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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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