On Critical Thinking

While I don’t agree with many critics of public education, my critique would be that schools are failing to produce critical thinkers.  Within schools, the older generation of teachers will often be heard saying the expectations for critical essays in English or History found on state exam questions has declined over the years.  Proof that we don’t value critical thinking is all around us—we reelect politicians who don’t govern for the common good; we uncritically devour the vitriol of the Internet and broadcast media; we too often believe that all sides of an issue have to be reported or respected or given equal time even when one side is objectively or scientifically unfounded. We accept news stories without fact checking.

How would we recognize if renewed efforts to teach critical thinking work?  The next generation would demand truth in advertising, news that’s more than thinly disguised editorializing, and government of the people, by the people, and for the people rather than government by the biggest pocketbook.  We would see decisions based on evidence rather than emotions.  (Isn’t this what reformers are suggesting with changes in the way they propose to evaluate teachers–use test data, not the opinion of administrators?)  The Common Core, if done well, expects critical thinking to be deeply embedded in all that is done in classrooms.  If that actually happens, we are on our way back to the reasoned ideals on which America was built.

A good example of Common Core efforts to improve our critical thinking skills is a model lesson reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Students reading this should come to understand Dr. King’s indictment of Southern white ministerial leaders for their lack of support for the civil rights of minorities. This content will make some parents and teachers uncomfortable.  So teaching critical thinking can be controversial.  Societal discomfort with teaching critical thinking is illustrated by the Texas GOP party platform passed in the early summer.  (Google ‘Texas GOP platform’ for several links, or check out Valerie Strauss’s blog on the topic.) Their platform positions exemplify the occasional local opposition to any instruction that questions authority figures and traditional societal norms.  Teaching children to think for themselves is anathema to some critics of the Common Core, and rote, uncritical classroom instruction is a highlight of some voucher programs and charter schools across the nation.

As students begin to practice critical thinking skills, teachers and parents must be open to those who reach informed and reasoned conclusions that are different than their own. I think good educational practice inevitably challenges traditional authority–we have to teach for the future, and teaching critical thinking will certainly challenge the old ways of doing almost everything. We need young people to learn the skills to pursue ideas in a critical fashion and use that skill to become our future leaders. The Common Core’s emphasis on deep reading and critical thinking is a step in the right direction.