I think, therefore I learn

11th May 2013 at 20:33

Here’s my James Randi challenge to educators: Thinking skills don’t exist.


Now a proposition of that magnitude is going to take some propping up, so before anyone pops a vein, I’ll issue the caveats. I don’t mean that thinking doesn’t exist. Descartes did a tidy job of showing us that it was perhaps the only truth that we could reasonably claim as being intuitively demonstrable. My beef is with the relatively modern claim that there are a specific set of skills that can be taught independently of the factual content of a topic, and that they can be taught in a meaningful way.


The first problem is that there is no consensus about what such a set of skills might resemble. I get into a lot of arguments with indignant thinking skill fundamentalists who are perfectly happy to give me their definition of thinking skills, but who are then unable to show me why their taxonomy is superior (or even different) to alternatives.


Worse than that wobbly leg is that there isn’t a table at all. What evidence is there to suggest that thinking skills exist as a discrete discipline of their own? I’m happy to advise at this point: none. It’s an ontological invention. There is no empirical evidence of their existence, nor are they demonstrably true by appealing to reason alone.


So that’s a pretty big strike against them. But because I don’t like to leave a job half done, I’m going to kick the non-existent skills when they’re down: they assume that children need to be taught how to think. This is completely absurd. Children don’t need to be taught how to think. No one does. We think constantly. It’s a pre-requisite of consciousness, of cognition, of awareness. It’s the one thing I don’t have to ask my kids to do. It’s like teaching them to have a pulse.


What do people even mean when they say we have to teach thinking skills? Usually they mean ‘to think in a certain way’, or more commonly, ‘to agree with what I think,’ but that has often been the ambition of educational reform: not to teach children to be more intelligent than their tutors, but to conform to their specifications. Ironically, many people determined to inspire a generation of free-thinkers do so in a way that attempts to commit them to conformity.


As with most abstract, abstruse objectives of well-meant but essentially misguided reformers, demonstrating this in the concrete is the way to dispel smoke and shatter mirrors. If you want a child to, let’s say, become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources, you start them off by teaching them…well, some history. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit’s guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don’t fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.


Eventually they develop the abilities you are looking for, but none of it happens without the dissemination of facts: facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative. Knowledge is best learned in context. Context is a web of knowledge placed in an appropriate order. Children need to be told this stuff; otherwise you condemn them to perpetually repeat the efforts of the past. Which is fine, if you want culture and science to freeze at exactly the point at which you started this pointless, precious project.


Thinking skills can’t be taught, separately from content and students certainly can’t be assessed on it. Let’s stop wasting time teaching something as tangible as Tinkerbell, and invest the time on things our students need to know.