Posted: May 16, 2014 10:00 AM
I want my kids to learn to think critically. I want them to independently assess situations and draw conclusions based on sound reasoning. But sometimes school seems to favor the opposite of critical thinking through its emphasis on memorization, regurgitation and standardized testing.
Photo credit: Slobodan Vasic/ iStock/360/ Getty Images

Critical thinking can be defined as "the intentional application of rational, higher order thinking skills, such as analysis, synthesis, problem recognition and problem solving, inference and evaluation" and "thinking that assesses itself… the ability to think about one's thinking in such a way as to recognize its strengths and weaknesses and, as a result…recast the thinking in improved form" (source).

In other words, critical thinking is not memorization, regurgitation or the mindless absorption of "facts." I'm not going to attempt to argue whether or not American schools teach students to think critically (um, that's a little more than I can handle in 800 words), but I will explain how I started wondering about this in the first place. I teach English at the community-college level and have noticed the majority of my students struggling desperately with critical thinking. They seem to want to be told what to think rather than think for themselves. They want to know the "right" answer. They want me to explain how they should think, what they "should know," and when I only provide them with the tools to determine their own conclusions, they're often baffled.

Even more troubling is when I purposely provide two completely contradictory explanations for something and just let them hang there in the gray area, where there is no "right" or "wrong." I refuse to tell them "what a text means." I refuse to wrap historical analysis or literature or anything else, really, into some neat package, delivering it to their desks with a smile and a reassuring nod.

That's not thinking. That's mindless consumption.

Maybe my students are the exceptions to the rule (nearly all of them?), but I doubt it. It seems to me that our schools, with their continued emphasis on memorization and standardized testing, insist on reinforcing the empty-vessel mentality of learning/teaching (e.g., the student is an empty vessel into which the all-knowing teacher pours his or her unquestionable knowledge). We seem to treat education as something you acquire rather than form.

We seem to treat education as something you acquire rather than form.

As if it's this thing you are given rather than something you create yourself, with your own brain. Some of my educator friends tell me that Common Core is designed to increase critical thinking, and I hope that's true. But I have to admit, I'm skeptical. The emphasis on standardized testing alone inherently counters the development of critical thinking. A central point of critical thinking is the realization that there is rarely one "correct answer." Standardized testing is inherently rooted in "one right answer."

My experience as a student and educator is that the development of critical thinking is a difficult, uncomfortable, often excruciating process of discovery and self-analysis. It is not some clear-cut, sit-in-your-chair-quietly and "learn" process. It's not easy to develop the metacognitive abilities necessary to understand why you think what you think and how it may be (gasp!) wrong. It takes exploration, trial and error, agonizing hours in front of projects and computers. It takes feeling like there's no way you're going to figure it out. It's self-doubt and self-questioning rather than limitless confidence and surety. It's hard, necessarily.

The gray area

Indeed, it is not easy to hang out in the gray area, in the places where things are not clear and multiple viewpoints and factors make staunch opinions (and clarity) impossible. I realize it's a hefty proposition that schools would challenge students in this way, but is it impossible? I doubt it. This talk by Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned education and creativity expert, states that our current education system cannot meet modern needs because it's outdated, "designed and conceived and structured for a different age," namely, the Industrial Revolution.

Schools are centered around the idea that people are either intellectual or not, academic or not, and they are 'sorted' accordingly through the very process of our education system.

In other words, our schools are not geared around the empowering development of critical thinking, but rather they are more geared around memorization, the "classics," adoption of cultural identity and the academic/non-academic mental binary (source). In other words, schools are centered around the idea that people are either intellectual or not, academic or not, and they are "sorted" accordingly through the very process of our education system. The result, according to Robinson, is that many brilliant students learn they are "not smart" because their intelligence lies outside the framework created by our outdated understanding of "education" and "intelligence."

Understood in this way, our schools have a long way to go, and personally, I'm not willing to wait. I think I'll spend my time developing the critical thinking skills of my kids now, on my own, at home and beyond, rather than hoping they'll get it in school.

More on schooling

Homeschooling: Individualized, child-centered education
Boy with My Little Pony bag bullied by school officials
Are parents doing school projects for kids?