Friday, August 15, 2008
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?