Thinking is necessary
The statement above seems to be self-evident but the reality of the situation in schools and society cannot be further from the truth. Isaac Asimov, renowned science writer and professor of biochemistry, laments,
there is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge' (1980, p.19).
Forty years since that statement was made, the state of intellectual progress around the world has not grown much brighter. For the large part of the 20th Century, researchers discovered a significant rise in g, at approximately 3 points per decade in intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. This startling phenomenon is known as the Flynn Effect (Flynn & Flynn, 2012) and Rindermann, Becker & Coyle (2017) posited that this phenomenon was largely due to better health, nutrition and education. However, research in the last decade have shown that IQ has gone on a steady decline among Western countries, reversing some of the gains made in the 20th Century (Bratsberg & Rogeberg, 2018; Dutton, van der Linden & Lynn, 2016).
Beyond the decline of IQ, countless newspaper articles and even highly-respected magazines such as Time and Foreign Policy have documented the rise of ignorance as a movement in society (Nadler, 2017; Rothkopf, 2010). In recent years, books such as Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Pierce, 2009) and The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Nichols, 2017) have espoused the issues of ignorance in society from both sides of the political divide. From a rationalist-economist’s point of view, valid information should never be ignored, and, in decision theory, more information is always better, unless the cost of search exceeds its benefit (Stigler, 1961). However, recent explorations into the psychology of decision-making theory seem to suggest a leaning towards ignorance rather than knowledge. A ground-breaking work by Gigerenzer and García-Retamero in 2017 revealed that between 85% and 90% of people would choose not to know about upcoming negative events, and 40% to 70% prefer to remain ignorant of positive events. Only 1% of participants consistently wanted to know about every upcoming negative and positive event. They surmised that in general, valid information should be sought for and used, and not wanting to know, in contrast, appears counterintuitive and irrational (Gigerenzer & García-Retamero, 2017).
The state of public education in the US reflects the crisis of thinking evident in its society. The controversial report, A Nation at Risk, published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983, reported
many 17-year-olds do not possess the "higher order" intellectual skills we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps (p.9).
This assertion, and other equally damning claims about the state of public education, led to the acceleration of school reforms in the United States. Willingham (2007) noted that the report led to collective soul-searching and resulted in the popularity of programmes designed to teach students to think critically across the curriculum. He adds that within a decade of the findings, “most states had initiatives designed to encourage educators to teach critical thinking, and one of the most widely used programs, Tactics for Thinking, sold 70,000 teacher guides” (p.8). While these thinking initiatives were well-meaning, their good intentions did not result in more effective thinking, and he, like many professors and teachers I have spoken to in my research, still lament their students’ lack of critical thinking.
The subsequent massive reforms to the public school systems such as the No Child Left Behind Act (2001), the Common Core Standards Initiative (2010), and the Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) have made significant mentions of the development of Thinking, and Gormley (2017), in his excellent exploration on developing Critical Thinking in schools, reports that Critical Thinking and analytical reasoning skills are stressed by 98% of schools reporting common learning goals. His optimistic assessment on the state of teaching Thinking is supported by a critical analysis of the Common Core standards, and Gormley further asserts that these standards draw on a strong emphasis on Thinking, rather than rote memorisation. Notwithstanding his optimism, the mechanisms of education policy such as greater accountability through testing and funding based on student performance have lead to several unintended outcomes which are themselves threats to the teaching of Thinking in schools. Standardised testing takes up a massive proportion of classroom time. Gormley (2017) reports optimistically that only 2.3% of classroom time is reserved for testing, but my observation from several school districts in Western Pennsylvania show that several schools are devoting one entire school day per week just for the purpose of practicing and reviewing testable items for the state examinations. Furthermore, the most common reason teachers I have met across the country give for not teaching Thinking is the need to teach for the test; the resulting lack of curriculum time limits the exploration of any aspect of Thinking, be it Critical, Creative or Applied. This observation is supported by a study by Andilou & Murphy (2010) who found that most teachers want to foster creative thinking among students, but more than half reported that the school climate, which includes teaching to the test, and curriculum guidelines prevent them from doing so. A much-cited study on standardised testing instruments, such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) used in the districts of study, showed that they are notoriously weak in the assessment of deeper or varied forms of Thinking (Kohn, 2000). Kohn (2000) demonstrated through an analysis of the most widely used standardized math tests that only 3% of the questions required "high level conceptual knowledge", and only 5% tested "high level thinking skills such as problem solving and reasoning." He cautions that solely by the virtue of their design, most tests punish the thinking test-taker (Kohn, 2000). Another influential critic of standardised testing, William Ayers, concluded that “Standardised tests can't measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and functions, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning (Ayers, 1993, p.59)." This practice leads to the ironic situation where the greatest threat to critical thinking time and instruction in the classroom is a battery of never-ending test and test preparations linked to standards that seek to promote critical thinking (Gormley, 2017).
Many of the classes I observed during my stint in the United States, 115 at the last count, were saddled with students going through standardised learning materials with teachers in preparation for the only thing that matters: test scores. Ironically, the students cared little about the scores while the teachers put much premium on them, and it comes as little surprise that the students were unmotivated, disengaged and were just hanging on to get to the end of each lesson for a merciful period of freedom (between 4-6 minutes), before returning to yet another lesson with questionable relevance to their daily lives. These are not my thoughts alone, and most I have spoken to echo those sentiments. Keith D, a web designer based in Florida, opines: “What’s the point of learning Advanced Calculus? Only so few people need it. The focus of education should be on learning communication skills, thinking skills and real-life skills that give people a chance in society. Schools are doing the students a disservice by not teaching that” (personal correspondence, 2018). Carl H, an unemployed war veteran living on the streets in Texas, reflects: “I just wanted to get out of school as soon as I could. Where I was, there are only two choices after graduating: McDonald’s or the military. We had no skills, nothing and no one dreams of college. You just can’t afford it. Maybe school works for those who are going to college, but it doesn’t help the rest of us” (personal correspondence, 2018). These observations remind us that the content of curricula and tests, essentially written by and for the intellectual and social elite, can be far removed from the realities of everyday life and can add to the disengagement many students feel towards school. The image (Picture 1) below shows a task sheet used by a class of English as a Second Language learners, of whom the majority qualify for free school lunch. Three of the questions made references to individuals or groups (Beatles, Federico Fellini, Norman Rockwell) with whom not only the students but even the teachers themselves lacked any connection to. Given my deep interest in music, movie and art, these words and the subsequent construction of a descriptive adjective are somewhat familiar to me, and perhaps to students and teachers with bourgeois tastes in 60’s British Rock, baroque cinema and mid-20th Century sentimental American art. But how many of such students and teachers can there be? Definitely a very minute minority. Unfortunately, to the learners themselves using this compulsory learning sheet and taking the subsequent tests the following day based on these words and their connotations, their resulting sentiment will only follow in the same vein as the Keiths and Carls I have interviewed, leading them to question if the education system is designed to help them, or only a very small minority of elites. This learning sheet and the experiences of the students and the valiant teachers trying to use a ready-to-use curriculum that promises differentiated instruction appealing to all students illustrates the dislocation between the thought processes of the curriculum designers and the realities of the users. To put it crudely, the basic mantra of Design Thinking (which I will cover in depth later in the paper) is “Don’t ship shit”. By the standards of Design Thinking, this is “shit”.
Picture 1. A sample vocabulary exercise used as standardized learning material for high school students.
It is not my intention in this section to perform a scathing review of the state of public education. Many researchers and publications do a much better job critiquing the state of public education in the United States. However, this section issues a challenge to think critically about the state of public education and its role in the development of Thinking among its students. As an economist by training, I ask, Why are critical, creative and applied thinking skills so valued by corporations and society (Korn, 2014), yielding far greater wage premium (Autor & Handel, 2013), and greater payoffs above technical skills (Liu & Grusky, 2013), yet there is neither space in the curriculum nor time for teachers to develop them in the classroom? As a psycholinguist, I ask, Why are teachers’ misconceived notions of what Thinking is and what society and employers actually need so far removed from each other (Gormley, 2017)? As an educator, I ask, What can I and my fellow educators do in order to truly meet the needs of my learners and to provide them with the skills that are really needed for the lives they will lead outside my classroom now and in the future?
As a humanist, I believe that there is hope and a light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. And I have seen some spectacular work being done by teachers here in the United States and back home in Singapore.