Are schools failing to teach critical thinking? | The Tylt
Are schools failing to teach critical thinking?
As HuffPost'sFrank Breslin puts it, "It is a rare high-school graduate who can pinpoint 20 different kinds of fallacies in a line of argumentation while reading or listening; who knows how to distinguish between fact and opinion...who can argue both sides of a question, anticipate objections, and rebut them...."
Most agree that finding a high-schooler who can question the information put in front of them should be the norm rather than the exception. But instead of teaching students how to think, standardized tests and educational standards force teachers to prioritize information above process. In other words, students are taught what to think, rather than how to think. Breslin writes:
While teachers do encourage critical thinking, there has never been a way of formally integrating this skill into existing curricula. Apart from a few teachers who do train their students in critical thinking, most teachers do not for one simple reason — there is no time. State education departments mandate that so much material has to be covered that critical thinking cannot be taught, nor can the courses themselves be critically presented. In order to cover the curriculum, courses must be taught quickly, superficially, and uncritically, the infallible way of boring students.
Learning flourishes within a debate. Students must argue in order to understand complicated topics and develop their own set of opinions, but the volume of material they are tasked with learning largely prevents such debate from taking place.
In the Esquire March 2019 cover story, "The Life of an American Boy at 17," Jennifer Percy profiles a 17-year-old living in the midwest. The story faced widespread criticism for contributing to the already-pervasive narrative of the binary white male. But buried within the many problems in the story was another red flag: the way Percy's government and law teacher explained differing opinions.
The student's teacher uses two songs to explain both liberal and conservative points of view. Rife with sweeping generalizations and exaggerations, the songs likely make the general positions of both sides easy to remember, but fail to explain why the sides feel the way they do.
It's safe to assume that these two tunes are not the only instruction these students receive on liberal and conservative ideologies, but the teacher continues with an exercise to put students' knowledge to the test. Percy writes:
[Mr. Inkmann] walks around the room making proclamations—about smoking weed, loving guns, thinking gay men are great, thinking needle exchanges are wrong—and the students say who would be more likely to agree with each one, a liberal or a conservative, supporting their decisions with lines from either song. When it is Ryan’s turn, Mr. Inkmann says something about a man marrying a woman and having lots of babies. “Conservative,” Ryan answers. He looks down and reads a few lyrics. “I hate gay marriage,” he reads, “and abortion’s wrong.”
In an upper-level government course, students are taught to think in binaries realized through memorization. How this teaches independent thinking remains to be seen.
Some blame the concept of "teaching to the test" for the absence of critical thinking skills in schools.
Although there is always room for improvement when it comes to teaching critical thinking to students of all ages, hope is not all lost. Forbes'Natalie Wexler reports on her experience in one elementary school:
In one second-grade classroom, for example, students thoughtfully compared attributes of ancient Greece to those of other ancient civilizations and, on another day, debated the pros and cons of Alexander the Great’s drive to conquer other lands. (Most of these students came from low-income families, by the way, and many did not speak English at home.)
Teachers succeed when they forgo short-term "critical thinking" programs and teach analysis at all times. The more discussion and writing, the better, and Wexler holds out hope that schools will continue to put these habits into practice for years to come.
Many teachers feel that their methods are at the cusp of critical-thinking education. From art classes to STEM programs, instructors rightfully tout the ability to teach students how to analyze both their work and their lessons.
Jen Lammey, an art education candidate, claims that critical thinking habits are crucial for students in art classes. She cites an article from Everyarteverychild.org that explains her methodology:
Your job is to get your students to chase the quality of their own work and make the best work they can make. So it can be confusing. I think we get really trapped and stuck in thinking that it's our job to make really high-quality work, so that we can put it out in the hall and everybody will say that we have a good art program...What I'm really urging here is more autonomy on the part of the student artist–they need to be making the decisions if they're going to make a better mind.
The more autonomy students have over their own thought processes, opinions and work, the more they will be able to question, understand and analyze opinions that do not align with their own.
One school proudly demonstrates its STEM Fair, where students invented their own gardens, arcade games and more. Fairs like these encourage innovation and creativity, which both come into play when it comes to forming one's own opinions.
The whole goal of STEM education is to get "American students from the middle of the pack in science and math to the top of the pack in the international arena." Teachers and policymakers alike know students won't get there without the ability to think critically. Therefore, critical thinking is an essential classroom priority.