Friday, August 5, 2011

How We Think Depends on What We Think With

What does it matter what you teach, said one superintendent to me recently, as long as you teach how to think?  The danger, I would have argued if I hadn't been dumbstruck, is that it leaves students without ideas to think with.  Or rather, it leaves them with those ideas they are awash in every day.  For all children, that is a barrage of images from media that sell a message that cannot build a conceptual framework for a meaningful life; for those children who need education most, there is often, in addition, a daily onslaught of destructive ideas that negate self-worth, persistence, effort and resilience.  As E.F. Schumacher says, "The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds.  If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty and chaotic."  What education ought to do, he says, is provide the mind with a toolbox of powerful ideas. 

We continually ponder, in recent years, how to best teach the best process tools - creativity, critical thinking, inference, synthesis - but when we leave the "what" up to children to choose what's "relevant" to them as they "follow their passion"  (I argue students should not follow their passion), we deprive them of vital ideas with which to make sense. After all, we cannot think critically without a set of coherent ideas against which to make judgements.  We can't make inferences without a broad and rich array of ideas out of which to reason and draw conclusions.  We can't innovate and create either.  As Steven Johnson says, in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, "Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are build out of a collection of existing parts." Good "parts," surely, like fine ingredients in a meal, make better good ideas. 

The superintendent went on to say that facts and ideas, the "what" of learning, belong to the old world.  What do they matter, he said, to the future?  Had I not simply sputtered incoherently, I would have said that a profoundly changing world does not necessarily mean that everything old will become obsolete; it does demands that we clarify what's most important, what good ideas we want our children to take into the future.  After all, while facts and fads change, there are deep human ideas (truths I want to say) that are worth knowing, and new things are only learned upon a foundation of what we already know.  Children who come to school with a vast stock of ideas from rich experiences at home will flourish in an environment that focuses on helping them use those ideas creatively, critically, comprehensively.  For children who come to school for an education, to gather up the ideas that will allow them to make a life, what will they come away with?  


  1. Great post, Shelley. It's nice to see someone challenge the idea of Following passions in school and I agree with most everything you say from that constructivist POV. However, if I can push back, I'm seeing a lot of disengaged students in the class for at least the following two reasons:
    1) They're smart enough to know the answer to the age-old question, "when are we going to need this?" _never_ or,
    2) They're (rightfully) bored learning a prescribed curriculum that isn't relevant to their lives.
    I think that teaching to/through passions addresses both of these by making the material relevant and the utility immediate. This is especially so when the passions are teamed up with a project that can engage multiple learners. Who gets left behind in such a system? Students are engaging in meaningful (to them) learning while practising the 4C's of 21st Century Learning and gaining valuable life experience by which they can broaden their base of understanding. It may not be the most efficient way to get there, but it might be the most powerful.

    and I think that teachers artfully guiding

  2. Not sure what happened with that last line!" :-)

  3. I agree, Jeremy, that disengagement is a reality we have to address. But I'm beginning to think that "when are we going to need this" and "how is this relevant" are dangerous questions in the context of learning. They turn education into a commercial exchange that allows students to say, "I don't want to buy that" and teachers into "salesman," constantly seeking the right gimmick to "sell" their content. And so many of the most important ideas take years to develop and the "aha" has to come from the student - but it seems to me that it's only possible when they have a rich foundation on which to discover it. I'm currently reading Martin A. Nowak's Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. I love what he writes about math: "At first I did not appreciate the point of mathematics....At university I changed my mind. I had an epiphany, a spine-tingling moment when I realized that the precisely defined terms, equations, and symbols of mathematics are fundamental. I came to realize that mathematics holds the key to formulating the laws that govern the cosmos, from the grandest filaments, voids, and structures that stretch across the heavens to the peculiar behaviour of the tiniest and most ubiquitous grains of matter. Most important, it could say something profound about everyday life."