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Should We "Teach Children How to Think, not What to Think"?

Ville Kokko

Posted on May 12, 2018 12:44

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It's a good point that schools should teach critical thinking, not just facts dictated from above. Critical thinking should not replace facts in teaching, however. Knowledge of the facts is a part of critical thinking itself.

There's an idea that's been floating around in recent years that's summed up by the slogan ”Teach children how to think, not what to think.” The idea is that, instead of just teaching facts as given from above, schools should teach students how to think critically.

I heartily agree that critical thinking should be taught. I think the history and methodology of science could also be useful – the history because it's a history of human errors, and that shows why the methodology is needed.

Nevertheless, I have reservations about the second part of the slogan: ”not what to think.” This should not be understood to mean that critical thinking can replace facts as the object of teaching. I'm not sure whether anyone is actually thinking that, but some comments I have seen have suggested that, and I have often noticed a tendency (in policy, etc.) to swing from one extreme to the other, so I will address the idea just in case. After all, teaching children that something is a reliable fact is teaching them "what to think," namely to think that fact is true.

The point I want to make is that a basic knowledge of the facts is a vital part of critical thinking. Without it, you have to spend unnecessary energy to find them out first, or remain agnostic about things that should be obvious.

Suppose someone makes a claim premised on the idea that the Earth is a few thousand years old. With background knowledge, you'll know this is greatly contradicted by geological and other evidence, and also that the likely motivation for such a claim is religious literalism. If you lack any background knowledge, then for all you know, it could be a scientific fact. Even if you remain skeptical on the general basis of not believing anything without verifying it, this means that you have to be just as skeptical about the actual scientific truth. It also means you miss the chance to save effort by immediately discarding an evidently false claim.

This doesn't mean never questioning the orthodoxy – just that if you know something has heavy evidence backing it, you won't question it based on only light evidence that doesn't warrant that.

Even if you were to teach students that it's a good tool for critical thinking to rely on real experts over just anyone making claims, that would not enable them to know what the experts are actually saying. Anyone can claim to have experts on their side. But if you show them that they can trust what they learn at school, and then give them the basics of what the experts are saying, they can much more easily recognize fake claims.

I think children should be taught critical thinking, and facts, and evidence for these facts, and how all of these tie together. Teaching just facts isn't a good idea, but teaching students to question things without giving a foundation of reliable facts wouldn't work either.

Ville Kokko

Posted on May 12, 2018 12:44

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Source: WashPost

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