Monday, January 9, 2017

How To Think, Not What To Think

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.

By focusing on big ideas and skills, teachers empower students to use what they learn beyond school.
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.

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.”

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.
Clearly, these are not skills that have a place only in the classroom:
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.

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?
She ends her essay, as I will this post, reflecting on the relevance and crucial role critical thinking must play today:
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.


  1. I agree with you that it's not something that's necessarily taught to students. They can be led through it, but there's something they have to bring to the table to make it actually flourish. Some students in her teacher's history class might still not be able to manage that question beyond listing names and dates. It's vital we keep trying though!

    1. I agree. Fighting the good fight is something we must never give up on, Marie.

  2. .. interesting essay .. Thank you ! My sister, an educator.. when discussing primary school 1-8 curriculum often pointed out that educators were teaching children who likely would have jobs or careers that had not been invented yet.. did not currently exist! Of course she also pointed out that parents had begun to expect teachers to teach children manners, morality, responsibility.. and how to dress or what to eat.. ie the role of teachers was ever expanding. We had lively conversations about Edward de Bono and his ideas on ladteral thinking and problem solving.. especially among children.

    This all becomes more and more contemporary, the boom generation is aging rapidly, culture and community, business & industry evolving drastically. But up near the top of the food chain we see the wealthy & powerful shouting down.. 'any job is a good job' & pimping for their pet religion, and getting ready for their own special ticket to 'rapture' ride..

    If I told you or showed you some of the job descriptions & requirements, skills, hours & responsibilities in many want ads or job competitions, you would burst out laughing. Especially after reviewing the ludicrous low wages being offered. So teaching critical thinking I agree is crucial, but I think teaching students to be 'enterprising' or entrepreneurial is also increasingly valuable.

    Flash back to the interesting exchanges from yourself, Mound etc regarding 'The Upside of Down' .. Homer-Dixon.. because that's where every critical thinking asset will be required.. as well as resiliance & gumption.

    Our current batch of political animals want us to be simplistic gullible cattle who vote on demand or buy into complete fallacies, slippery economics & are OK to just watch tv or play video games. We need leaders, exemplars, navigators.. who can expand their 'thinking' on a daily basis.. and apply it in formidible ways

    1. Thanks for your well-informed commentary, Salamander. The ultimate goal of teaching people to think is a double-edged sword, isn't it? On the one hand business wants people who can think and problem-solve, no matter what their degree is in, but on the other hand, as you say, far too many of the powers-that-be want those abilities to be confined to the job, and not applied to the larger world in which their own roles are often deeply suspect.

      The thinking individual is the one who always threatens the status quo.

  3. Is our neglect of critical thinking as inadvertent as we might like to imagine? At the risk of sounding paranoid I have questioned in recent years whether we North Americans, particularly our southern cousins, have been conditioned to think in specific ways that leave them susceptible and malleable. We have been ushered into a "post-truth" era in which facts can be of no great import. We have been groomed to tolerate manipulation and deceit. Those, like Trump, who practise these techniques know there'll be no great consequences from it.

    Off topic, I've been trying to wrestle with where society is today and where it may be heading. The future seems murky. I was delighted to stumble across an essay by Andrew Bacevich how so much went wrong in the era between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ascendancy of Trump. While he's writing of the US, a lot of his observations seem mirrored in the Canadian experience.

    1. I have no doubt, Mound, that the neoliberal agenda has played a big role in the dumbing down of public discourse and critical thinking. Those in control have reduced people to a steady state of need and want through a paucity of good permanent jobs and relatively cheap baubles to keep people amused, diverted and distracted. The elevation of Trump to the White House will only accelerate that process.

      I am currently reading a book by Robert Putnam called Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Although I just started reading it, I believe his thesis is that the growing inequality in income is only one part of the explanation for so many people's sorry state today. He says things changed in the 1970's when wages began to stagnate and good jobs disappeared, which led to a growing distance between the haves and the have-nots. In earlier times, people, even if they were not moneyed, had much more opportunity to advance in life through education, community support, common schools attended, etc. In other words, society wasn't nearly as stratified as it is today, and cross-class mingling was common, and the rich did no flaunt their wealth.