Okay, I admit, the title is a little misleading.
I mean, who would really say that it’s not important for our kids to learn how to think critically? So, yes, I lured you in with a provocative title but read on because, as you’ll see, I am a little critical about critical thinking.
If you’ve got a child in school then he or she has probably asked, or will ask one day, the following question: “When will I ever need this?”
Of course, we’ re talking about the stuff our kids learn in school. At some point they’ll look at the math question they’re working one, or scratch their heads over the need for proper grammar and punctuation, or ponder the purpose to a hundred different lessons and subjects and wonder what the point is.
As parents, we usually have one of two responses ready. The first one involves a rather lengthy explanation about how, one day, your child may actually put all that math or writing or science, or whatever, to use. If the first response doesn’t do the trick, and it rarely does, we reach for option #2 and simply tell our kids that they have to do it in order to move on to the next grade and, at some point way in the future, graduate. It isn’t much of an explanation – nor a terribly satisfying one for either parent or child – but more of an attempt to tell our kids to jump through the academic hoops so that, hopefully, one day, they will discover their vocational calling.
We desperately try to find ways to make learning and school more fun and interesting. After all, isn’t fun the key to motivating our kids and developing their love for learning? If we, instead, allow our children to explore the things that truly interest them then perhaps learning will become truly meaningful. Teachers, administrators, and other education professionals are thinking those very same thoughts.
It’s rare these days to hear about the three “Rs” of elementary education (reading, writing and ‘rithmatic). This quirky expression with its allusion to rote learning and the mastery of basic skills is, at best, viewed as a traditional and outdated method of teaching. These days we hear about the virtues of critical thinking. More specifically, educators seem to always be talking about teaching students to do more than just memorize facts and practice procedures; they want them to think more deeply about what they’re learning and to discover the “whys” instead of just the “hows”.
Critical thinking has become the highest educational ideal because, first, it’s focused on something perceived as meaningful instead of procedural. In other words, by teaching elementary kids to develop their ability to think and engage more deeply, we make learning interesting and memorable. Second, it’s argued that individuals who can think critically should, in theory, have the ability to tackle complex problems in the work place, become leading-edge innovators and leaders, and achieve success in a dynamic, information-based economy. So, by focusing on critical thinking skills we are better preparing our kids to make a positive contribution to society.
Sounds like a very positive step, doesn’t it? So how, exactly, are our elementary schools teaching kids to think critically? As I mentioned, in classrooms across the continent, there’s a push to teach the “whys” of a given subject instead of having kids simply regurgitate facts and figures. Teaching is no longer about simply teaching a skill or conveying knowledge. It’s more like a meandering road of discovery. Things like direct instruction, practice, and memorization are largely set-aside in favour of an inquiry-based approach.
Take math as an example. In your average elementary classroom today the goal is to help young students gain conceptual understanding or, in other words, understand the “big picture” of math. Traditional methods of teaching math such as memorizing times tables, practicing arithmetic, and repeating formulas and rules are, for the most part, discouraged. The idea is that this kind of focus on mathematical procedures not only takes time for students to master, it takes away from the deeper, more meaningful focus of the overall concept.
Math, of course, is just one example of how our schools are attempting to engage our kids in activities that require a greater degree of critical thought. In reading, educators are far more concerned with a young child’s level of comprehension than decoding or fluency. Phonics, for example, is viewed as not only dull and tedious but it also robs kids from the joy of engaging with a text, article, or novel. With comprehension comes a greater degree of understanding that, in turn, opens the doors to things like reflecting, analyzing, and problem solving.
But there’s a problem. By focusing on the acquisition of critical thinking skills in the elementary grades first, we are actually disadvantaging our young students. How so? It skips over the requisite knowledge and skills that form the foundation for meaningful analysis, reflection, and problem solving later on. In other words, if we don’t teach the “hows” then students will never have the relevant information for the “whys”.
Some educators may argue that, as we encourage students to discover the “whys” they will, naturally, uncover the “hows” along the way. This process of discovery, where the teacher is facilitator, makes learning interesting and meaningful. There may be some truth to the meaningful and interesting part, but how can we be sure that what kids are discovering is accurate and relevant?
Let’s do a quick case study by observing Canada. Canadian students have traditionally been relatively strong, internationally speaking, in math education. A little more than a decade ago in almost every province across the country a discovery based approach to elementary math was advocated. Since then, Canada has been ranking lower and lower when compared to other countries. The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is administered by the OECD every three years to fifteen year old students. In 2006 Canada was ranked 7th. Three years ago they dropped to tenth. This time around they moved into the thirteenth spot. Being the thirteenth ranked country in math education doesn’t seem so terrible. But it isn’t the ranking itself that’s alarming, it’s the downward trend in math scores.
In the Canadian media there has been a lot of finger-pointing but there’s one viewpoint where there seems to be some consensus: Canada’s focus on critical thinking before foundational skills, at least in math, has resulted in an ever-decreasing understanding of math among elementary and high school students. Here’s another interesting fact to make note of: Although Canada, as a whole, ranked 13th on the PISA test, the Canadian province of Quebec ranked 6th internationally. If you know anything about Quebec you’d realize that, amongst all Canada’s provinces, it is the most unique it terms of it’s governance. In Quebec, the focus of math education is on the mastery of procedures and the rules of math first.
That’s the central problem with a singular focus on higher order thinking skills: If a child’s skills in adding, subtracting, multiplication and division are generally weak, is it reasonable to assume that she will enjoy success in algebra and geometry in high school? Should we expect a student to engage in healthy and intelligent debate about world issues if he or she knows little, if anything, about the facts in history that serve as the undercurrent for many of the tensions and conflicts around the world? Are we asking too much from a student who has no grasp of sentence structure, grammar, or punctuation to write an engaging, creative short story or a thoughtful and persuasive essay?
Critical thinking as an educational goal is something worth striving for. In fact, our schools should be working toward creating students who can become thoughtful and innovative problem-solvers. However, the goal has become the means by which our kids are taught. We need to view the education of our children as a path. At the beginning of their journey, in the primary and intermediate elementary grades, our aim should be to teach young students knowledge and skills. Critical thinking should not be the goal but, instead, it should be the mastery of essential skills like arithmetic, reading fluency, and basic writing. These skills should build incrementally meaning that, with each lesson and with each passing grade a child becomes more proficient and ready for the complexity of new material. At some point, whether it’s in the higher elementary grades, middle school, or high school, we can begin to engage our students in lessons and activities that guide and challenge their ability to think critically.
So, clearly, I don’t really believe that students have no need of critical thinking skills. I actually believe our system of education can do a much better job of accomplishing that goal but that doesn’t mean that we should turn our backs on “traditional” methods. In fact, things like teacher-centred instruction and rote learning should have a prominent place in the classroom. I also think that we should always be looking to inject well-thought out and balanced “progressive’ approaches. Unfortunately, it seems that we can get so caught up in new ideas that sound good that we have a tendency to abandon approaches and methodologies that actually work. The problem – and the irony – is that our schools don’t seem to be engaging in the kind of critical thought that they so strongly advocate.