Critical Thinking Skills & the State of Education

Young Woman Studying School Lesson At Home

As someone who works in education & has for over 15 years, I have seen the slow erosion of it. Each year the school year gets shorter, and the curriculum is etiolated further. This is no accident. One can assert that this began with NCLB, but truthfully, it goes back even further to standardized testing, such as the SAT, and ACT, which pigeonholes people into little boxes, deciding who they are, what they are meant to do, and where they will go. None of these tests tell you anything about who the person truly is and their capabilities. They are merely testing how well you take a test, which allows the education system to then make a preliminary judgment on you and what you can contribute. This does not mean that testing has no value. Still, multiple-choice tests (and there are courses at major colleges that teach students how to take them and pass any test without having to know anything about the subject they are being tested on) are the most nefarious culprit in this. In contrast, essays give one a glimpse of the person’s strengths, reasoning skills, and thought processes than the filling in of bubbles.

Putting testing aside, other areas that have been woefully underfunded and slowly eroded in terms of what they teach students are English; they do not teach mythology anymore. Currently, the classics are taught using abridged systems such as Spark Notes and cliffs’ Notes s, with many teachers employing graphic novels that do not give even the remotest sense of context.

History, and how it is taught, is parsed out in dribbles omitting events and glazing over topics without discussing the deeper consequences or how they affected those involved. Several examples are the attempted and near extinction of the Native Americans, the holocaust, which was barely noted and only delved into in classes devoted to that topic, and most insidiously, American Slavery. (a subject not even broached in U.S. History for Juniors), and the French Revolution. (a total of one and a half pages were devoted to it). The superficiality of such education with the pretense of presenting an authoritative text is misleading and disingenuous.

While these events and history itself may seem far away, one may ask, why bother? Because with our country now in the throes of a civil war, understanding what is more than dates and what someone may or may not have said can provide a mirror for us all. We cannot hope to move forward with a keen sense of the pitfalls that lie before us if we do not know where we have been, if we cannot see how others have plotted their pernicious schemes in previous times, and how those now in power, may use those self-same means to implement theirs. The tools used will be different, but the cloaking of who is in charge, and their desired ends, remains the same. History and the utilization and understanding of it provide such a device to lift the veil, thereby seeing what lies underneath the mask that those in charge wear. Without this knowledge, those seeking to retain or gain power will use the ignorance of the masses (which they have ensured will through attenuation of it) for their gain.

So, I say again, education, which is illustrative, delineating where we have come from and which threads through it, mechanisms needed to ferret through minutiae, using vital critical thinking skills is imperative. With this thought in mind, we MUST imbue every class from elementary to secondary with essential thinking skills; the key is to make what they learn interesting by making it applicable to their lives. English classes that ask students to write research papers could require students to use critical thinking skills in the research process and the final argument (s) they lay forth. Math and Science which, while already lending themselves nicely to the implementation of such skills, could then make their curriculum more immediate to the student by having group discussions concerning possible ways in which both subjects can and will play a role in their lives, such as making a weekly budget, shopping for and assembling a piece of furniture for their bedroom or home and the tools they would need to use to put it together. The arts, which the government has sought to censure, must be fully funded for all grade levels, affording students the ability to freely express themselves, and thereby providing a salve for a young populace that surely needs some form of therapy to deal with the current situation and a voice to put forth their ideas whether they are of dissent, or as some art does, that which provides a therapeutic balm. 

In creating a piece of art, again critical thinking skills are necessitated. How to sculpt a piece of marble and paint a mural, and which paints to use? Will the bridge you are building for the mural be wide enough? Will the chosen paint smear or wash away with the elements? All of these things require the use of critical thinking skills. One could go through each area of the arts and every class in school, including all the electives and, in truth, all of them, if taken seriously, and if we want to gift our students with the means they will need to become not only materially successful but morally and ethically good people, adjure us to reform our education system so that its goal is not to merely churn out drones who can operate machinery or work in the local 7/11 till they die but will be active members of their community who see themselves as part of this world, meaning that through the means above delineated, empathy and compassion will be, without having to create classes that teach empathy, already ipso facto, part of the equation, because those things have been baked in. One cannot teach history without being clear-eyed; to understand where we have been, surely empathy and compassion must be woven through that cloth.  

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