American schools risk training a generation of parrots

Dyllan Jones, Editor

What does critical thinking mean to the average American student? If the answer to that question is A, B, C, or D, there may be a problem.

What answer did you get on your test? I got “critical thinking is a human ability that should come naturally but is now an essential subject of discussion because students face a daily barrage of extracurricular stimulus that threatens to break down or hamper the development of that ability.” In all seriousness, this question needs an essay answer.

Critical thinking, at its core, means thinking for yourself. Students who demonstrate a lack of preparedness for complex real-world problems that require long answers, rather than pre-written responses, may struggle with those problems because schools generally emphasize retrieving answers and applying them to questions, not building an understanding of heuristics — in a nutshell, problem-solving techniques that are not guaranteed to be exact — which teach students how to use prior knowledge to develop their own approach to an issue.

Why is there a lack of critical thinking in school? To identify that, first understand the how. My assumption is that, in an age of nearly limitless access to information that ranges from bold-faced lies to established facts, it is easier to train a parrot than a human mind capable of sifting through the sensory onslaught and drawing its own conclusions. Likewise, students are so caught up in learning how to memorize and repeat the answers that they are given that they simply do not, or cannot, take the time to analyze how much they are actually learning versus how much they are learning to repeat for the sake of completing their school obligations.

A person’s ability to think critically is best fostered in comfortable environments. Students with hectic lives out of school who view their education as a contributing factor to their stress, rather than as a source of structure and order, often allow essential learning outside of school to fall to the wayside in favor of developing interpersonal relationships, part-time work, and procrastination. This means that schools, which hold students for a mandated seven hours, must provide the comfortable learning environment that fosters critical thinking.

Fostering critical thinking is essential because it gives our generation the key to establishing its own strength and success. As members of Generation Y and Z grow into responsible adults, they cannot afford to make excuses for collective plateaus in productivity or behavior, and the way to fix their problems is by thinking about them critically — as a problem solver, not a parrot. If we are lifelong victims to circumstance, we will be less effective problem solvers.

Effective workers must adapt to the cards they are dealt. Just as genetics are unchangeable, so too are the ills of the past, and those ills should not impede the present any more than they are guaranteed to. Critical thinking intertwines with forward thinking because both concepts similarly stress the individual’s power to solve problems, and both are equally necessary to pave our generation’s path to success, whatever that success may be.

Forward thinking is exactly what our generation needs to be successful under constantly changing societal, political, and technological conditions. Critical thinking is the first link in a chain, closely followed by the forward thinking that results from it. This chain, which is only as strong as its weakest link, must be strengthened; if our generation wishes to advocate for change while claiming that it is thinking forward by doing so, it must demonstrate a similarly strong desire to think critically.

I suggest that “teaching” critical thinking should entail a class that addresses real life issues (mostly apolitical) and, after that point, takes off the training wheels and allows free and open discussion between students or work time for those who wish to come to their conclusions entirely on their own. Assignments would be graded based on student participation, but only if that participation demonstrates a clear understanding of the problems addressed or a willingness to understand them. Every class could be structured this way to a degree. In fact, Mr. Dana Daugharthy’s classes already come very close to this model of critical thought cultivation because they emphasize interpersonal dialogue; the importance of producing incorrect or questionable answers to expand students’ understanding of the subject; grading based on willful and involved participation; and concept mastery rather than basic understanding.

Critical thinking should not have to be taught; it should be cultivated. Students should be encouraged to approach new concepts curiously and, in some cases, skeptically as well. Pliable young minds should not be closed to difficult ideas at an early age — they should be challenged and expanded.