Critical thinking and educator integrity (mine)

In a recent article from Education Week, education critic Alfie Kohn asks if we educators have the courage to change our policies and procedures to correspond with the truths about learning that education research has provided for us so far. For example, he says,

It takes guts, not just talent, for a teacher to lead students beyond a predictable search for right answers—and to let them play an active role in the quest for meaning that replaces it. That entails not only accepting some unpredictability and messiness but also giving up some control.

A teacher in Washington state was proud of herself for having posted this sign at the front of her classroom: “Think for yourself; the teacher might be wrong!” But gradually she realized that her classroom wasn’t really learner-centered. “I wanted [students] to think for themselves,” she confessed in a journal article, “but only so long as their thinking didn’t slow down my predetermined lesson plan or get in the way of my teacher-led activity or argue against my classroom policies.” It takes courage to admit one hasn’t gone as far as one thought.

I have not gone as far in the past as I could and should have in allowing students to think for themselves. Case in point: my “background scaffolding” attempts to debunk the permanence of knowledge and the presumed authority of those hierarchies presently and historically in power. What I have not always done is include myself and my own knowledge-making activities in the list of presumed authorities presently and historically in power. The result is that, when a student resists my debunking message, I get frustrated. “Why don’t they just trust me?” I wail.

Because they are thinking for themselves, silly. Isn’t that what I wanted?

It’s a Catch-22. You see, I am coming to the conclusion that I will always have to include my “background scaffolding” at the beginning of every course I teach. I cannot expect students to intuitively know what I want from them, because what I want is for them to throw off the effects of years of training they have endured, training that tells them to sit down, shut up, and passively absorb and then spit out what their teachers tell them. The fact that I show up at the front of the classroom immediately triggers that learned response within most students. So I will always have to retrain them back into their natural state as Learners with Rights.

But to do so with intellectual integrity, I will have to allow these students, whom I am attempting to free, the right to refuse to believe the revolutionary perspective on knowledge-making that I am teaching them. I can hold open the door, but the test of my confidence in my own mantra is my willingness to let them stay where they are until they believe it is safe to come outside.

It’s a strange phenomenon. I do subscribe to the belief that human beings (indeed, all living things) are inherently inclined to learn and to adapt to new phenomena. But I am not teaching babies. My students arrive in class with whole lifetimes of social adaptation within them. Once I communicate how what we will do in class is different than what they have done before, most of my students respond with enthusiasm and imagination. (I am reminded of Leslie Norris’s poem about the pit ponies.) But I will always have to communicate the difference between the vision of education they grew up with and the one we will enact in class, because they have no way to intuit a new vision without that explanation.

All I am really asking them to do is to think critically about themselves and everyone around them as socially connected learners. Or, more accurately, I am giving them overt permission to think critically about their experiences with media, language, and persuasion. Their experiences. This point matters. The experiences they examine must be their own, or analogous to their own experience, or critical thinking will not happen.

Because I cannot teach critical thinking “skills.” It is posited by professor of cognitive psychology Daniel T. Willingham that we cannot teach critical thinking; that it is something we do or we don’t do, depending on how much we know about a given situation.

After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize. Just as it makes no sense to try to teach factual content without giving students opportunities to practice using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.

Philosopher and educator John Dewey agrees. In fact, he says “that the origin of thinking is some perplexity, confusion, or doubt.” In other words, thinking happens when we find ourselves unsure of what is true or real, and we care about finding out what is true or real. Dewey explains:

Thinking is not a case of spontaneous combustion; it does not occur just on “general principles.” There is something specific which occasions and evokes it. General appeals to a child (or to a grown-up) to think, irrespective of the existence in his own experience of some difficulty that troubles him and disturbs his equilibrium, are as futile as advice to lift himself by his boot-straps.

So, giving a student an assignment to read about a topic that does not interest her and about which she has little or no prior knowledge is a sure way to prevent her from thinking critically. In my experience, assigning students to research or respond to questions about which they do not care and they know even less results in a great many half-assed papers that simply spit out other people’s ideas.

Even formatting a paper requires content knowledge. Punctuation, spelling, and grammar are content areas which cannot be mastered simply by critical thinking, because they are boot-dragging customs that take a long time to change and catch up to contemporary communication practices. Our most standardized systems of communication are replete with artifacts that do not make sense without knowledge of their historical circumstances. MLA and APA formatting are similarly complicated content areas whose practices attempt to bridge the gap between the present and the past. Students who do not have this historical knowledge will find English formalism to be a tangled mess that frustrates them so much that they cease to believe they can master it. Without a belief that they can master a content area, they have no motivation to inquire into its mysteries.

To think critically, then, we first require experience. I have found that the necessary experience can be our own direct experience or someone else’s experience, persuasively presented. There is no reliable way to access another’s experience, save through language. Written, spoken, signed, or gestural language allows us to imagine other people’s experience in terms of our own.

The second requirement for critical thinking is a relevant analogy. In order to make sense of others’ experiences, we look for analogies between their experiences and interpretations and our own. In the same way, once we have internalized others’ experiences and we have made our own meaning from these, in order to use either this secondhand knowledge or our own firsthand knowledge to think critically about a new experience, we require an analogy between the experience that makes sense to us already and the one we are trying to make sense of. If we cannot develop an analogy between prior knowledge and the present situation, we cannot make sense of the new. We cannot think critically about it. We have no way of understanding it.

And we do not give a damn about the possibilities inherent in this new situation. If we have no way of making sense of it, we do not care about the outcome, because the situation is senseless to us. It has no relevance to us that we can see.

This is not the same as being perplexed by a situation. If we are perplexed, we care that we do not understand, and we seek to gather information that will allow us to understand. A little earlier, Dewey points out that

Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection. . . . Every suggested conclusion is tested by its reference to this regulating end, by its pertinence to the problem in hand. This need of straightening out a perplexity also controls the kind of inquiry undertaken. A traveler whose end is the most beautiful path will look for other considerations and will test suggestions on another principle than if he wishes to discover the way to a given city. The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking.

Dewey continues:

Given a difficulty, the next step is suggestion of some way out—the formation of some tentative plan or project, the entertaining of some theory which will account for the peculiarities in question, the consideration of some solution for the problem. The data at hand cannot supply the solution; they can only suggest it. What, then, are the sources of the suggestion? Clearly past experience and prior knowledge. If the person has had some acquaintance with similar situations, if he has dealt with material of the same sort before, suggestions more or less apt and helpful are likely to arise. But unless there has been experience in some degree analogous, which may now be represented in imagination, confusion remains mere confusion. There is nothing upon which to draw in order to clarify it. Even when a child (or a grown-up) has a problem, to urge him to think when he has no prior experiences involving some of the same conditions, is wholly futile.

So, even though my students are naturally primed to make sense of new information, the present reality is that for years they have been taught to suppress their natural learning capabilities and only respond in culturally acceptable ways (sit down, shut up, suck up, spit out) in the classroom. If I want them to make full use of the opportunities I am giving them, I must entice them into behaving like natural learners again. I must provide them with language and analogies that allow them to make use of my experience as a learner and see themselves as learners in new ways (really, very old ways) that have been shut down by their formal schooling experiences in the past. I must make thinking for themselves seem worth the risk of getting things “wrong.”

But, frustratingly, I also want them to question the very enticements I offer. Dewey explains:

If the suggestion that occurs is at once accepted, we have uncritical thinking, the minimum of reflection. To turn the thing over in mind, to reflect, means to hunt for additional evidence, for new data, that will develop the suggestion, and will either, as we say, bear it out or else make obvious its absurdity and irrelevance. Given a genuine difficulty and a reasonable amount of analogous experience to draw upon, the difference, par excellence, between good and bad thinking is found at this point. The easiest way is to accept any suggestion that seems plausible and thereby bring to an end the condition of mental uneasiness. Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. As we shall see later, the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.

Hence, when I present the “background scaffolding,” when I debunk the permanence of knowledge and the presumed authority of those hierarchies presently and historically in power, I must include myself in the power to be debunked.

Will my students believe in my debunking? I guess we’ll see.

Run, pit ponies. Run.


Dewey, J. (2005). “What Is Thought?” In How we think (pp. 3-12; pp. 11-12 quoted here). New York: Barnes and Noble. (Original work published 1910).

Kohn, A. (September 18, 2013). “Encouraging Educator Courage.” Education Week, (33)4, 28, 32.

Norris, L. (1992). “The Pit Ponies.” In N. S. Nye (Ed.), This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from Around the World (pp. 119-120). New York: Aladdin.

Willingham, D. T. (Summer, 2007). “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” American Educator, (31)2, 8-19.


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