Teaching Students HOW to think, not WHAT to think

February 17, 2015

I recently watched this TED talk and found it beautifully simple. It is a great non-jargony explanation of what I do, believe in and fight for in education. It speaks to my favorite mantras about “depth not breadth”, developing “enduring understanding” for our students, fostering “critical thinkers” and “agentive demeanors”, without ever saying these terms. Put simply it makes a great case for teaching our students HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

Deeper Learners needs to be active participants in their learning, not passive bystanders. They need the tools to know HOW to attack problems and innovate new ideas if we are ever going to move our democracy forward. Why limit ourselves or our children to standards that have little relevance or are beneath our potential [ie., teaching them WHAT pre-determined content to learn]? While I appreciate the push for thinking practices and developing habits of mind, as supported by the 21st century framework and the CCSSS, the majority of time in classrooms is still spent on teaching students WHAT to think… And WHAT to think… for Whom?… For What purpose?… Sadly, for a test that will be given to them at some point in the future to satisfy some external standard. It’s a dead end and our children deserve better.

In a recent article titled “What’s worth learning”, Perkins discusses a new vision for the future of education “ a vision that foregrounds educating for the unknown as much as for the known.” This article was striking because it brought into focus something that I haven’t been able to name-How can we teach children about topics and ideas if they do not yet exist? We need to set our sights further and higher to give them the [thinking] tools necessary to engage in a future that is unfamiliar-one which we hope they have a hand in creating and leading. This will require us to extend beyond the traditional, and widely-accepted, myopic vision for schooling.

“School” can be so much more than four walls that contain learning limited to a test. School can be a place where students are encourage to engage, create and innovate; where they are given a voice, and limitless boundaries for their learning. But this will require a paradigm shift for how we “do school”-our efforts and resources will need to be redistributed to support teaching students how to think critically for the goodness of themselves and our future; rather than teaching them content focused on the next benchmark test.