Me Think Critically

You can’t be in the business of education very long before it hits you: many teachers, good teachers, even bright teachers, are often remarkably silly about what it means to teach.  When I say silly I mean that they hold beliefs that are, on the surface and deeper than that, either nonsense or wholly unexamined.  And silly, too, because they are so very often good teachers despite their holding these notions.

Recently I found myself in a discussion with some very kind and earnest teachers when, in my experience, the oldest of these chestnuts came up – the old idea of the importance of ‘critical thinking.’  It came up because we were asked what we thought was the purpose of schooling.  Some said to teach character, an idea that I quite like (believing that we lack much of it), but wonder about the idea of middle-aged white people imposing their character on the young.  Some said it was to produce democratic citizens, which again I like, but agree with the educational conservatives when they wonder how a school can ever achieve such a complicated aim.  But nearly everyone agreed that critical thinking should be the central – if not the only! – aim of schools.  (Not one person in a group of 25 said that to impart knowledge was important.)

I immediately thought of E.D. Hirsch, an educational writer and thinker much-maligned in progressive circles, who argued two points on the topic: one, teaching ‘critical thinking’ in isolation is impossibly hollow (imagine trying to teach someone how to think, critically or otherwise, if not about something); and two, that while we all want students to be savvy readers and thinkers, we also want them to know things, to be wise and knowledgeable about the world around them.

And perhaps what bothered me most was the sense of universal agreement around the room – a gaggle of smiling, self-congratulatory faces pleased with their consensus, and exuding an if-only-the-world-thought-as-we-do confidence.  But returning to my first point, most teachers are not ‘critical thinkers’ themselves.  They adopt ideas without evaluating their merit, and in such a wild fervor that they soon find themselves in possession of a thousand ‘certainties’ about teaching and learning, most of them at odds with one another.

Some of these ideas are indeed just silly.  Most non-teachers will have stumbled on the following musing, attributed to (and I hope for his sake, falsely) William Glasser:

“We Learn . . .

10% of what we read

20% of what we hear

30% of what we see

50% of what we see and hear

70% of what we discuss

80% of what we experience

95% of what we teach others.”

This is cute, albeit mythical, and it appeals to our general idea that students should take on rich educational experiences.  All good so far as it goes.  But I have seen this presented as fact – on more occasions than I care to mention.  (Once, in that dead time waiting for a professional development session to begin, a teacher proudly showed me a version of this taped to the front of a binder; she was troubled when the instructor began with the same quotation, but with slightly different numbers – she made a note to update her chart for future reference, and no doubt felt the session was valuable because she was able to update her research on human cognition.)

And any teacher who ‘thinks critically’ about this fact, who might ask skeptical questions about something so obviously silly, gets shouted down, or at least subject to a good eye roll.  And the list of unexamined, smiling half-truths could go on: multiple intelligences, different learning styles, and others, ideas not by necessity wrong, but lacking so much their automatic inclusion as sacrosanct is troubling.

If teachers (including me, though I fared better than most having come to the educational game later than some) had learned more about (proper, not educational) psychology, cognition, and philosophy, let alone logic, we could more skeptically and therefore more ably interrogate nonsense ideas that, if we didn’t thankfully ignore them, would corrupt our daily practice.  Knowledge, of these and other areas, would allow us to think more critically than a lot of hot air about putting the cart before the horse – and doing so with the additional irritation of politely sanctimonious airs.

One Reply to “Me Think Critically”

  1. Wow! You have put into such eloquent words thoughts I have thought, less eloquently, and also privately, so often. Though not a substantive part of your very important argument, I particularly enjoyed the PD conference ‘binder’ anecdote. Witnessing variants of such hopeless hand wringing, I tend to conclude that the teaching vocation is doomed to eternal ridicule. Perhaps by “raising awareness” (may I suggest a future post on the futility and meaninglessness of that phrase?) that there is another way to proceed with the business of teaching, you can lead hardworking teachers in more thoughtful directions.

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