The Language Fix

A blog for sharing language and learning information


March 2016

Let’s (Really) Teach Critical Thinking Skills

How incredible is it that half of the people in the U.S. think that the other half is brainwashed, with the other half convinced the exact same about the others?  Most of our population really believes that vast swathes of the people with whom they share a country are delusional about pretty much every important aspect of how they think that country should run.  How did we get to this point?  What can we, as educators, do?

Well, one thing is to get real about teaching critical thinking skills.

I can the imagine the immediate objections:  “Critical thinking is already everywhere in education lately.  From the benchmarks to the buzzwords, critical thinking is literally everywhere!”  This objection does have a strong element of truth.  But it’s missing so much of what critical thinking actually is.

Critical thinking skills are not just skills of Bloom-like discovery, analysis, and synthesis, as so eloquently described here or here.  And it doesn’t just involve jamming buzz words, such as inference, problem solve, assessment, etc. into benchmarks, as has often happened following the national standards movement that began gathering steam in the 1980s, before steamrolling into the brick wall of the anti-core curriculum movement of late.  And if you want to pay a lot of money to learn these segments of how to critically think, the professional development industry will certainly oblige.

So, with all of this critical thinking education out there, and now for so long, why does it seem as though so many of our citizens are still so delusional?  I believe that the answer lies in what our critical thinking teaching has been missing.  Critical thinking is logical thinking.  Logical thinking involves a primary importance on truth above all else, even if it involves admitting mistakes.  It also involves knowing logical argumentation, along with being able to identify mistakes, including bias and fallacies.  It involves things like cross referencing, and citing sources.  These things simply aren’t being taught today.

When somebody’s media source takes a quote out of context, everybody should be immediately pointing out that “That’s cherry picking!”  When a Democrat argues with a Republican about just about anything, neither side should care as much about winning as about getting to the truth.  There shouldn’t be a disdain for “statistics” or “numbers.”  Everybody should know as much about confirmation bias as they do about Beyonce.  They should know how to cross reference.

And so, my plan is to do my little part.  In the upcoming weeks I will post some information, with some examples of common fallacies, as well as some information on bias and evidence, geared toward teens and adults who are either unfamiliar with these, or just need a brush up.  My plan is also to post some accompanying worksheets on my Free Language Stuff website, and my Teachers Pay Teachers store that will be free or close to it.  When the buzzwords finally become words like facts, evidence, statistics, fallacies, and logic, then hopefully the delusions will start to fade.

The Head in the Sand Syndrome

Two young daughters hover nearby as their mother carries her newborn infant.  Precise handling techniques are used to ensure the baby’s head doesn’t fall.  One of the daughters watches, while the other doesn’t.  After suggesting each take their turns, the mother asks the watching daughter to hand the baby to the other.  What happens?  Well, hopefully in this scenario the second daughter does just fine.  Hopefully, she properly lifts the baby’s head because she’s at least watched her knowledgeable sister.  Hopefully she uses observational learning, a learning theory popularized by Albert Bandura and his bobo dolls.

That observational learning is critical in a wide variety of situations, from language, to morality, to eating with chopsticks, is widely accepted, yet as a way of actually learning it seems to often fly under the radar.  However, here I’m not talking about domains such as speech and language (where people are often advised to model the correct sounds), behavior (where experts frequently extol the virtues of modeling correct behavior), or sports or music (often taught by “watch this, then do this”), but now I’m talking about groups.

We seem to increasingly be a society of information proliferation outpacing our ability to effectively use information.  Daylight savings is just one case in point; an example of an idea that people love to criticize while ignoring how others do it.  I did find this one article examining some trials of daylight savings in other countries, which generally suggested that many (but not all) people elsewhere tend to dislike the practice.  Though I’m curious about the sentiment in other countries, with this topic as well as so many others, I don’t seem to share this curiosity with many others.

We do sometimes get bits and pieces filtered to us.  We know that some states and countries do health care well.  There have been many surveys of happiness comparing different cultures and countries.  In education, some school districts are acknowledged as being successful, although recent attempts to put numbers out there in order to enable easier comparisons, have far too often done nothing but muddle the situation, providing an excellent example of a case of information overload actually making things more difficult to understand.  How many people know how well their school is actually doing?  Why isn’t anybody talking about how hard it is to find out?

This then brings us to the opposite of observational learning – the “head in the sand” syndrome.  Observational learning works when both our curiosity and our desire to improve cause us to

ostrich head in sand
It’s a myth that ostriches hide their heads in the sand.  Don’t believe me?  You don’t have to.  You can look it up.

attend to what someone else is doing, hoping to emulate it.  The head in the sand phenomenon occurs when our fear causes us to ignore what others are doing because it might be uncomfortable.  The recent situation in Flint, Michigan, as well as the general ignoring of similar infrastructure needs throughout much of the rest of America are good examples.  And this happens as well in education.  And in health care, the environment, health and exercise, and a whole slew of subjects with potentially uncomfortable truths.

The good news is that increasingly, with so many subjects, the statistics are getting out there.  Sure, there is a distrust of the media, and of the internet, but it doesn’t take much to cross reference stats, and see who’s distorting what.  The first step often involves just the simple lifting of a head.

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