Friday, June 13, 2008

Why Teaching Critical Thinking Is a Farce

Critical Thinking About “Critical Thinking”

There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and nearly all of them boast that they teach ‘critical thinking.’ Google “critical thinking,” “school district,” and “mission statement” combined you get an astonishing 182,000 matches. Click on any of them and you will find page after page of heart-warming affirmations like this one from the Lordstown, Ohio School District: “We believe in the development of critical thinking skills.”

A commendable belief; but what would happen if critical thinking actually were effectively taught? Suppose the youngsters truly, seriously and boldly scrutinized their community and nation’s customs, principles, and beliefs. Suppose, for instance, they were encouraged to critically examine the authorities that most of us defer to in directing our lives and defining the good, the true, the beautiful? That would be critical thinking. But would educators who encourage this sort of analytical inquiry receive hearty congratulations or have to flee a rampaging mob of angry, torch-wielding villagers?

Let’s be clear that by critical thinking we do not mean mere logic chopping. The “these are the premises” and “this is a conclusion,” sort of thing. That kind of ‘critical thinking’ is generally harmless in that it rarely results in serious challenges to anything deeply believed. That is precisely why this is the common style of ‘critical thinking’ taught in school. 

By critical thinking we mean systematically reconsidering the deep assumptions that many, including parents, take to be true. We also include questioning basic authority — including sacred and semi-sacred documents and those who interpret them. Thinking critically has to include that sort of thing or it is hardly critical.

Some might argue that it isn't necessary to tackle these issues head on. That by teaching generic methods of thinking critically learners will, sooner or later, bring these tools to bear on those deep assumptions and basic authorities that are central to their lives. But too many things can interfere with this transfer of learning to rely on it. If you want young people to really think critically, it is far better to provide them with a direct and well focused opportunity to do so. Just be prepared to find another job shortly thereafter. 

Is this excessively cynical. No, not at all. Take a look at what's going on in Florida where a single complaint from a parent with an obviously limited intellect can result in book banning. Where any lesson that might distress a student, make them feel guilty for instance, is now legally verboten. And this style of thought policing is so popular that their governor is able to make a serious bid for the presidency of the United States. 

It's impossible to think critically without it being potentially upsetting. Serious thought is, by its very nature, unsettling. That's the price we must pay for actually growing up instead of intellectually and emotionally remaining a child.

-- GKC

EQUAL SCHOOLING AS A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT: do we need an equal education amendment?

When the No Child Left Behind Act became law and when the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced it, Congress and President had their school reform priorities bassackwards. Before demanding these impossible results, they should have at least addressed the educational funding inequalities that insure millions of youngsters don't have a chance of achieving them. Instead they ignored the very inequalities that render their own goals ludicrous. And guess what? Their Every Student Succeeds Act still remains in effect.

How severe are the inequalities? Consider the School District of Philadelphia. About 4 out of 10 school age Philadelphia children live in poverty. And this financial neediness spawns profound educational deficits. Nevertheless, a typical Philadelphia high school students in, say, Roxborough High has $13,131 spent per year their education while high school students in neighboring Lower Merion HS have $26,793 spent on theirs. 

Sure, "throwing money at a problem won't necessarily solve it." That's true. But it's even more true that "you get what you pay for." And how many times have you heard that "throwing money" argument directed at defense spending? Ever?

 It would be one thing if such educational inequalities were confined to the Philadelphia area or even to Pennsylvania. But outrageous inequalities in per-student spending persist in district after district, and state after state. Nevertheless, federal politicians, who must be aware of this ridiculous situation, are still piously demanding that every student succeed. Their hypocrisy is truly breath taking, even by Washington standards. 

 Yes, there is federal tinkering that addresses with some of the symptoms of this grotesque inequality. But more than a century of the same inequality suggests that only a constitutional amendment would apply the consistent and persistent pressure necessary to actually achieve equalization. Plus such an amendment would bring federal judicial scrutiny, and that would pack the legal muscle necessary to insure compliance. 

What would an Equal Education Amendment look like? It might read something like this:

EQUAL EDUCATION AMENDMENT Section 1. Equality of Educational opportunity under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of race, sex, income or place of residence. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Would an equal education amendment have sufficient support in Congress? That seems highly doubtful. Would the required two thirds of the states ratify it? Probably not. But just raising the issue of a constitutional amendment focuses attention on the inequities. 

 Who would oppose such an amendment? In a Republican dominated House and Senate, there should be no scarcity of opponents. And what would be their stated grounds of opposition? That an equal education amendment establishes excessive federal control over what are properly state and local matters. But that concern seems bogus. After all in the Bush years Republicans took the lead in the most massive federal infringement of state and local control of schooling in our history. The No Child Left Behind Act. 

 Probably the most potent source of opposition would come from those who benefit from the present inequalities. Barring massive new federal spending to raise raise all boats to the same level, the more advantaged states and communities would have to forfeit their present advantage and you can bet their representatives would oppose that. 

The federal government commands the necessary resources to provide every American child with equal educational opportunity. But to do this legislators and the White House would have to rearrange national priorities. We might, for example, have to invest far more in education and far less in the present warfare state. And this would threaten powerful defense industry types who paid to get these politicians elected in the first place. 

That gets us to the only real advantage of putting an Equal Education Amendment on the table; it forces hands and reveals agendas. It puts a question out there that most politicians dearly want to dodge. What is more important to you, providing every American child with equal educational opportunity, or serving the special interests you are presently beholden to? It’s high time that we ask that question and insist on a straight answer. -- GKC

Bad Apples or Sour Pickles? Misinterpreting the Columbine Massacre

While a few bad apples might spoil the barrel (filled with good fruit/people), a vinegar barrel will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles—regardless of the best intentions, resilience, and genetic nature of the cucumbers. So does it make more sense to spend resources to identify, isolate, and destroy bad apples or to understand how vinegar works . . . ?
—Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo

It was 11:19 a.m. on April 20, 1999 — Hitler’s 110th birthday—when Erik Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado. Hoping to kill most of the 400-plus students eating at the time, the pair planted two twenty-pound bombs in the school cafeteria. Then they waited outside the building, hoping to pick off blast survivors as they staggered out.
When the bombs failed to detonate, the pair stormed into the cafeteria and opened fire. Forty minutes later twelve students and a teacher lay lifeless; another twenty-three students were wounded—many gravely. Harris and Klebold also were dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Police worked into the next day to find and deactivate the thirty bombs the pair had planted throughout the school ( Wickipedia: Columbine high school massacre ).

The FBI’s Bad Apples
What set Harris and Klebold off? The FBI’s team of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, including a Michigan State University psychiatrist and Supervisory Special Agent Dwayne Fuselier, the FBI’s chief Columbine investigator, and a clinical psychologist, assert that Harris killed because he was a “psychopath.” Klebold, they say, was “hotheaded, depressive, suicidal,” and under Harris’s influence.(Dave Cullen The depressive and the psychopath: At last we know why the Columbine killers did it. posted Tuesday, April 20, 2004.)
The FBI experts are not claiming that Harris was delusional or out of touch with reality. They are asserting that he was a world-class hater out to punish humanity for its inexcusable inferiority. Is the FBI correct? Was this horrific incident the evil spawn of a remorseless teenager with a world-class superiority complex and an angry, suicidal alter ego?

The Columbine Pickle Barrel
What was the situation at Columbine before the massacre? Was this high school one of those vinegar-filled barrels that transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles, or were Harris and Kleebold bad apples who spoiled an otherwise good barrel?
A painstaking investigative report by the Washington Post describes pre-massacre Columbine as filled with social vinegar. The high school was dominated by a “cult of the athlete.” ( Lorraine Adams and Dale Russakoff, Dissecting Columbine’s cult of the athlete, Washington Post, June 12, 1999, Page A-1.) In this distorted environment a coterie of favored jocks—who wore white hats to set themselves apart—consistently bullied, hazed, and sexually harassed their classmates while receiving preferential treatment from school authorities.
Other students hated the abuses of “the steroid poster boys” but could do little. A former student testified, “Pretty much everyone was scared to take them on; if you said anything, they’d come after you, too.”
Here is more of what the Post found was going on at Columbine:

Bullying was rampant and unchecked. For instance, a father told Post reporters about two athletes mercilessly bullying his son, a Jew, in gym class. They sang songs about Hitler, pinned the youngster to the ground and did “body twisters” on him until he was black and blue, and even threatened to set him on fire. The father reported the bullying to the gym teacher as well as who also was the wrestling coach, but it continued. When the father took his complaint to the guidance counselor, he says, he was told, “This stuff can happen.” The outraged father had to complain to the school board to get relief for his son.
Athletes convicted of crimes were neither suspended from games nor expelled from school. The homecoming king, a star football player, was on parole for burglary yet still permitted to play. Columbine’s state wrestling champ was allowed to compete despite being on court-ordered probation, and school officials did nothing when he regularly parked his $100,000 Hummer all day in a fifteen-minute parking space.
Sexual harassment by athletes was common and ignored. For example, when a girl complained to her teacher that a football player was making lewd comments about her breasts in class, the teacher, also a football and wrestling coach, suggested she change her seat. When an athlete loudly made similar comments at a Columbine wrestling match, the girl complained to the same coach and he suggested she move to the other side of the gym. Finally, the girl complained to a woman working at the concession stand, who called police. The next day a school administrator tried to persuade the girl’s mother to drop the charges, telling her that pressing them would prevent the boy from playing football. When the youngster was found guilty, he still was permitted to play.

Homicidal Anger

How important were these injustices to Harris and Klebold? Did they care about them, or even know about them? The facts are they both knew and cared profoundly. In fact, the Post reports that dozens of interviews and court records alike show that the pair’s homicidal anger “. . . began with the injustices of the jocks.”
They became convinced that favored athletes could get away with anything. For instance, a close friend reported that the pair saw a star athlete, in front of a teacher, forcefully shove his girlfriend into a locker. The teacher did nothing. Such injustices enraged Harris and Klebold. That’s why, just before opening fire in the cafeteria, they demanded that all the jocks stand up. They planned to kill them first.
In sum, pre-massacre Columbine High seems to have been the kind of place that “will always transform sweet cucumbers into sour pickles.” The FBI’s experts clearly had fallen into something social psychologists call fundamental attribution error, which is falsely ascribing behavior to temperament or personality while underestimating the power of situational factors on the same behavior.

See ” at “Bad Apples or Sour Pickles? Fundamental Attribution Error and the Columbine Massacre
-- GKC