I have been retired from teaching for 10 years now, and I can say that since departing, I have not missed the classroom for a single day. I say this despite the fact that every few weeks I dream about being back on the job, usually with about two weeks before final exams, and there is something critical that I have failed to teach. In the dream I excoriate myself for having failed my students, and myself, in a crucial way.
I'm not sure why that dream and its regular permutations haunt me so long into retirement, since I know I did the job to the best of my ability throughout my career. But there is always that sense that there was something left undone, perhaps a fitting metaphor for what education really is, a life-long process we all have a moral responsibility to pursue, whether through courses, reading independently, or engaging deeply in issues of import.
Probably the greatest unfinished goal, a perpetual work in progress, is the journey toward critical thinking, about which I have written many times on this blog. Without that capacity, people are not only enslaved to their emotions, biases and prejudices, but also vulnerable to the crass manipulation of those around them, including the media and their political 'leaders'. Never has it been more important to strive to be an independent, critical parser of the world around us.
The other day I happened upon an interesting article by an educator and consultant, Catherine Little, discussing this invaluable skill within the context of the classroom:
Critical thinking might be defined as the process of analyzing and evaluating an issue in order to form a judgment. It is much more difficult to do than define and even harder to teach. However, it is an essential skill and necessary for citizens to effectively exercise their rights and responsibilities.
Teaching students to think critically often results in lively debate as they come to realize people think differently. Teachers must model how to disagree productively and empower students to defend their beliefs passionately but respectfully while working toward change.I might quibble at this point and suggest that teachers do not so much teach critical thinking as they do provide the knowledge and the environment within which critical thinking can arise. For example, when I used to teach The Grapes of Wrath, a fine classic about the consequences of the dustbowl in the thirties, I would often ask how John Steinbeck manipulates our sympathies toward the dispossessed Okies and against the landowners, and thereby have them realize that all novels, no matter how noble, are subversive in their intent. We would also do simulations whereby a large camp of dispossessed had suddenly set up in their community, and explore how the community would deal with it from the perspective of a real estate brokerage, local store owners, the ministry, PTA, school board, etc. Each role required thought and deliberation, preconditions to any attempt at critical thinking.
By focusing on big ideas and skills, teachers empower students to use what they learn beyond school.
Ms. Little's experience was not dissimilar:
As a student, I experienced a masterful example of teaching for critical thinking when I studied the two World Wars in a high school history class. My teacher planned her lessons to enable us to respond to this final exam question: “It has been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Discuss using examples from this course.”Clearly, these are not skills that have a place only in the classroom:
Her approach forced us to analyze and evaluate the events we had studied in order to form a judgment about the effects power might have on any leader — a skill that has come in handy on many occasions.
Recently, I wondered how the leader of a revolution to overthrow a dictator might come to be regarded as a dictator himself? I have also been contemplating how the effects of power might be influencing our own government’s attitude toward electoral reform and cash — for — access fundraisers.She ends her essay, as I will this post, reflecting on the relevance and crucial role critical thinking must play today:
When in third place, The Liberal Party campaigned on the need for electoral reform and promised that if elected, 2015 would be the last under the first-past-the-post voting system. After they were elected to a majority government under this system, they seemed to backtrack. Might a party’s preference for an electoral system be influenced by how much power it has?
When taking power, Prime Minister Trudeau promised his party would “ … uphold the highest standards of integrity and impartiality both in our public and private affairs.” Might being in power affect how a government defines integrity and impartiality?
Thankfully, my teachers believed in the importance of critical thinking and were able to find ways to use their subject matter to encourage it by asking big questions and teaching students the skills that enabled them to think about those questions critically. By doing this, they made sure I had the skills to question the words and actions of any leader — no matter how popular — and act accordingly.
It seems to me that in this “fake news” and “post-truth” age, the need to teach critical thinking is only growing in urgency.