Critical thinking, with facts

Social studies teachers are discussing whether to teach students to love their country or sneer at it, says the Chicago Tribune. I think the story sets up a false dichotomy: Either teachers can teach “critical thinking” or teach facts.

The topic of class discussion was “Iraqification”–a term associated with the transfer of responsibility for Iraq’s security from American soldiers to the Iraqi people — and the students did not lack opinions on the subject.

Leading the Advanced Placement World History lab at Noble Street Charter High School in Chicago, teacher Joe Tenbusch asked his students at what time during the Iraq conflict more people have been killed.

“After we won,” said Victoria Janik, 16, with a smirk, bringing nods and smiles of agreement from her peers, who had been pondering President Bush’s possible motives for favoring Iraqification.

While some educators might find the exchange valuable–or, at worst, harmless–an outspoken group of social studies teachers around the country say such classroom scenes breed cynical, anti-American attitudes.

High school students, they argue, simply are not mature enough to engage in critical thinking. Teachers should focus on imparting a solid knowledge of history, economics, American traditions and government–in short, the ideals and values of a free society.

Students can’t think critically if they lack knowledge. In this case, the student is right in thinking that U.S. casualties (not “people”) are a factor in the desire to give more authority to Iraqis. The question is whether she knows other facts. How many people did Saddam Hussein kill, directly and indirectly? How did the Occupation go in Germany and Japan after World War II? How did South Korea become a democracy?

Critical thinking is a lot harder than people think, because it requires knowledge.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. High school students, they argue, simply are not mature enough to engage in critical thinking.

    Yikes! I’m not certain that I’d want a general high schooler making decisions for the country, but the idea that we shouldn’t allow or encourage them to think for themselves is ludicrous. My 10 year old son is not especially reflective, but we’ve spent hours discussing current events and why both sides think they’re right.

    Give them the facts – both sides. Give them your opinion – and why you might be wrong. (Especially important nowadays when emotions are high and everyone holding a different opinion is either stupid or evil.)

    Can’t engage in critical thinking? Bah! At worst, perhaps, they’re not inclined to do so. But then, neither are most adults. Doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.

  2. I wonder if any of these students or teachers know where more americans have been killed this year–Iraq or L.A.

    Also, who said we won? I heard that the ‘major’ conflict was over. This, to me, means that our major offensive effort was over with, but that there would still be fighting.

    I do not believe that the students are unable to think critically. They may, as Joanne notes, be lacking in accurate knowledge of the situation. They also are likely lacking in knowledge of related issues. However, they can think critically.

  3. YES! Thank you for saying that, Joanne. That has been one of my pet peeves for the longest time. People keep expressing this desire to teach children to think critically (at younger and younger ages), but without knowledge you are left with only your own opinions and feelings. If we give children the idea that you can think about your feelings critically, we’re not teaching critical thinking! Until they have FACTS in their head, there is nothing to think critically ABOUT. Cram their heads with information. Then we can teach them how to sort it out.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    “After we won” is the Straw Dog arguement that is so prevalent lately. If you can not argue with the real president, erect one out of whole cloth and attack him. Some times it is enough to drive me to drink. For which, thanks.

  5. In order to engage in critical thinking, you first need to know how to think. A better place to start, especially in high school and below, would be to teach basic symbolic logic and reasoning, and how to recognize formal & informal fallacies etc. But I doubt they could find enough qualified instructors.

  6. Agreed that a little formal logic would help, as would debating skills (proof by repetition, proof by authority, etc. :-)).

    However, it is pretty hard to apply these as we can see from even the above argument. Politicians are adept at conveying meaning without using the particular words.

    Perhaps a more useful skill is media awareness. Show clips of advertisements – ask what impression they are trying to leave – then concentrate on what was actually said. (Ivory Snow – 99.whatever% pure – Pure what?, etc.)

    I would use politics (both sides, of course), except it would get you lynched by parents from both sides and probably get any such program closed down real fast. However, it would certainly be one of the more useful skills a student could learn.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Critical thinking is not about thinking critically. It’s a code word and a cover for anti-US, anti-west, anti-capitalist propaganda.
    Do any of those teachers teach kids to think critically about, say, Communism?
    Socialism?
    Anarchy?
    It actually helps to keep the kids fact-ignorant, because if they had the facts, they might not come to the conclusions the teachers want.

  8. PJ/Maryland says:

    Yeah, I think “critical thought” is all well and good, but it’s hard to do at the high school level. The course mentioned was AP World History; in theory, students are getting an overview of the history of the whole planet; so how much time can we spend imparting facts about Iraq under Saddam Hussein, let alone the facts of the Battle of Iraq in the war on terrorism?

    What ends up happening is the students think critically about a couple of facts (“more US soldiers [not ‘people’] were killed after the end of major hostilities [not ‘after we won’] than before”). As Mrs du Toit says, the whole exercise ends up being about “feelings”. And if any kind of thinking could be defined as the opposite of “critical thinking”, it would have to be “feeling thinking”. (Hmm, can I get a trademark on that phrase?)

    I suppose some high schoolers might be able to think critically. But an important first lesson is not to go off half-cocked, and that really thinking critically means not just accepting the facts you’re spoon-fed.

  9. Critical thinking is not about thinking critically. It’s a code word and a cover for anti-US, anti-west, anti-capitalist propaganda.

    <sarcasm>Indeed, the teacher conspiracy strikes again! You’re obviously on to them. No doubt you’ll mysteriously disappear soon enough.</sarcasm>

    Possibly, just possibly, teachers have a wide range of opinions like the rest of the humanity. Some support the current government, some support the last, some support both, and some support neither. Teachers are not a monolithic lot. To teach critical thinking requires that you be able to explain both sides of an issue, even when you don’t subscribe to both sides.

    (Just try explaining why some people oppose gay marriage to a logical 10 year old without making them sound like they are resorting to “proof by authority” :-). It can be done, but it took a lot of work to explain it in terms he understood.)

    However, given the obvious unhappiness if a teacher dares to express a sentiment on a touchy issue not in keeping with a parent’s opinion (occurs on either side), it is probably best that such critical thinking be taught using less current issues. There are still issues that are current enough for students to be interested, yet not going to cause shouts of “traitor” or “war-monger” by parents.

  10. Some high school teachers do teach students how to analyze ads and design mock ads in order to think about persuasion and propaganda.

    Come to think of it, in sixth grade, my daughter was assigned to design an ad for an Egyptian god or goddess. Her slogan: “In a crisis, pray to Isis!” No, there were no church-state complaints. Nobody thinks that schools are on the verge of instituting Egyptian religion.

  11. “Critical thinking is a lot harder than people think, because it requires knowledge.”

    Bravo, J.J.

    I’ve always thought that studying lit was an excellent way to learn about the tools of persuasion and propaganda.

    By the way, I have excellent “media awareness” – I am aware that there is media. Bravo for me, too.

  12. Critically thinking without facts is like a horse without legs. Its functionally useless. Critical thinking with incomplete facts is only slightly better.

  13. Facts matter, but so does logic. Everyone should be exposed to the rudiments of formal logic, and should also experience competitive debate. “Media awareness” may be of value, but by itself could just be one more feeder for cynicism (“everything they’re telling us is a lie, so why worry about what is true, anyhow?”)

  14. Why in the heck would a teacher explain to a 10 year old why some people oppose (or support) gay marriage? That’s totally inappropriate. That is for the PARENTS to convey. That gets into an exlanation of homosexuality vs. heterosexuality, bias for or against, religion, morals, etc. It is not a topic for children. The only answer to that question is, “talk to your parents.”

  15. “To teach critical thinking requires that you be able to explain both sides of an issue, even when you don’t subscribe to both sides.”

    I’ve often thought that the type of teaching that best develops critical thinking asks students to be prepared for and to engage in argumentation of either side in a controversy.

    The ideal for the teacher is to play devil’s advocate to all points of view challenging students to actually develop critical logical and reasoning skills. Intelligent teachers possessing some of those same skills should strive to leave students in the dark about their own views on issues being discussed. Too often the opposite is true.

    “It is probably best that such critical thinking be taught using less current issues.”

    I agree. There is whole universe of complex and important subjects that can be used to teach critical thinking skills that aren’t as problematic as current political conflicts. Subjects should be age appropriate.

    I would like students, including undergraduate college students, to be both interested and engaged but not strident in taking positions. I think it is best both for students and society to use early adulthood for exploration of ideas. Instead teachers and professor are too often encouraging activism which is rarely compatible with having an open mind. Instead of making grand decisions on the nature of world, I would encourage the humility that their nascent thinking abilities and limited knowledge ought to call for.

    The important connection between knowledge and critical thinking is valid but I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ague from limited knowledge as long as there is recognition that without a good command of the facts, the reasoning will likely produce flawed results in the real world (humility again). A good teacher can point out such factual shortcomings and encourage students to see what knowledge is necessary and seek it out.

  16. Why in the heck would a teacher explain to a 10 year old why some people oppose (or support) gay marriage? That’s totally inappropriate.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to create a misunderstanding. That 10 year old *was* my son (I’m a computer geek, not a teacher). I just used the last discussion I had where I was producing both side’s arguments.

    The conversation came up when he read headlines about people opposing gay marriage (this is Canada, so it was in the papers a lot) and couldn’t figure out why. The challenge for me was to come up with an explanation that allowed him to respect those who opposed it.

    As for homosexuality as a topic for children, the first time that “gay” is used as an insult in the playground (without, of course, any knowledge of what “gay” means), it is time to explain *why* it’s not appropriate. Of course, that brings in a whole lot of other stuff. (Probably not justifications for/against gay marriage, but in Canada, at least an explanation that it *is* legal.)

  17. Confucius said it well a long time ago:

    Learing without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous.

  18. Instead of making grand decisions on the nature of world, I would encourage the humility that their nascent thinking abilities and limited knowledge ought to call for.

    I heartily agree with all of kd’s post, but I think this quoted bit is extraordinarily important, not just for children, but for adults. A respect for opinions that you *don’t* hold, and a willingness to obtain the facts that underlie those opinions, is critical for a healthy society and a sharp mind. If you can’t imagine being wrong, you can’t learn.

  19. I’m reminded of what Lee Harris called “naive cynicism.”

    >>Once the world-historical magnitude of the risk is understood, it is possible for men of good will to differ profoundly over the wisdom of this or that particular response – and not only possible, but necessary. But this must be done in a climate free of pettiness and personalities: the cult of naïve cynicism – that oxymoron that characterizes so much of what passes today for intellectual sophistication – must be dismantled and as soon as possible if we are to make our response as intelligent and as creative as it must and can be.

  20. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tom West is doing the straw man thing.
    You don’t need a “conspiracy” when so many people think alike already.
    How did the kid get the wrong information? From the teacher?
    How did the kid get the attitude?
    Do you expect the kids in that class to think that way of socialism? Of the Sovs in the Cold War?
    Actually, I won’t disappear. This crap only works when the kids are forced to sit still for it and don’t get any help in thinking from their parents.
    I knew a couple of kids who got the US is racist pitch regarding the use of the atomic bomb. Why not use it on Germany? was the question the teach asked.
    I had them look up the sequence, VE Day, Trinity, Hiroshima. They discovered they’d been hosed–AND THEY TOLD THEIR CLASSMATES.
    Is that good critical thinking or bad critical thinking?
    I love thinking about it.

  21. Found this blog just now. Made me wonder what they would mae of it in a high school Social Studies class.

    http://iraqthemodel.blogspot.com/

  22. I knew a couple of kids who got the US is racist pitch regarding the use of the atomic bomb. Why not use it on Germany? was the question the teach asked.
    I had them look up the sequence, VE Day, Trinity, Hiroshima. They discovered they’d been hosed–AND THEY TOLD THEIR CLASSMATES.
    Is that good critical thinking or bad critical thinking?

    How on earth could that be considered bad critical thinking? The teacher appears to have not been clear on the facts and the students clearly refuted them with facts and logic. I’m not certain if “been hosed” is the term I’d use. Anyone who hasn’t corrected teachers on occasion isn’t paying attention.

    On the other hand, “so many people think alike” seems to be perhaps a little soft on the facts side. I’m certainly willing to believe that teachers as an average are a little on the left of the American political spectrum. It’s a characteristic of almost any group that devotes their life to helping others in a not particularly financially lucrative profession (think nurses, doctors in free clinics, legal aid lawyers, etc.)

    However, accusing them all of being anti-American, anti-capitalist lackeys of the former communist empire seems to lean a little in the “tin-foil beanie” direction. Have you considered that you probably don’t note the numerous teachers who espoused to their students a philosophy that you agree with?

    Or is this a case that there should only be one belief allowed – yours?

  23. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tom, you are being DO (deliberately obtuse) in order to avoid the point.
    The guy was a TEACHER. That used to, in the old fascist days, imply a grasp of basic facts.
    So when he got a very simple sequence wrong (VE Day, Trinity, Hiroshima), we don’t think it was an accident. In fact, since he was trying to make a point using those facts, one presumes he had made a bit of effort to verify his facts.
    The facts he told the kids were told wrong in order to bolster his vile and incorrect attack on the US’ motives and national character, on purpose.
    To think it was an innocent error strains credulity.
    It was “bad” critical thinking to actually check his facts since no edbiz critical thinking actually is supposed to come to the conclusion that Truman didn’t use the bomb for racist purposes. That’s why it’s bad. It didn’t come to the received conclusion.
    As to whose belief?
    Jeez. You think that sequence can vary and be equally true in any combination based on one’s “belief”?
    I’d use the term “hosed” because he deliberately set out to misinform his students.
    I have a problem with that.
    I am tickled that it got shoved up his nose in front of his class by students.
    Nothing he could do about it, either.
    Except possibly go looking for more gullible folks.
    Maybe in junior high or someplace.

  24. High-school students are “too immature” to learn critical thinking? Critical thinking is a code word for anti americanism?

    Well, if you apply critical thinking to the policies of the current administration – and clearly, you sound like the sort to be having the pointy-end facing you – I can see how that might be uncomfortable. But I see no lack of Critical Thinking in the writings of the founders – not even regarding one another.

    My 9th Grade Religion teacher, Father Kieran, SJ, would have clouted me had I NOT applied critical thought to Church Doctrine (I sometimes wonder exactly WHY the school quietly folded) and all he said to me when I suggested that there was a FAR more reasonable explaination for Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s sainthood than Divine Insemination was “Ah, shaddup, ya wee heathen!” Smiling, of course… 🙂

    Debate was required, as was Latin – and it’s amazing how valuable a year of latin was.

    Oh, and the state-wide debate topic was on Abortion rights. And nobody, NOBODY, got to throw the debates.

    They taught me that a good question is far better than a predigested answer.

    An answer may or may not be true – and it will keep you from looking it up for yourself.

    (And they were DEMONS for making you write an essay proving you HAD researched some smartass question…)

    No, Critical thinking is only feard by those who don’t wish you to look behind the curtain so you will continue to fear the Great And Terrible Oz.

    BTW, did you know that book was a political satire of the day? :>

  25. Well, I can only say that I strongly suspect you are imputing far more motive/strategy into this teacher’s actions than was actually there. (Of course, I could be wrong.)

    A more plausible explanation was that the teacher knew that the United States at that time was fairly racist, and the Pacific theatre had been cast in racial terms far more than the European theatre. Hence the easy (and in my opinion, incorrect) assumption that the Atomic bombing was also influenced by racial bias. Could it easily be refuted: yes. Would he bother to look up the facts: no, as it corresponded with what the teacher believed to be general sentiment at the time.

    No conspiracy. Simply an error of using incorrect facts to substantiate what was a true general sentiment. (Now, a teacher should also point out that that among societies of that time, the USA was one of the *least* racist. It’s just that doesn’t say all that much…)

    My question for you is would you be equally incensed by a teacher who claimed that the USA declared war on Spain in response to the Spanish sinking of the Maine?

  26. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘Social studies teachers are discussing whether to teach students to love their country or sneer at it’

    Why are they teaching either. That’s not education, that’s indoctrination.

    ‘teacher Joe Tenbusch asked his students at what time during the Iraq conflict more people have been killed.

    “After we won,” said Victoria Janik, 16, with a smirk, bringing nods and smiles of agreement from her peers, who had been pondering President Bush’s possible motives for favoring Iraqification.’

    Teacher Joe obviously should have corrected smirky Vicky or sent her to math class. Obviously more people were killed before the fall of Baghdad. Since the conflict was ongoing at one level or another since 1991 she picked about the worst answer. Since the response of the teacher isn’t given in the blurb in this post we don’t know if the teacher corrected her or condoned her incorrect response.

    From the sounds of it this isn’t critical thinking, it’s just leftover activism and it’s not the schools place to promote it, no matter which side they take.

  27. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tom, we still have the problem of teachers being expected to know stuff. You know, like real stuff. Facts, even. That teacher wasn’t just channeling the aura, he was repeating what many others had said as well. It is unlikely he figured it out himself. So, even if he is innocent and incompetent, that only makes it go back one step, to whichever instructor deliberately misinformed him, and to his own lack of interest–because accusing others of racism is a cheap way of building self-image when nothing else supports it–in finding out what went on.
    He also ought to have thought that, since Truman was the one who made the decision and nobody else who was being racist had ever heard of the bomb, much less was consulted on its use, it would be necessary to prove that Truman, and Truman alone, was motivated by racism. Either the question never arose, in which case he’s incompetent, or he hoped his students wouldn’t think of it because he knew better.
    Neither is good.
    But since he’s not alone in this crap, and since this crap is regularly contradicted, the idea that he can be innocently ignorant does not fly.
    As to the Spanish-American war, in that case, public opinion was important, unlike the use of the bomb. Thus, the loss of the Maine was a factor in the decision to go to war.
    Even if it was ginned up, or hauled in as a useful tragedy, it was highly important.

  28. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Give the children the mechanism to collect information themselves, don’t seduce them with predigested opinions of the instructor.

  29. The best class I ever took was American Political Systems, in tenth grade. Once a week, we would have a debate, with one student acting as moderator, who would have to write up a two-page basic summary of the issue, and two students arguing each side. After the debate everyone in the class who didn’t participate in that debate would have to write down the major points of both sides, which side they thought ‘won’ the debate, and why they agreed with that side.

    Everyone was urged to argue sides that they didn’t agree with as well as ones they did – I moderated flag-burning, and argued pro-racial profiling, pro-affirmative action, and con-welfare. It was great watching everyone discover that a side they had thought was defenseless before actually made a lot of sense, and had lots of good points. And Graphictruth – I’d say that the single thing that helped my debating skills most was studying Cicero in Latin.

    Anyone who says that high school kids aren’t mature enough to engage in critical thinking is cordially invited to email me and engage in a debate; I don’t consider myself brilliant, but I think I’ve got a bit of critical thinking going on. And what’s more, so does everyone in my school. The jocks and the cheerleaders were just as proficient in the debates as the nerds, once they got into it. Try testing a teenager’s critical thinking on something that’s important to him. Sure, he may not have an opinion on Social Security, but ask him about gay marriage, or abortion, or anything else that he’s had to think about in real life.

  30. Steve LaBonne says:

    Really, all discussions of the false dichotomy between “critical thinking” and “facts” could just as well begin and end with Darren’s Confucius quote. There’s really nothing more to be said on the subject.

  31. Caddie, I know you’re capable of critical debate. People who aren’t around teenagers all day have odd notions about what you’re all about. A good teacher uses critical thinking to spur inquiry into “the facts” (which most people won’t memorize without context or motivation — not even bloggers).

  32. Richard Aubrey says:

    Rita, you’re correct.
    But then, we weren’t talking about a good teacher, were we?
    As one poster put it, it was left-over activism, accompanied by twisted facts, or non-facts, dressed up as “critical thinking”.

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