“Critical thinking” is all the rage in education these days. Educators, parents, and politicians are all gushing about how important critical thinking is to children’s future success. Every new curriculum (especially Common Core) makes bold claims (usually unjustified) about how much it promotes “critical thinking.” Every school mission statement I’ve read says at least something about critical thinking.
I agree, critical thinking is very important to becoming one’s own person and expressing oneself in a coherent manner. It’s also critical (see what I did there?) to success in a variety of professional and prestigious fields.
Too bad the public schools don’t actually teach critical thinking.
Critical thinking begins with observation. To reach a good conclusion, you must have the facts. A critical thinker can discern the relevant from the irrelevant, and the credible from the incredible. A critical thinker can extrapolate generalizations from a set of data. A critical thinker examines evidence to find cause and effect. The whole point of critical thinking is to reach logical conclusions based on evidence.
Public schools don’t teach this. (Not to knock individual teachers; I know lots of great public school teachers who are doing their best to teach children to think for themselves.)
Don’t believe me? Here are a few examples:
1. At a children’s science museum, I saw an exhibit about the controversy surrounding whether or not to grow human organs in pigs for transplanting into humans. Pretty weighty stuff. This was also being presented to kids who barely understand things like the systems of the human body and DNA. The exhibit had about two paragraphs worth of information. The interactive part was for kids to pretend to be the state governor, and record a speech about their position on this controversial topic.
Basically, quick, kid, come up with an opinion on this controversial topic that 5 minutes ago you didn’t even know existed and tell everyone about it!
2. While teaching fourth grade, I stayed after school one day to help with the school newspaper. A student was writing an article about man-made global warming. As part of her evidence, she used an isolated instance of colder than usual temperatures in such-and-such place. As evidence for global warming. I tried to help her realize that an instance of weather being colder isn’t exactly evidence for the Earth getting warmer, but her teacher had told her that the Earth is getting warmer, so that was that.
This kid couldn’t even tell me the difference between climate and weather.
3. Then there’s this assignment. Sixth grade students were told to select two amendments from the Bill of Rights that are outdated, and write two new ones. Students were to write an essay explaining their choices. There was no background on the origins of the Bill of Rights or why they are important. Just axe two and replace them with something more “relevant.”
That word “relevant” is telling. The teacher has decided that the Bill of Rights is irrelevant, and is making the students agree with him or her by not giving them an option to keep all 10 amendments.
Conclusion: These students are not learning critical thinking. They have a minimal understanding of the topic, and are told to form an opinion in the absence of information. What they end up doing is adopting the opinions and biases of their teachers without actually thinking about any of it. All they are learning is to be critical of anything that contradicts what their teacher said.
Critical thinking does not begin with the controversial topics. It starts with the basics: the foundation. It’s the result of logical thinking.
1. My math curriculum with my Kindergarten students began with addition. I would give them a problem like “2+0,” and let them tell me the answer. Then I flipped it around, and asked them “0+2.” Naturally, they gave me the same answer. “What?” I asked them, acting all incredulous. “How is it the same answer? It’s a different problem!” I let them explain to me that, since the numbers being added are the same, the answer is the same. In short, they figured out the commutative property. 5 year old kids did that.
2. More recently, in science we’ve been talking about animals. We examined pictures of the parts of an insect. We counted the legs of several different kinds and concluded that, just like our science chart said, all insects have 6 legs. “What about spiders?” one kid asked.
“Well, how many legs does a spider have?” I asked back.
“Well, if an insect has 6 legs, and a spider has 8 legs, then…” I trailed off.
“A spider isn’t an insect.” I didn’t tell them that. They figured it out for themselves.
3. As a second grade teacher, I saw my students make even greater leaps of logic. Grammar was my especial favorite.
My students were working on prepositional phrases. They already knew adjectives and adverbs, and were working on identifying whether a given prepositional phrase was an adjective or adverb phrase. To figure it out, students labeled parts of speech and diagrammed the sentence. For example: The girl in the blue dress is smiling. “In the blue dress” is an adjective phrase, because it is modifying “girl” by answering the question “which?” (Why, yes, my second graders could articulate all this for me!)
My students had an epiphany when I gave them a sentence like this: The farmer milked the cow in the barn.
Some students interpreted “in the barn” as an adjective phrase, telling “which cow.” Some students interpreted “in the barn” as an adverb phrase, telling where the farmer milked the cow. They insisted I tell them who was right.
Then, they had an epiphany. A prepositional phrase can be an adjective phrase or an adverb phrase, depending on where it was in the sentence. I can not express how proud I was of my students at that moment.
If you want to teach critical thinking, don’t give kids the answers. Give them the facts. Let them figure out the answers. Then, when they get to the controversial topics, they’ll have something intelligent to contribute.