Dr. Matthew McConnell, Head of Humanities Department at Le Sallay, on the importance of critical thinking

I’m standing in front of a classroom of young Ivy Leaguers, but I see very few faces, at least not looking back at me. Each gazes intently at his or her own suddenly-fascinating spot on the wall. Posing an open-ended question about Shakespeare’s Macbeth can do that to a classroom. “Why does Shakespeare choose to represent Macbeth’s Scotland as a magical wilderness?”, I have asked. You’d think they’d have something to say. After all, these are supposed to be the top students from around the country. But you ask a simple question, and you’d need a pin to test the silence with. I don’t happen to have one handy, so I rephrase the question. This time, a bite: a bright young woman, undecided in her major, whose essays I usually save for last. They’re that good. “He exaggerates his sources because…” and she gives her reasons. Another student responds, “but this was the middle ages, and it’s realistic.”

I decide to let a few things about that slide. The Scotland of Macbeth is an early modern interpretation of sources about the middle ages, written after they ended. His simplistic start, “this was,” breezes lightly past this problem. Still, I am pretty sure, but not entirely, that the young man responding is aware of the difference between these periods. Second, the question of realism. Where is he getting his measure of “realistic?” From other fictional worlds based on the middle ages? Probably. Without realizing it, he’s lost in a “realistic” funhouse of mirrors, judging one (distorted) reflection by another. Oh, boy. Instead of mentioning either of those problems, I go with a third. “Ok, what other guides might Shakespeare have had besides realism?”, I ask. That starts a long conversation. Good.

Answering open-ended questions requires critical thinking, and in a freshman level writing course, that’s what I’m hoping to teach. What I’m looking for, and it happens more than you might think, is for one of my students to teach me. I want them to have a thought I didn’t, even couldn’t, anticipate. That’s what critical thinking is for. Without it, we are at the mercy of preconceptions, and we cannot form a new thought. My student of the realistic middle ages exemplifies this: his inability to recognize where he imported his ideas from, and why they couldn’t be used to judge the things he wanted them to. College level instructors of any subject area will never know your child’s test scores, but they’ll notice critical thinking skills--or lack thereof.

I’ve taught writing to incoming freshmen at an Ivy League university and at a liberal arts college and found the same problem: some students come into higher education with the ability to deliberate over complex, open-ended questions. Others don’t. I sometimes wonder what might have been done for them if they’d been posed some open-ended questions earlier in life. In pondering that, I’ve come to believe that critical thinking needs to be developed earlier, starting in middle school at the latest, and continuing consistently into high school and beyond. So why don’t secondary educators take the time?

Time is the critical issue. In his discussion of critical thinking in the music classroom, Ryan Shaw suggests one drawback of critical thinking: it slows things down. Usually the goal of a music class is to teach the technical skills required to play ever-more-difficult pieces, with the year-end recitals always looming, when parents expect to see their money’s-worth of progress on display. This being the case, why take time to consider the social conditions that led to the invention of the Blues? Is a consideration of Southern poverty necessary to playing the Blues correctly? Asking these questions, or worse, posing them to students, will tend to slow down a saxophone lesson. Consequently, when efficiency in learning a repertoire is prized above all else, critical thinking cannot be high on a music educator’s list of priorities.

In America, our system has decidedly prioritized standardization over critical thinking. Standardized testing has become the tool of policymakers to ensure their authority is felt in the classroom. They are used to raise or lower salaries, and promote or hold back students. This effectively motivates teachers to make their students pass these tests, but little else. It certainly does not encourage them to take time for open-ended questions, which take deliberation and debate to answer, and sometimes cannot be answered. Questions with no answer cannot be put on a standardized test.

When I pose a question for discussion in my classroom, I am generally prepared for no answers to follow. Blank stares and silence are a hazard of teaching critical thinking. Often, it takes a few attempts at rephrasing before any conversation gets started. This requires patience and creativity on my part, and also confidence that the process is worthwhile. Sometimes, I encounter another problem: students not used to open-ended questions think that I intend for them to answer a certain way. They try to get the “right” answer, or remain silent. After conditioning by standardized tests, it takes me a while to convince them that my questions have many answers.

Paul Lockhart’s “Lament,” an article famous to mathematicians, decries the same lack of creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking in mathematics education. Scathingly satirical, Lockhart’s essay attacks our education system for taking the wonder out of mathematics by enforcing rote memorization of formulae and repetitious exercises, instead of encouraging exploration. He quips, “Many a graduate student has come to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told they were good at math,” that in fact they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following directions. Math is not about following directions, it’s about making new directions.” Later on, he makes the same complaint that I do about critical thinking in writing classes: “The trouble is that math, like painting or poetry, is hard creative work. That makes it very difficult to teach. Mathematics is a slow, contemplative process. It takes time to produce a work of art, and it takes a skilled teacher to recognized one.”

So the time required for critical thinking appears to be inefficiently used, especially when compared with teaching to the test, if we only value the ability to perform standardized tasks. But I hope that there will be a return to that “inefficient” use of time, especially for middle and high school students. If middle school teachers allow their students to struggle with difficult questions, high school teachers will have an easier time teaching the difficult skills of critical thinking. And by the time they get to someone like me, their first semester in college, they’ll know that the best questions can be answered more than one way. This is true in an English course, but also business, law, mathematics and science. Critical thinking gives students the tools they need to have new and engaging thoughts, about Macbeth’s Scotland, or anything else. That’s a skill I prize in a student. The most rewarding part of teaching is when my students teach me. The least? A classroom of eyes avoiding a question. That’s the inefficiency I want to avoid.

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