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Strategies & Market Trends : Lessons Learned

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From: Don Green4/17/2024 8:54:39 AM
   of 922
 
Thoughts worth Saving

Frank Breslin
Three Reasons Why Public High Schools Don’t Teach Critical Thinking

The following warning should be affixed atop every computer in America’s schools: Proceed at your own risk. Don’t accept as true what you’re about to read. Some of it is fact; some of it is opinion masquerading as fact; and the rest is liberal, conservative, or mainstream propaganda. Make sure you know which is which before choosing to believe it.

Students are exposed to so many different viewpoints on- and offline and so prone to accepting whatever they read, that they run the very real risk of becoming brainwashed. If it’s on a computer screen, it becomes Holy Writ, sacrosanct, immutable, beyond question or doubt. Teachers caution students constantly against taking what they read at face value, since some of these sites may be propaganda mills or recruiting stations for the naïve and unwary.

Not only egregious forms of indoctrination may target unsuspecting young minds, but also the more artfully contrived variety, whose insinuating soft-sell subtlety and silken appeals ingratiatingly weave their spell to lull the credulous into accepting their wares.

To prevent this from happening, every school in America should teach the twin arts of critical thinking and critical reading, so that a critical spirit becomes a permanent possession of every student and pervades the teaching of every course in America. This would be time well-spent in schools acting in loco parentis to protect their students from the virulent contagion of mental toxins.

While ensuring students’ physical safety is a school’s first order of priority, the school should be no less vigilant in safeguarding them from propaganda that will assail them for the rest of their lives. Caveat emptor!Let the buyer beware! Everyone wants to sell students a viewpoint, against which schools should teach them the art of self-defense.

Teaching students how to be their own person by abandoning Groupthink and developing the courage to think for themselves should begin from the first day of high school. More important than all the information they will be learning during these four crucial years will be how they critically process this information either to accept or reject it.

It is a rare high-school graduate who can pinpoint 20 different kinds of fallacies while listening to a speaker or reading a book; who can distinguish between fact and opinion, objective account and specious polemic; who can tell the difference between facts, value judgments, explanatory theories, and metaphysical claims; who can argue both sides of a question, anticipate objections, rebut them, and undermine arguments in various ways.

The essence of an education — the ability to think critically and protect oneself against falsehood and lies — is a lost art in America’s high schools today. This is unfortunate for it is precisely this skill that is of transcendent importance for students in defending themselves.

Computers are wonderful things, but, like everything else in this world, they must be approached with great caution. Their potential for good can suddenly become an angel of darkness that takes over young minds.

A school should teach its students how to think, not what to think; to question whatever they read, and never to accept any claim blindly; to suspend judgment until they’ve heard all sides of a question; and interrogate whatever claims to be true, since truth can withstand any scrutiny. Critical thinking is life’s indispensable survival skill, compared to which everything else is an educational frill!

While teachers do encourage critical thinking, there has never been a way of formally integrating teaching this skill into existing curricula. Apart from a few teachers who do train their students in this art, most teachers do not for one simple reason — there is no time.

State education departments mandate that so much material be covered that critical thinking cannot be taught; nor can the courses themselves be critically presented. To cover the curriculum, courses must be taught quickly, superficially, and uncritically, the infallible way of boring students, of trivializing learning, and unintentionally brainwashing the young.

This is a source of frustration to teachers, who would rather teach their courses in depth to give students an informed understanding of the issues involved; the controversies surrounding those issues; the social and political resistance their field of inquiry may have encountered and its cultural impact; in short, the splash and color of its unfolding drama.

At the same time, teachers must keep an eye on the clock to finish their course by the semester’s end when there is scarcely time to teach the “official” viewpoint, much less the competing views of the controversy surrounding those questions.

This omission of alternative theories leaves students with the mistaken impression that there is no scholarly disagreement about what they are taught, as though what is presented is self-evident truth.

The problem, of course, is that it may not be the truth at all, but only one side of a debate that happens to be the “official” view of the moment, with other views unacknowledged, much less explored.

Not that every discipline lends itself to controversy, but most subjects do, with key questions still fiercely debated. History, psychology, sociology, economics, the natural sciences, the arts and humanities are all teeming with scholarly conflicts, yet this is regrettably kept from students for lack of time.

Some teachers may make a glancing reference to specialist debates, occasionally cite alternative theories, or provide as much critical comment as possible on the bias of the course text, but what is sometimes possible is not nearly enough.

The sheer bulk of material necessarily inhibits its critical treatment, which requires time to explore rival theories so that students can experience the excitement of learning and the contentious world of ongoing scholarship.

Rather than partaking of a sumptuous banquet, students receive only thin gruel, insufficient nourishment for curious young minds. Because students are taught only one view about everything, they simply accept that view with no understanding of the attendant controversy.

However, were they taught a second and third theory, along with their respective pro and con arguments, students would be drawn into a more nuanced understanding of the respective issue, try to determine which theory was right, and discover their minds as they experienced the excitement of intellectual inquiry.

Such breakthroughs occur all too seldom in classrooms today because only one “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” viewpoint is all they learn about anything, given the breakneck speed at which the course is taught. Imagine the intellectual stimulus were several theories routinely presented about every question with no attempt at resolving them.

Students would learn the other plausible theories, become curious about which one was right after hearing both the arguments and objections for each of those theories, apply this critical spirit to everything they learn, and the nation would have a more enlightened citizenry less apt to be duped by the specious claims of the charlatans of this world.

Now these would be courses well-worth the taking! However, it is precisely this intellectual ferment that is missing in our schools today, thanks to an educational policy which fosters a climate of indoctrination by default by teaching only one view about everything instead of the controversy that surrounds every question.

The solution, naturally, is simply relaxing this mile-wide-inch-deep approach to curriculum, employed for generations to little effect. In its place, teachers would critically treat as many of the course’s essential questions as possible, omitting what couldn’t be taught in the time remaining. If we want to raise a more reflective generation of students, the critical treatment of less material will have a more lasting effect on students than the present soporific of “material covered.”

This is a damning indictment of an educational policy that compels teachers to become unwillingly complicit in brainwashing students in a one-view understanding of the world and its workings. Teachers want to teach alternative views to avoid such mindlessness, but cannot for lack of time. This long-standing policy of haste and superficiality that trivializes learning instead of making it come alive in all its complexity is easily remedied: State education departments have only to alter their present policies.

While State Education Departments are the first reason why public schools don’t teach critical thinking, community pressure against it is the second. While some communities do welcome critical inquiry as an essential part of their children’s education, others do not, rejecting critical thinking as dangerous and wanting only views taught that agree with their own.

Teachers, however, don’t want to teach only one viewpoint imposed by either the state or community, but several viewpoints about the questions they teach. Education is, after all, discovering that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our own little village.

They don’t want a small vocal minority within a community arrogating to itself the presumption of pontificating for other parents’ college-prep and AP children about what can and cannot be taught in their school. They didn’t enter their profession to indoctrinate students into one point of view, but to educate them by exposing them to as many different viewpoints as possible and leaving it to students themselves to decide which view is correct.

It is the eternal struggle between two opposed visions of what education is about. The first believes that it alone possesses the truth; that those who disagree are wrong; and that it has the right to suppress every viewpoint which disagrees with its own because error has no right to exist. Woe betide a nation should this vision come to power when, alas, it already has with such dreadful results of indoctrination.

The second vision believes that we must always be suspicious of such infallible pretensions to truth, and have a healthy distrust of ourselves and our motives, which may be little more than ethnocentric narrow-mindedness. Education is not about being taught more and more reasons about why we are right and everyone else is wrong.

Rather, it is a process of being given more and more air, a wider perspective that affords us a grander, more Olympian view of everything. It is only then that we can see our own point of view within a much broader context as only one among many.

This view of education teaches us that we often believe what we want to believe in spite of the evidence; that we and our little village think ourselves the center of the universe; and that only the ancient stories believed by our village and handed down from generation unto generation are true.

It teaches that had we been born in another village with different myths, we would have believed that only those stories were true; that an education consists in coming to terms with this realization; and that when we do, we have begun to leave the Plato’s Cave of our culture, forsaking the myths of our tribe and beginning at long last to educate ourselves.

Education to be education and not indoctrination exposes the young to all possibilities, advocates none of them, and encourages students to keep their minds open until they have heard all the options, and only then to decide for themselves or remain undecided should that be their choice.

Unfortunately, this kind of education which encourages critical thinking about all points of view is taboo in many high schools today because the communities in which they are situated insist that only their views be taught.

The result of this mindset is, sadly, all too predictable for their high-school graduates who, never exposed to critical discussion, are overwhelmed by it on their first day in college. They have never heard of even the questions, much less the welter of dissenting viewpoints in answering those questions and the way in which each view critiques the other. Some feel so beyond their depth that they become discouraged, demoralized, and at times even leave college, wondering why their high school never prepared them for this.

It’s the age-old story of what one sows, that must one reap. Only now it is both the students and their parents who must deal with those consequences and the broken dreams of their children who must now pay the price. A high-school college-prep program should be precisely that — a demanding academic program that prepares students for college, not one that denies them the very skills needed to succeed there to make their way in the world.

Fortunately, parents today are now beginning to realize what is happening in their communities, and that it is their children who are the collateral damage of such narrow-mindedness. They understand that a high school must prepare students for college, where they will need critical thinking to survive in thid challenging new environment. They know that their sons and daughters must be ready for intellectual demands the first day on campus, not spend their time in remedial classes learning skills that should already have been learned in high school.

Parents who make deep financial sacrifices to put their children through college want high-school teachers to insist on high standards, and tell those teachers on Back-to-School Night that they will support them when they do. They want their children enrolled in solid college-prep, honors, or AP programs that will help them do well during their college years.

They know that the senior year in high school is notoriously difficult because senior teachers are the quality-control officers for graduating seniors. These teachers will assign homework that stresses critical thinking, difficult reading assignments, and a research paper that advances a thesis, with supporting arguments, counterarguments, and rebuttal. These teachers insist that students take an active part in discussions, have time-management skills, a solid work ethic and old-fashioned Sitzfleisch.

Why do teachers do this and parents support them? The answer is simple — without these skills, students will not survive in college! Teachers of college-prep students and their parents look at high school, and especially the senior year, as the indispensable sine-qua-non to college and not as a party year before settling down in college. This is not why they are paying a yearly tuition of $40,000, so they’ll do all they can to protect their investment.

High school is the training ground to acquire the necessary knowledge, critical-thinking skills and the self-discipline to succeed in college where students will be off on their own for the first time in their lives without the daily support-system of their families, friends, and home environment. They’ll be under tremendous academic and emotional pressure facing rigorous course demands that must simply be met.

Graduating seniors become all too aware of these heightened expectations in their first weeks of college, and if they have any regrets it’s that they weren’t pushed even harder in high school. This is why college-prep, honors, and AP students take their high-school courses very seriously. Moreover, word drifts back from the colleges that everything their teachers told them is true, and if the present senior class wants to survive, they must be battle-hardened by next September.

That being said, the last thing parents want to hear is that some community members are interfering with what is going on at the high school by dictating what college-bound students can and cannot be taught. Parents urge their school board members and school administrators to hold the line when these self-appointed watch-dog groups seek to derail the educational futures of their children.

Fortunately, communities are beginning to understand this as well, and this interference is slowly receding. The Old Guard is becoming aware that it cannot jeopardize the lives of other people’s children in securing an education that will prepare them for college and the larger world outside their village. High schools are preparing students for tomorrow, not the horse-and-buggy days of yesterday.

Until state government and communities allow the teaching of different views — not as truths, but simply as other ways of viewing the world, critical thinking in American high schools will remain a mere utopian dream. Teachers can only advocate for meaningful curricular reform. For this to become a reality, they need the vocal support of both the state education departments and the local communities, but especially parents, who are totally invested in the educational success of their children as no one else could possibly be.

There remains, however, one final logistical problem before critical thinking could transform American schools — that of class size, an enormously under-appreciated reason why critical thinking in the schools could still never become a reality even if the state education departments and local communities instantly saw the light by altering their education policies and letting teachers teach critical thinking in their high school.

And now we come to the crux of the problem. Why are class sizes so unmanageably large to prevent the teaching of critical thinking? State aid cutbacks, relentless school budget defeats in the past, and now vitally-needed school funding diverted to local charters prevent public schools from hiring additional teachers to keep class sizes manageable. Everything is, like so much else in life, so inextricably interconnected.

Instead of teaching classes of 15 students, teachers may be confronted with upwards of 25 to 40 or more students, making the teaching of critical thinking impossible. The energizing storm-center of critical thinking has always been the rapid-fire, cut-and-thrust drama of class discussion.

No classes of over 15 students should ever be scheduled, especially if the power and élan of critical discussion is to be palpably felt in the classroom. Teaching 20 students is crowd control and warehousing students.

Numbers change class chemistry from all-too-willing participants in class discussion to comatose observers in a class of wall-to-wall students. This seemingly mundane matter of class size may seem insignificant to anyone who has never taught high-school students, but large classes are the kiss of death for meaningful learning. Class size matters!

Frank Breslin is a retired high-school teacher in the New Jersey public school system.
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