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Teaching Critical Thinking

questionmark.jpgThe more I read about “critical thinking” the more I realize that it is quickly becoming a buzzword in education. It is what our schools are failing to teach. It is what our students need to succeed. yack, yack, yack, – all the normal crap that really means a true problem has been identified, and no one has any idea as to how to fix it. Instead, buzz word the problem, make a ot of noise about changes that will address the problem, and hope things will get better on their own. In other words, business as usual for our public schools.

Not for me. Critical thinking IS important. It refers to a students ability to solve problems – to apply known facts and methodologies to new situations and problems, and solve them. There area  couple of reasons that the public schools are completely incapable of truly teaching this skill, and there are some truly simple solutions.

The first issue that most schools fail to address is that problem solving skills alone are useless. The student needs a base level of knowledge and information in order to solve problems. For example, a student may be extremely good at figuring out complex logic puzzles, but completely hopeless at solving simple math problems. In this case, the student has already puke.gifdeveloped (or learned) a methodology for solving problems – this is proved by the ability to solve logic puzzles. What the student is lacking is a basic understanding of the underlying math principles needed to solve the math problems. If the student is past early elementary school, chances are that all of the math that the student has learned so far has been rote learning instead of the underlying principles. Math facts (addition and subtraction tables), multiplication tables, and “recipes” for solving division problems make the kids great at vomiting the info back onto a standardized test, but are useless as soon as the child is faced with a problem that exceeds the parameters of the memorized table.

The same situation applies to sciences, english, history, civics, or any other subject that we actually expect the students to be able to think about. Before we can expect them to think critically about a topic, we have to teach them the basic information hammers.jpgabout the topic. Of course, that would also mean making sure the kids understand that a lot of what they are taught in schools is grossly oversimplified (because they couldn’t possibly understand the real issues), wrong (because the teacher doesn’t really understand the material), or simply propaganda (because we wouldn’t want our kids to have politically incorrect opinions or thoughts). The solution? Simple, accept the fact that the public schools are not there to educate kids. They are there to turn out docile, easily led, unthing factory workers. They are Really Good at what they do too. So, what to do if you want your kid to actually be able to think? Start teaching them at home. Discuss what is in the news. Talk about how things work. The goal is to make sure your kid has a good broad set of facts to draw on when they have to solve a problem. This approach won’t make your kid a math whiz, or ensure that they ace chemistry. They will still have to learn the basic facts in those subjects (unless you teach them those as well). What it will do is give your kids a broad base of information, which will prepare them to think critically about what they are taught in school. make sure a kid understands that the Civil War was about economics, trade wars, and supply-and-demand – with the South producing raw materials, and the North turning them into manufactured goods. Then, when the school tries to teach them that the civil war was all about slavery and freeing the slaves, the kid will be able to put the fiction that is being taught into perspective. Of course, if the child dares to question the doctrine that is being taught, or presents something that the teacher doesn’t agree with, expect a poor grade (which can be overcome with appropriate parental intervention).

The second issue is much more difficult, and that is how to teach a child to apply the knowledge that they do have to solve problems. Many kids will learn this simply through trial and error – watch a child as is learns to build with blocks, and you will see trial and error teach the child about balance, stacking, and a host of other physics concepts (also known as statics and dynamics). When the kid takes those concepts, and applies them to building a snow fort, critical thinking is taking place. For these children, the challenge is to keep the schools from teaching them not to use think.jpgthe skills they already have. Critical thinkers ask questions – often hard questions that the teacher can’t answer. That is because the kid is using critical thinking to make associations that the teacher never thought of. If the teacher responds (as if often the case) by brushing off the question, ignoring, or sending the message that the student is out of line, eventually the student will realize that questioning is a Bad Thing (remember our factory worker?), and stop asking, and eventually stop thinking. The only real hope in these cases is to be as involved as possible in your child’s school activities, and when you end up with a teacher like that, get your kid moved into another class. (Other options include things like homeschooling, group schools, and other alternatives).

For the student that has not learned critical thinking “by accident”, teaching it can be a difficult and time consuming process. There will be no quick solutions, and the development is slow – there will rarely be sudden advances. If the teacher doesn’t know the student very well, it will be impossible to determine if progress is being made. Once again, the answer here is that the parents ahve to accpet responsibility for ensuring that their kids learn these skills. There is no single method that will work for all kids. You will have to find out how your kid thinks, encourage them to figure things out. Make sure that they know that making a mistake is OK – it is just as important to know what doesn’t work as it is to know what does.


3 Responses

  1. Coincidentally, I just happen to NEED this article for a classroom discussion on the merits of certain kinds of instruction, so I thank you for posting on this topic, and so thoroughly. Trial and error, ACTIVE thinking is what students must be taught to get an understanding of ANY subject. Somehow, we’ve got to get students, older ones with brains blasted by simplistic and superficial information, to see. How?

  2. ‘There is no single method that will work for all kids. ‘
    How do you know this ?
    ‘encourage them to figure things out. Make sure that they know that making a mistake is OK’
    Aren’t that suggestions that should work on all kids ?
    I’ve heard another of good suggestions like:
    – When your child asks a question about something ask him/her what he thinks is a possible answer.
    – When your child asks a questions and you don’t know or aren’t sure of the answer tell him/her you don’t know and ask him/her how you could find out what the answer is.

    Do you know any way of prompting adults to think critically ?
    I don’t know if being critical to other persons beliefs will somehow make them more critical (or some).

  3. A3N, I’m not sure what the point of your post is. Your suggestionsof how to respond to a childs question are good ones – if you read some of my other eduction and child-raising posts, you’ll find the same suggestions.

    I know that no single educational method will work for all kids becuase I’ve been teaching for close to 25 years, and have a good deal of experience with what doeas and does not work. Some things work for some kids, some things don’t. Nothing works for all of them. Yes, I do make some general suggestions, such as “encourage them ti figure things out….” These are things that tend to be more universally heplful teaching tools than others that work with a smaller subset of students. Any yes, even those generalities will not work for everyone.

    As far as getting adults to think critically, “critical thinking” means using analytical skills to solve problems in new way, not being critical of others beliefs. Of course, critical thinking also tends to make it easier for people to view both sides of an issue, and many people will feel that this is “attacking” their beliefs. Part of critical thinking is exploring new ideas, and part of that process is trying to understand both sides of an issue. this often requires taking a “evils advocate” role in discussions – instead of accepting peoples statements at face value, trying to understand the basis for their statements.

    A good excercise for adults that are trying to improve their critical thinking skills is to find someone and discuss an issue – start out with each person presetning a different point of view, and support it with the strongest arguments you can. When both people have exhausted their ability to present good arguments for their point of view, reverse the roles and do it again – without simply repeating the same arguments.

    This excercise is pretty easy when you discuss things that are not particulary important to either individual. When the parties are confident, start moving into area that the individuals have some personal interest in. When you reach the point where you can intelligently discuss both sides of issues that you feel very strongly about – both supporting and arguing against your strongly held beliefs, you’ve gotten pretty good at critical thinking. Once you’ve reached this point, start branching out into areas that you are not familiar with – you can’t truly use critical thinking if you do not have a good basis of information on a particular subject to draw your arguments from.

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