Can Thinking Really Be Taught?

Can Thinking Really Be Taught?

My recent essay, “The Decline of Thinking in America,” included the recommendation that schools should change their emphasis from “telling students what to think to teaching them how to think.” After reading the essay, a friend of mine asked me about that statement, I answered, and an interesting discussion ensued. Here is how it went:

Friend: Can anyone really be “taught” how to think? I’ve always heard that people are either born with that ability or they aren’t.

Me:  That was a common view for years, in some cases even centuries. Most education was based on it. That’s why when perturbed at students’ failure to grasp something, teachers would say, ”Think students, think,” but would never explain exactly what they wanted students to do, let alone how to do it. Meanwhile, instead of raising their hands and asking how, students sheepishly hung their heads and hoped the teacher would move on.

Friend:  But there have always been some students who grasped lessons better, answered questions better, and made more perceptive comments than their peers. Doesn’t that prove that some are naturally better thinkers than others? And shouldn’t we therefore conclude that thinking is inborn and can’t be taught?

Me:  It certainly shows that thinking capacity and aptitude vary from person to person, but it doesn’t prove that the ones who demonstrate their natural endowment sooner than others have more of it than others. There are mental “late bloomers” as well as physical or emotional ones. No one can say what classroom stimuli are most effective in triggering mental “blooming” in anyone, but there can be no question that treating students as if they lack capacity or aptitude will negatively affect their achievement.

Friend: You suggest that telling what to think is very different from teaching how to think. Can you explain that difference?

Me: Let me offer an analogy from sports. Imagine two basketball coaches. One had his team sit in the bleachers while he told them dramatic stories of great performances and great games. The other put his team through dribbling, passing, and shooting drills, and then had them scrimmage. If the two teams played in a game, which would you bet on? Surely the team that didn’t just acquire historical information but learned how to play the game.

Friend: That comparison makes sense for sports training, but how is it relevant to becoming an effective thinker?

Me: It is relevant because, like athletics, thinking involves the application of skills—physical ones for athletics and mental for thinking. The skills used in thinking include careful reading and listening, distinguishing between fact and opinion, verifying facts and evaluating opinions, recognizing and avoiding fallacies (of which there are many), and forming sound judgments. By the way, it’s the same with driving a car and playing a musical instrument—mastery  comes from practicing, not from observing others perform.

Friend: Can you be more specific about what classroom instruction would consist of?

Me: It would consist of presenting students with problems/issues in the field of study—history, sociology, psychology, etc.—and having them solve/resolve them. Every subject had such challenges in its past and continues to have them now. At first, students need considerable guidance, then less, and in time very little. (An important caveat—at no point does “guiding” mean doing students’ thinking for them.) As the students examine the problems and issues, they encounter a variety of viewpoints and opinions to evaluate, discuss, and debate.

As this happens, the teacher’s role changes to organizer/moderator of the discussion. By the end of the course, the students not only have knowledge about the subject, but in addition a degree of mastery and confidence well beyond what lecturing alone would have provided.

Friend: What you say sounds reasonable. But is it backed by research? If so, why hasn’t it been widely adopted in schools and colleges?

Me: Research has documented the effectiveness of such learning again and again. For example, in 1941 Edward Glaser cited 24 studies in various fields, including, science, mathematics, English, logic, and social studies, all of which “point[ed] to the conclusion that the content alone of any subject is not likely to give general training to the mind, and is not likely to develop a generalized ability to think critically.” (An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Columbia University.) That finding has been reinforced many times over decades. Moreover, innumerable books have been published to help educators at all levels of education use approaches that emphasize thinking. Though many individual instructors have adopted such approaches, thinking instruction has never permeated entire curriculums. One reason is that many educators were convinced that listening to their lectures automatically imparted thinking skill to students. Another reason is that many others feared teaching a skill they had not been trained in themselves. And no doubt more than a few simply enjoyed listening to themselves talk more than listening to their students. In any case, the failure of schools and colleges to make thinking instruction a central focus of every course and curriculum has stifled the intellectual growth of generations of students to their detriment and, it is increasingly obvious, to that of the nation.

Copyright © 2022 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero