Texas is a big state.  If you think of a map of the United States and then imagine that every state is a weirdly shaped pancake, Texas is that “accidental” pancake caused by an overly ambitious pour.  California looks like a failed attempt to create the mythical “boomerang” pancake–you throw it out and it rewards you by flying right back into your mouth.  Maine, Connecticut, and all those other New Englandy states are just tiny dollops of Buttermilk batter.  You feed those to your dog (along with that burnt portion of Colorado).

Texas

The advantage Texas has in bigness of land it more than makes up for in smallness of thought.  That is, of course, an unfair statement.  There are countless Texans who are big thinkers–people who ponder, mull, cogitate, and even soliloquize.  Texas’ bigness ensures that there are and will always be Texans of this persuasion.  The problem, however, is that few of them seem to be in the state’s GOP.

Please direct your attention to Exhibit A.  As part of their 2012 platform, the Republican Party of Texas took a stand against critical thinking skills being taught in schools, stating:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

If you are a student who enjoys listening to authority figures telling you what to think, rejoice!  Now you can memorize and parrot back to your teachers everything in your textbooks and you’ll be assured an A!  Forget about questioning and concentrate on answering.  Revel in the fact that the content of your education will now closely mirror the values and beliefs instilled in you by your parents (warning: this statement only valid if your parents happen to be politically conservative).

I jest, but there are some serious problems with opposing critical thinking in schools.  If you think schools are little knowledge factories that stuff students full of facts and  offer them diplomas for their trouble, critical thinking might not be that important to you.  If, however, you believe that schools have a duty to produce individuals who can create new knowledge–not opportunely regurgitate the content of an ideologically influenced curriculum–then your hackles are probably up right now.

As a child, I was never a fan of the term “critical thinking.”  It invoked in me an implacable fear of blue essay books and the “show what you know” mantra.  When confronted with a critical thinking prompt, my thoughts would seize or scurry about my skull-space like spiders (less critical and more “critterful” thinking).  I excelled at other forms of thinking.  Magical thinking came easily to me; I had no trouble believing I could say exactly what I wanted, exactly when I wanted, to exactly whom I wanted.  My inability to distinguish between the real world and the world of legos proved my mastery of creative thinking.  And I was practically a genius at wishful thinking (magical’s first cousin), hoping every year that the first half of school would somehow be called off and summer break extended to Christmas.

During grade school this wishful thinking even led me, in some strange way, to agree with the Texas GOP braintrust.  I remember reading a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip in which a robot gives Calvin a knowledge upgrade by sawing open his head and spackling in some gray matter.  He then promises Calvin that he’ll never need to go to school again because he now has all the knowledge he’ll ever require.  Ah.  If only.

The Thinker by Rodin

In the aforelinked article, the author mentions that there has been some scholarly work questioning the assumption that critical thinking is a skill that can be taught.  In one study, Daniel Willingham looks at decades of cognitive research and comes to the somewhat depressing conclusion that critical thinking isn’t a teachable skill.  He states,

 “After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill.”

Whether or not critical thinking can be taught, I think there’s still a fairly strong case to be made that it deserves a place in schools.  Teachers modeling critical thinking and encouraging it in their students looks, smells, walks, and talks like an essential part of education.  And when all is said and done, I am in the camp that believes the true value of education is found in the quality of questions it inspires, not the correctness of answers it demands.

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