The Purpose of Education_My Philosophy of Teaching

To many, teaching is defined quite simply as imparting knowledge or information about a subject. The student is seen as a sponge ready to soak up all the teacher has to deliver. Typically, the emphasis is on the content of the subject matter so that, for example, an accounting instructor will discuss how to make a journal entry and post to the ledger or how to generate a cash flow statement. Or, a professor of engineering would provide information about how and why mass, velocity and force interact. In these and other cases, instructors impart knowledge, assist in understanding the subject content or demonstrate how to apply the subject-specific information. I agree that educators are commissioned by society and by a sense of responsibility to accomplish all the above, but I also believe that educators have an equally important, if not more important, duty – to challenge and teach students to think in a higher-order manner. Thus, teachers are to present challenging material in concert with critical thinking demands.

Teaching content without teaching critical thinking is to create students who are veritable biological tape recorders that play back thought for thought the ideas of the teacher or a textbook. Such an educator creates mindless parrots and awards them grades that correlate with their facility to regurgitate on demand. Too often, critical thinking, if considered at all, is viewed as ancillary or possibly a separate course altogether, as opposed to something that should be etched and dyed into the fabric of the course.

In other words, learning is best achieved and superior long-lasting results can be achieved when students are challenged to both know and understand the subject and to think critically. To reshape the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in education, the subject or course is the ‘tool’ (and there are many) but critical thinking is “the handle which fits them all”. Thus, my philosophy is two-fold:

1. The subject matter should be sufficiently rigorous so that students must exert themselves mentally to succeed in the course

2. The course should be designed so that critical thinking is necessary if the student is to be a top performer

Challenging The Students

Regarding the first point, I embrace the belief espoused by John Stuart Mill who so brilliantly stated, “A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.” Or, as I have often stated in my classes where I speak of a girl who tells her coach, “I never knew I could run a mile until you told me I had to run two.”

Learning is best accomplished when the mind is challenged, pushed, pulled, stretched and otherwise subjected to the paces so that the student comes to know and understand the subject as best she can. This is not to say that a course should be taught in such a way that it is impossible to learn it sufficiently, but it is to say that it is a disservice to students when they are not required to exert themselves beyond their mental set points. (Of course, there are statistical outliers, namely, those for whom what is challenging for the majority is either impossible to attain or comfortably and easily attained.)

Many students have set points or limits to their abilities that are either self-imposed or internalized as a result of embracing limits others have imposed on them. Education should be, in part, about bursting through those limits and reaching just beyond what was presumed to be their maximum reach. No matter the course or class a student takes, the educator should move appropriately from being a life jacket to a life-guard. Ideally, she should inspire the student to welcome the pursuit of the difficult and to convey to the students that they are best served by attempting the difficult.

This is not to say, however, a fifth-grade student should be taught analytic geometry when all she knows is fifth-grade arithmetic. I am saying, however, that a fifth-grade course can be designed with the intent to push the student beyond assumed limitations so that her reach extends farther; her boundaries have expanded because the educator has laid the basis for such expansion. The educator must strike that sweet spot between the easy and the impossible. The course subject matter should never be easy but never be impossible. It is the responsibility of the educator to know the difference. In short, the student, in concert with the educator, should create new limits (that, it is hoped, will also be exceeded later) in the same way a personal trainer prepares and pushes her clients to new levels of performance.

Pushing students beyond their current limits may cause frustration or dismay. Though it is the obligation of the educator to challenge any initial excessive confidence a student may have, she also has the duty to save the student from sinking into a state of abject defeat when the challenge seems too great. Being challenged will often create discomfort just as physical exertion during exercise creates discomfort. This assignment is certainly a challenge for the educator but failure to embrace such a challenge would amount to dereliction of duty.

Lastly, it should be noted that a rigorous course has more to do with the quality of the material and not merely the quantity of work to be done in the course. Piling on tons of homework or reading material rather than developing challenging material is simply a gross disservice. Quality first – quantity second. Once again, this may be a challenge to the educator but such is the path we have chosen in life.

Critical Thinking

With respect to the second point, namely, critical thinking, there are several different definitions or perspectives such as Francis Bacon’s: “Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and hatred for every kind of posture.” Francis Bacon [1605].

As if elaborating on Bacon’s formulation, W.G. Sumner in his work entitled, Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (1940) writes: “Critical thinking is… the examination and test of propositions of any kind which are offered for acceptance in order to find out whether they correspond to reality or not. The critical faculty is a product of education and training. It is a prime condition of human welfare that men and women should be trained in it. It is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension.” (Emphasis mine).

Mr. Sumner expands on the role of education with respect to critical thinking by asserting: “Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty… A teacher of any subject, who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision, is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators.”

He then cites the benefits of critical thinking. Persons who think critically “are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty … They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence … They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.” (Emphasis mine)

Thus, education should be a rigorous mental exercise with the intent to learn the subject matter content complimented by exercises in critical thinking. One without the other is like a hand without an opposable thumb. Subject content are the bricks and critical thinking is the mortar.

To define critical thinking less eloquently, critical thinking requires that one confronts a claim or assertion, punch it, kick it, stomp on it and if it stands back up, then it is worthy of qualified acceptance – until it no longer is. Stated otherwise, in my own words: There is no idea or belief I so dearly cherish so as to shield it from rigorous scrutiny or thoughtful challenge. There is no idea or belief I esteem so highly that I will not alter it or abandon it – sacrifice it in favor of standing even closer to the truth. Thus, critical thinking, of necessity, demands that one also “audi alteram partem” (hear the other side) and to be willing to change one’s ideas or beliefs out of respect and adoration of accuracy or truth.

To embrace such a credo, one must constantly embrace critical thinking and therefore be suspicious of “certainty” and approach it with caution. That does not mean that cynicism should be the norm; it means, that healthy skepticism should be the practice – healthy skepticism as one of the functions of critical thinking. an experienced critical thinker raises sharp questions and identifies assumptions. She gathers relevant data and information and uses them adroitly to reach a well-reasoned and logical conclusion that can withstand intelligent scrutiny. She is open-minded and is willing to dismiss what she formerly believed if by doing so, she is more correct than before.

At this point I want to compare the value of learning subject matter content versus learning critical thinking. Learning to think critically is the superior one of the two. Firstly, subject matter content is a product of critical thinking. For example, whoever developed the formula for the quadratic equation, or whoever discovered the structure or shape of the DNA molecule had to use critical thinking. In short, all subjects taught are primarily (though not always) derived from critical thinking. Even if the content turns out to be incorrect, the correction is also a function of critical thinking.

Furthermore, critical thinking has a vastly more utilitarian function than learning a particular subject matter. As I tell my students, ten years from now, some of them may not remember how to determine the net present value of an investment or what the four Ps of marketing are. Knowing how to amortize a corporate bond that was sold at a premium is important but learning to think critically is priceless. Critical thinking trumps content and content is almost always based on critical thinking.

To further confirm the superiority and importance of critical thinking it should be noted that critical thinking is uncommon; in fact, it is essentially unnatural. Too many people merely swallow the ideas fed to them from youth up without pushing back or questioning the veracity or logic of assertions presented to them. They follow the crowd and often fear casting doubt on commonly-accepted premises and their subsequent conclusions. Accepting what one is told is much easier and much more comfortable than deciding to challenge whether an idea or belief is actually correct or logical. Educators should encourage students to reject such fears and to live a life in which critical thinking becomes as nearly as important as oxygen.

Thus, critical thinking is a vital life skill. Failure to have and exercise it can have baleful consequences. Adolph Hitler stated, “How fortunate for leaders that men do not think.” And to reveal how rare critical thinkers are, when Governor Adlai Stevenson (who was considered erudite and scholarly) ran for President it is claimed that one reporter shouted out, “Governor Stevenson, every thinking person is on your side”. The Governor reportedly said in response, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.” It is because people fail to think or that many do not, that they are misled “by stump orators” or that they are victims of “delusion, deception, superstition and misapprehension.”

All too often, people seek confirmation rather than truth. They reject or ignore what is contrary to their untested ideas or beliefs. It is the responsibility of the educator to subject her students to the rigors of critical thinking. Even if truth is elusive, the student is better for having been put through the paces of critical thinking.

Another aspect of critical thinking is creative thinking. Critical thinking involves synthesizing information as well as analyzing it. Creative thinking is a specialized way of synthesizing information to produce something “new”. Creative thinking to a lesser or greater extent requires the other aspects of critical thinking, namely, evaluating, and seeking proof and challenging assertions.

Looking at the relationship between the teacher and the pupil from a different angle, there may be specific points in time when the teacher can learn from the student. Napoleon Bonaparte stated, “I am never angered when contradicted; I seek to be enlightened.” If an educator is going to weave critical thinking throughout the course there may be times when she is respectfully challenged. As a devotee of critical thinking, she should welcome any demonstration of critical thinking even if it is presented as a respectful challenge. Sometimes, the teacher can learn from the pupil. To that end, it is better to be enlightened than to be “right”.

Being taught the subject without being taught to think produces an educated fool at worse or a mediocre student at best. Hence, the true mission of an educator.

Published in: on September 14, 2017 at 12:19 AM  Comments (1)  
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