History, Ignorance, and Loss of Critical Thinking Skills

While scrolling through friends’ recent Facebook posts, one post stopped me in my tracks–for two reasons. First, one of the schools that granted me a degree was mentioned in the headline (Texas Tech); second, because the post referred to political “questions” asked of a sample of the school’s undergraduate population. The commentary questions just what students are learning about history in K-12 classes. [Here’s the link to the post, complete with video: http://www.ifyouonlynews.com/politics/texas-tech-students-give-jaw-droppingly-shocking-answers-political-questions-video/] Spoiler alert: the students were not clear on what the U.S. Civil War was!

After re-posting this to my time line, a friend included a link to another site that talks about the dumbing down of America and the American populae’s anti-intellectual stance [http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201407/anti-intellectualism-and-the-dumbing-down-america].  My inference from this post from Psychology Today goes beyond the textual content and into the realm of critical thinking skills.

It is not secret that critical thinking skills have suffered among American school students. Many educators have written collective tomes on the need to teach critical thinking skills to students. However, a quick search through the files of the US government’s Institute of Educational Sciences–and specifically the more data-driven file of the National Center for Education Statistics–returns nothing on the search term “critical thinking” as far back as 2000! Even my favorite annual go-to data-intensive publication–Digest of Education Statistics 2xxx–appears to have stopped collecting (or perhaps analyzing–data related to this most venerated skill. Yet, today’s educators continue to cry out for ways to develop critical thinking skills.

And what are critical thinking skills, anyway?

Although a simple search returns pages of sites dealing with critical thinking and its definitions, attributes, and how-to-teach sites, my own definition–refined after 40+ years as an educator–comes down to this: it is the analysis of information for verity and logic, and the information’s truth in the current or unique social culture that employs such logic. Critical thinking includes everything from wondering how an author or researcher has come to a conclusion or supported an allegation or statement; to where in the cupboard a particular mug fits best for ease of access and without disrupting the quick access to other items in the cupboard. It is the ability to step back and think rather than act on impulse, so that the immediate desire to punch out the playground bully is overcome by the lack of desire to end up in the Principal’s office. It is the ability to separate out the “truths” of a premise or observation from the “prejudices” inherent in its interpretation.

Critical thinking is based on what we knew a minute ago versus what we know this minute and what we need to know for the next minute. It is the way in which we learn from our personal experiences, experiences of others through books and media, parental experiences, teachings of religious institutions and academic texts and facilitators. With each new piece of information, one should think to oneself, “How does this fit into my personal philosophy of life? How does it fit into what I learned in that boring history lesson on the Civil War? How did Attila manage to cross the Alps, and why was he willing to try a new form of conveyance–elephants as opposed to Steppe ponies–to do so? What did he risk? What were his goals? Why did he risk what he already had?…And how does all this fit into the risks my boss is taking with the presentation of his ideas for a brand new project? And if Bill Gates hadn’t used the free computer software that IBM made public because the operating system was developed under a federal grant–if he hadn’t used that information to tweak and improve the DOS operating system–would someone else had done it? Was it legal to use the published code; why or why not? etc.

What critical thinking does NOT include finding only flaws or only premises contrary to our own personal beliefs. Denigrating the President for errors cannot be isolated from recognizing and lauding his/her successes. In critical thinking, the particular Christian precepts of one’s beliefs should not be used to judge the beliefs of a person practicing Hindu. Each are driven by an historical and cultural milieu that has brought an individual to his/her lifestyle and belief system. Each can adjust to a host of social expectations without sacrificing his/her World View; each world view deserves respect and, whenever possible, some level of understanding.

What critical thinking should lead to is the desire to learn more about an idea or topic about which one has little or no information. Thus, critical thinking is the very foundation of the whole concept of learning–the quest to know more about a given subject.

This is clearly a very short post and one that goes into little detail about anything. I am not an expert on anything, but rather a life-long learner of how new ideas or concepts that are new to me can be fit into my ever-growing understanding of the world around me. Even at the age of (almost) 65, there is still much to learn, much to know, much to accommodate into my  personal world view. But I know this and my curiosity continues to grow because, as a child in school, I was taught critical thinking skills that have been squashed in recent decades to fulfill the need to make students score higher on some arbitrary “universal” test of knowledge for the particular grade level.

Educators are professionals. Some educators are “naturals;” among them, many recognize the importance of educating themselves about such topics as child development, cultural diversity, thinking processes and theories, student involvement, classroom management, etc. Other educators–especially those who are in the process of becoming educators–get classes specifically addressing these and other topics; some are even able to formulate their own theories of how each class integrates with other classes in the educational environment, causing them to view education as more than the sum of a variety of topics under study at a given point. These latter–both the untrained information seekers and the in-training global thinkers–are the heart and soul of education, whether in the United States, here in the country of Sint Maarten, China, Russia; European, South American, African, Asian, Australian, and other earthly regions. These are the individuals who will teach their students to become critical thinkers, even if they must “teach to the test” to keep their jobs.

The thing is, the best way to teach to the test is to simply teach in a non-rote, exciting manner. There are certainly places where rote education is needed–learning alphabetization, memorizing multiplication tables, learning songs in music class, etc.–but most education sticks best with students who are able to make sense of what they are learning within the context of their current or future world environments. In doing so, they learn to separate what makes sense from what does not, how elements of one world view is similar to elements of another world view, etc. This is how critical thinking is most effectively learned–comparison and contrast, similarities and differences, analysis of information based on prior learning and observation, perhaps synthesis into a new idea or world view… This is the learning of critical thinking at its finest.

And, by the way, behavioral disruptions that use critical thinking techniques–including the projection of possible outcomes based on the theoretical choice of a specific action or reaction–result in better classroom and social management than simply pointing out a student’s misdeed without analysis or critique, or simply stating what the required appropriate behavior ought to be substituted. Every student has a history of behaviors that can be employed to critically determine what has worked in the past and what has brought on undesired consequences. Using students’ own history to discuss cultural and social history works the same way.

Enough said.

P.S. The Civil War in the US was fought between the North (any state north of the Mason-Dixon Line) and the South (states below that line), although there were some exceptions. The North called itself The Union (Yankees), while the South called itself The Confederacy (Rebels). The major issue is said to have been slavery, but the issue of slavery was primarily one of economics, so that not all Northerners believed in the abolition of slavery and not all Southerners believed it was OK to own another human being. In the end, the Union (North) won the war, despite heavy losses of lives on both sides. The result was the end to slavery in the South, but also a great deal of resentment among white former plantation owners against persons of color, resulting in segregation–that is, there were areas where only whites could be present and other areas “reserved” for people of color. This occurred almost as much in the North as in the South, as prejudice has no boundaries. Although today there is much less antipathy among whites toward peoples of color, prejudice continues to survive in the form of life style, immigration, educational attainment, professions, religious choices, etc. A little bit of critical thinking will open the eyes of many who expect everyone else to be like them–hopefully. Thus, both critical thinking skills and the teaching of tolerance go hand in hand.