teach the required dreck, there wasn't much room for anything else.
I eventually stopped teaching in the public school system because it wasn't my idea of what education was about for exactly the reasons you mention, Eric.

Here we are in a democracy where our whole system is dependent on our being able to do critical thinking well and we never teach it and don't applaud it even if some student is somehow inspired to draw outside the lines.

It amazes me how our society, at one and the same time, idolizes our free-thinkers and rebels, such as a James Dean image, yet in reality does everything it can, to nip such thinking in the bud. We have narcotized our citizenry with the goal of riches rather than brilliance. It is such a recognizable story-line that many of our books, movies and TV shows have as their main character someone who has the courage to buck the system and to succeed at it.

The "system" would have us all be nice, quiet and manageable and our educational structure absolutely supports that goal. As a first-year teacher, I was shocked to discover how many teachers and parents, as well as school administrators, have that as their first priority. That was when many of us went out on strike to call attention of the community to the problems inherent in our schools. It was also when I learned from my own experience that most of the parents just wanted their kids back in school so they didn't have to deal with them 24/7.

There is one thing I disagree with you, Eric. I don't see a secular education being at odds with a spiritual awareness. My spiritual growth is at the center of my life but I don't find it antithetical to critical thinking. Perhaps because my spiritual experiences are something beyond and other than the mind and so "thinking" doesn't come into the picture. There are other ways of knowing that I experience and utilize in my life when it is appropriate to do so. They are like two tools in a toolbox to me. You learn to use the appropriate tool for the job needing to be done. Of course, I am not "following" a traditional organized religion that comes with a whole intellectual dogma or framework either so for me, critical thinking and spiritual experience are not mutually exclusive.

Thanks for listening,

Prashant Ziskind

Marian Richardson said...

Only caution is, any coach will have their own take on what is the "right" answer, regardless of their attempts to be neutral. Kids may feel pressured to have the socially acceptable answers, or (ugh) politically correct ones. The peer group may come up with the answer, leaving kids who think differently feeling even more isolated. Not that it's not a great IDEA, but it may be hard to execute in a pure form. Easier to give tests in Math and critique grammar than to try and influence young minds. Is that the place of the schools?

My husband and I personally discuss with our own kids things like the other person's point of view, what they might not see under the surface of some behavior, how they are influencing and responsible for the tone of interactions with others. I would rather be on the front lines informing my own kids of how to mature into decent and thinking humans, than hand them over to any well-meaning stranger. Thinking is based in values, and I want to pass on my own life lessons, not have them taken down some path that may actually make them less conscious.

Since your basic premise is "we shouldn't trust schools" then why would I want schools to have even more influence over my own children? I want to be their model and guide. If a coach or teacher wants to mold someone, let them have their own offspring.

Anonymous said...

I teach in a high school. I've taught in high schools for 5 years and in middle schools for 5 years. Principals and asst. principals are invested the most in conformity. Teachers follow a close second. The mentaliy in education is not only one of conformity but I would even go so far as to say it is a mentality of "know nothingness".

At the high school where I teach there is no teacher with whom I can converse about peak oil, atheism, how the current presidential election is being shamelessly engineered by the media and most definitely NOT about critical thinking. I think most teachers don't even know what it is. It is a buzzword that is thrown around all the time, but no one knows what it is. Know one knows what Socratic questioning is either. No one asks about the validity of arguments nor if the premises really lead to the conclusions presented to us.

No one asks because teachers are not trained to ask nor to think. Today, teachers are trained to rescue and to save students with condescending pity that masks itself as compassion. To reach this goal any type of manipulation is acceptable so long as at the end of the day a teacher or administrator can go home feeling good because he or she "saved" someone from leaving the system. Teachers and education are about conformity--nothing else.

I have a shocking statement for you readers. You think that if students were offered the chance to question they would. They don't. For years I have been trying to get students to ask questions of all kinds. I encourage them, I try to engage them, anything to get them to ask any questions at all. There are few questions if any from them. They don't ask big questions. Sometimes they ask a small question, but even that's hard to come by. Most of them are zoning out with their headphones and texting their friends in the next classroom. In many ways, they are even more conformist and less curious than their conformist teachers.

I've gotten to the point where I've basically given up. At the high school where I teacher, no one is interested in questions. Everyone is only interested in whatever superficial distraction will keep them from paying attention to physical reality. Everyone is running away. Excuses are the order of the day. Avoidance of responsibility is next on the scale of priorities. When avoiding real life is your primary task each day, asking questions is most certainly not the thing to do.

I think the only remedy is for the educational system to completely fall about.