Teaching Our Students How To Think

July 23, 2012  22 Comments

One of the downsides of teaching is that in the process of educating our students about facts and figures we are also teaching our students how to think.

For most teachers their initial response would be to not give this a second thought.  However I wonder if this might be one of the greatest long term problems that education is facing right now.

Watch the following two and a half minute TED talk clip and then I will explain my thoughts (the key thought happens at 2:26)

Did you catch the key sentence?

Let’s never forget that whatever brilliant ideas you have or hear, that the opposite may also be true.”

Here is the dilemma as I see it:

Whilst we are teaching our students how to think we are also teaching them what to think.  A classic example of this would be where a maths teacher will give a student an exam and then issue a proportion of marks for getting the correct answer and another proportion of marks for having the correct working out.

Now I understand the principle behind that thinking; but I also see the students who have arrived at the right answer but by a different method and are therefore penalised for doing so.

In the example above, not only are we teaching our students how to think (demonstrate you understand the process), but we are also teaching them what to think (demonstrate that you think and process this problem in the same way I do).

In doing this teachers can inadvertently create world views and narrow mindedness in our students.

Let me give you another example.

In Australia all the students wear uniforms to school.  In this environment, it is hard to express your individuality.  For the last four years I taught in a Senior College where there was no uniform.  As such, each student was free to express their personality through their fashion choices.

identical twin high school students in class 42 17925529 300x208 Teaching Our Students How To Think

All the students look the same!

One of the most frequent comments I would receive from students new to the school was “I had no idea that there were so many different types of people”.  This comment was usually followed up with a comment about how they never thought they would associate with, let alone enjoy the company of ‘that kind of person‘.

In other words, many students have a world view that has been shaped by their school environment and culture.  The principle also applies in a larger contexts for example rural and urban settings.

As teachers we need to be aware that we aren’t just teaching our students how to think, but also what to think and as a result we are creating worldviews that are not necessarily correct outside the sphere that you are operating within.

It seems to me that in order for our students to solve the problems that they will be facing in the years to come they will increasingly need to be able to think creatively, develop original thoughts and challenge the norms.

Agree or Disagree?


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  • Nina Smith

    Excellent!  Knowing and understanding how we as teachers always have an effect on how our students think about life, universe and everything is a beginning of wonderful journey. Recognizing the fact how following the thoughts of someone else never creates the same learning competency as thinking for yourself helps teachers be more mindful about what and how they teach. To promote effective learning we need to have all the pieces together: focus on learning instead of teaching and foster diversity http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/2012/07/19/effective-learning-what-are-the-ingredients/

    • http://www.leadwell.com.au/blog Mike Reading

      Well done on the book!

  • http://twitter.com/MikeReading/status/227372688291807232/ (@MikeReading) (@MikeReading)

    The problem with teaching our students how to think http://t.co/poENJXWf #edchat #ntchat #teaching

  • Dhuston

    I teach AP US History–a notoriously content packed course which requires memorizing large quantities of information–names, events, ideas, etc.  But I also want my students to THINK creatively and critically about the history they are learning about.  Here’s one exercise I ask my students to complete each chapter:  choose what you think is the most important/significant CONFLICT in this chapters.  Identify the AGENTS of this conflict.  Describe what each agent had at stake in the conflict; their reasons for pursuing their goals; the obstacles preventing them from achieving their goals; the methods/techniques they used to achieve their goals; and their relative success/failure and why they arrived at that place.  This exercise restores CHOICE to students–choice of topics, agents, conflicts.  It also focuses them on the CHOICES made by the historical agents–what were there alternatives and why did they choose what they did.  I find this exercise really helps students think more deeply and meaningfully about the past, and restores respect for the achievements of individuals and groups from history.  Students judge them by what they made of what they had–not by some impossibly abstract and irrelevant criteria thoughtlessly borrowed from the present.

    • http://www.leadwell.com.au/blog Mike Reading

      That is definitely best practice!  The more autonomy you give your students the more engaged they will be.  What you have described is starting to gain some momentum in the educational world.  They are calling it 20% time (borrowed from Google).  Your students are lucky to have a teacher who is thinking the way you do.

  • http://educatorssite.com/ romacox

    What is said here is certainly part of the truth.  However, when one compares modern results with historical results, one finds that  multiple choice questions  and the modern way of teaching often  destroy analytical thinking.  This article explains:
    How Freud and Bernays Influenced Education</a

    • http://www.leadwell.com.au/blog Mike Reading

      Not sure what you are referring to when you say multiple choice and the modern way of teaching.  I am not aware of any school where multiple choice is their main way of testing.

      • http://educatorssite.com/ romacox

        We use to have the best education in the world, but today colleges are complaining that our students can’t do grade level math or reading. The teacher in the attached news article explains some of the changes that have caused this academic disaster
        : Teacher: Maybe its time for me to go

        • http://www.leadwell.com.au/blog Mike Reading

          That is a great article – will put it in my news round up at the end of the week, but it doesn’t have much to do with this blog post. It has a lot to do with autonomy and intrinsic motivation though (something I refer to often on this blog). Thanks for pointing it out.

  • http://twitter.com/asitwillbe David Haddad

    A is not non-A. If you can’t wrap your head around that, you will fail to teach others to think. What is true is true. What is untrue remains untrue.

  • http://twitter.com/eflood2/status/230276304921042944/ (@eflood2) (@eflood2)

    Teaching Our Students How To Think http://t.co/oJBa7Qe6

  • http://twitter.com/TomUytt/status/230718096804020224/ Tom Uytterhoeven (@TomUytt)

    Good question in this blog: do we kill #creativity by teaching students ‘what’, rather than ‘how’ to think? http://t.co/UsgEgi0n #education

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  • http://twitter.com/virginiapav/status/236322343113351168/ (@virginiapav) (@virginiapav)

    Teaching Our Students How To Think http://t.co/UUOAsvlt

  • http://twitter.com/virginiapav/status/238002383911800833/ (@virginiapav) (@virginiapav)

    Teaching Our #Students How To #Think http://t.co/UUOAsvlt #edchat

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  • http://twitter.com/Toniegarza/status/238427304043372544/ Tonie Garza (@Toniegarza)

    Teaching Our Students How To Think http://t.co/LElz7ZdO

  • http://twitter.com/GAllenTC/status/240238779544252416/ Gayle (@GAllenTC)

    Teaching Our Students How To Think http://t.co/fcCWswjd #edchat watch the 2 min video clip!

  • http://twitter.com/Toniegarza/status/240272339709865984/ (@Toniegarza) (@Toniegarza)

    Brillant Ideas or not? Teaching Our Students How To Think http://t.co/LElz7ZdO

  • http://twitter.com/Hamtownange/status/241096894468739072/ Angela Hammond (@Hamtownange)

    Teaching Our Students How To Think http://t.co/UifAsBF7

  • http://twitter.com/NancyRichmond/status/311266637506543617/ @NancyRichmond

    Teaching Our Students How To Think: http://t.co/LJUwuSFfQk #Edtech #HigherEd #Education #Teaching

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