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Brain Training: Moving beyond Fact Storage to Critical Thinking

By: Kyle Christmas, Upper School English


Let’s go back in time for a moment. When I was in school—not too terribly long ago, I might add—there was tremendous value in fact gathering and memorization. We memorized all sorts of things, from poetry and historical dates to geometric proofs and chemical equations. (I can still recite the first few lines of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Talesin Middle English if ever you catch me in the halls of CA!) Of course, this rote memorization is still important today in education, and our brightest and most successful students tend to have a mental catalogue of useful material from which they can draw on call. However, in the age of Google, iPhones, and smart homes, a major question regarding the fundamentals of education has emerged: Should fact storage still be our prime focus in the classroom when just about any fact necessary is a few keystrokes away?

 

If we as teachers are honest, we’ve seen this coming for a while. Fifty years ago, I’d be a “sage on the stage” with a corduroy coat, spewing a mindful of material that students would frantically scratch down into their Cornell Notes. That role, however, simply cannot exist anymore, for our students have no desire—and frankly, no true need—to sit in a chair and be pelted with facts. The “sage on the stage” has been replaced, and Google is a far more accessible schoolmaster.

 

Not everything found in a simple Google search is useful, though, and therein lies our new challenge. The role of the teacher in education today has less to do with fact mongering and so much more to do with mind training. Too many students leave K-12 education with heads full of great information (that which they could find on Wikipedia within thirty seconds), yet they lack some of the fundamental problem solving, analysis, and logical reasoning skills that are truly necessary in a 21stcentury workforce. If we’re honest, we all know that a 2019 company will be more apt to hire candidates with the skills above rather than someone who can recite pi to the twentieth digit. Thus, whether I teach science, literature, algebra, or history, what my students need most from me is training in how to think critically about the information and concepts presented.

 

We’ve all heard it a million times, but what is critical thinking? If you ask a dozen teachers, you may just get a dozen different answers, all within the same vein, but slightly idiosyncratic nonetheless. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it in this nutshell: “careful thinking directed toward a goal.” This definition seems less than useful, but ultimately, this is a formula for exactly what we must train our students to do. When presented with any problem, scenario, or opportunity for analysis, they are essentially given a goal in the form of a solution, viable action, or plausible idea. To achieve this desired end, they must carefully consider not just the outcome, but also all of the information and variables that are at play. Thus, “careful thinking directed toward a goal” is simply a paradigm that can be applied in any academic situation.

 

Pushing our students to think carefully, to consider information deeply, and to come to certain conclusions on their own is nowhere near as simple as the definition above. A teacher’s job could be simplified by providing step-by-step instructions with minimal margin for error, requiring little more than the application of a target skill from the student. For example, instead of asking my students to consider the symbolic value of a character’s ultimate decision in a novel, I may instead simply ask them to point to the climax of the story. Instead of analyzing what the author may be trying to communicate with a certain relationship between characters, I might ask them to identify a protagonist and antagonist. There is a place for this in education, but only in the rudimentary phase of skill-mastery. Removing the scaffolding requires extra effort on behalf of both the teacher and student, which may account for the staggering fact that higher-order critical thinking is only specifically included in the curricula of about 5% of US schools (Bouyges). Nevertheless, 100% of students will be far more successful with stronger critical thinking skills. Training them to think on this level, regardless of our content area or curricula, is our task as teachers in the 21stcentury. When we succeed, we lead our students to be more creative, more empathetic, and more productive in all aspects of their lives.

 

 

Works Cited

Bouyges, Helen Lee. “How Critical Thinking Improves Life Outcomes.” Forbes, Nov. 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/helenleebouygues/2018/11/21/how-critical-thinking-improves-life-outcomes/#10e3a1348117.

Hitchcock, David. “Critical Thinking.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/#DefiCritThin

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