Teaching students to think

Via the indispensable Reaction Times, I came across this remarkable essay titled “Rote learning rocks, critical thinking sucks.”  It’s a polemic against the pedagogical dogma that teachers should teach critical thinking skills rather than bare facts.  The author points out 1) this means directing energy from what is easy to what is difficult to enhance, because critical thinking is related to innate intelligence, 2) memorization is not valueless, because it gives the intelligent a base of information to think critically about.  I admire the author to rejecting educationist cant and taking a genuinely fresh look at this issue.

As a teacher who generates a lot of student hostility by refusing to base my classes on memorization, I will offer a few thoughts.

  1. I agree that teaching students “how to think” shouldn’t be the direct goal of a class.  Even if one believes such a thing is possible, it can surely be more effectively done by forcing students to apply their minds to some particular subject.  In any case, the dichotomy between teaching “how to think” vs. teaching “what to think” is often dishonestly made, in that there are often different ways of categorizing data and formulating problems, and which one is brought to bear on a given problem predisposes one to a certain answer.  So, for example, one can teach students to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion, of sniffing out power and privilege in any social phenomenon, and this will inevitably lead students to Marxist conclusions, even if Marxism isn’t laid down as dogma on day one.  Teaching “how to think” can often be a more insidious form of propaganda, because students imagine that the conclusions they are lead to are their own.
  2. It is not clear if one can be taught to think, but one can be given the opportunity to think, and ability to think does benefit from practice.  A good teacher will be mindful of this when dealing with his brighter pupils.
  3. In fact, the focus of my own classes is neither thinking skills in the abstract nor bare facts but concepts, which would seem to be a middle term between the other two.  Now, if one wants to understand a nontrivial concept, the way to do it is to be forced to use the concept and observe its manifestation in various limits.  One must go through this mental process oneself for cases not studied in class to make sure one is manipulating the concept itself rather than remembering examples from class.  One could say that this forces students to think, but thinking as a means to understanding.

9 Responses

  1. “Now, if one wants to understand a nontrivial concept, the way to do it is to be forced to use the concept and observe its manifestation in various limits.”

    This is very similar to Wittgenstein’s approach: “What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought that there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities. Thus your mental cramp is relieved, and you are free to look around the field of use of the expression and to describe the different kinds of uses of it.” – Lectures of 1946 – 1947.

  2. […] Source: Throne and Altar […]

  3. >Via the indispensable Reaction Times, I came across this remarkable essay titled “Rote learning rocks, critical thinking sucks.”… I admire the author to rejecting educationist cant and taking a genuinely fresh look at this issue.

    I am humbled and honored by your kind words.

    >Teaching “how to think” can often be a more insidious form of propaganda, because students imagine that the conclusions they are lead to are their own.

    Yes, a point of mine precisely.

    >It is not clear if one can be taught to think, but one can be given the opportunity to think, and ability to think does benefit from practice. A good teacher will be mindful of this when dealing with his brighter pupils.

    This doesn’t change the fact that there is an inequality in the distribution among students of ability to truly think, and that while there is space for thinking to be developed aside from innate abilities, the prevailing progressive dogma is that everyone is capable of limitlessly intelligent thought, if only they are taught it. The actual result is Marxism paraded around as the apex of intelligent critical thinking, and dimwits adopting Marxism to prove their intelligence.

    >One could say that this forces students to think, but thinking as a means to understanding.

    Forcing students to think is a pretty easy way to figure out which ones are capable of it and which ones aren’t, and to what degrees. My issue is that when the vast majority of students are shown to be abominably average in their thinking abilities, progressives conclude that more education is needed.

  4. I recall a piece of advice given me by my tutor, the philosopher Miss Anscombe. “Even if one is not particularly cleaver, one can still be learned; a lot of people here [Oxford] have cut a very respectable figure that way.”

  5. > Forcing students to think is a pretty easy way to figure out which ones are capable of it and which ones aren’t, and to what degrees.

    At least in my large, non-science major classes, I’ve been shocked by the failure of college students when asked to apply pretty basic reasoning skills. I’m not sure, though, if they’re unable or unwilling. I’ve known a few who’ve become angry at being asked to apply a general principle to a specific case not done in lecture. (“We didn’t talk about that in class!”) This attitude makes it impossible for me to know what they’re really capable of, but the attitude itself is a sure sign that these people don’t belong in college sinking years of their lives in intellectual pursuits, or rather in resentment at being prodded into such pursuits.

  6. […] response to Yuray’s essay, Bonald offers some praise as well as mildly corrective thoughts. Legionnaire offers a few of his own. Critical thinking is more than just being critical based on […]

  7. Bonald,

    I post this question here because I’m not quite sure where else to do so.

    I am interested, and I’m probably not alone on this, in your thoughts on Robert Sungenis’ The Principle in particular and geocentrism in general. Your training as an astrophysicist, coupled with your traditional Catholicism, gives you a unique edge.

  8. At least in my large, non-science major classes, I’ve been shocked by the failure of college students when asked to apply pretty basic reasoning skills. I’m not sure, though, if they’re unable or unwilling. I’ve known a few who’ve become angry at being asked to apply a general principle to a specific case not done in lecture

    They are angry because you are screwing them. They know exactly what to expect from classes, because they have been taking classes for, whatever, 14 years, when you get them. They are to memorize whatever crap the teacher tells them and then repeat it back, perhaps adding some subtle or unsubtle flattery of the teacher. At most, they are supposed to “do research” by running a couple of desultory google searches and then not-quite-plagiarizing whatever Wikipedia says.

    Naturally, they hear the descriptions of what classes are about. They compare these descriptions to what classes are, in fact, about. They go with the reality rather than with the description. They can’t really say any of this stuff to us explicitly because they also have figured out that they have outwardly to play along with the lie. You are putting them in a difficult position. You are violating the rules of the game in a way they can’t properly complain about without themselves violating the rules of the game even more profoundly than you are.

    They are not there to learn. They are not there to learn to think. You are not in the business of teaching. You are not in the business of teaching them to think. That is not what universities *do*. They are there to get their union card. You are there to make sure they jump through hoops to get it.

    If you want to teach (as, for example, I want to), then you have to find a way both to satisfy the large majority of rule-following, union-card-seeking, cynics and to teach the small minority of kids who want to learn. It’s hard but not impossible.

    It helps a lot first to search your soul and make sure you don’t hate the rule-following, union-card-seeking, cynics. They are good people. They are doing their best to comply with what appear to be the rules society has handed them. It really isn’t their fault that they annoy you. It’s not their fault that, to make a decent living for their future families, they (think they) have to go sort-of pretend to give a crap about the intellectual life for four years. They are carrying their crosses.

    Really, you should feel lucky that in your upper division classes most of the students are there to learn (I infer this from the qualifiers in your statement). This is not true for me. It’s not until graduate school that a majority of my students are actually intrinsically interested in the subject. Or maybe it’s selection and they are just better actors.

    tl;dr: learn to scantron

  9. […] Teaching students to think […]

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