Critical Thinking Not Possible Without Content Knowledge

by Robert Pondiscio
August 11th, 2008

Here’s a plan for eliminating the national debt: Charge a tax of one dollar on anyone who says ”teaching critical thinking skills” should be the goal of schools.  One person less likely to idly toss around the phrase in the future is none other than The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, arguably our most influential education writer.  He concedes today that critical thinking programs “don’t work very well, except as a measure of the gullibility of even smart educators.”  How did he come to see the light?

A remarkable article by Daniel T. Willingham, the University of Virginia cognitive scientist outlines the reasons. Critical thinking, he explains in a summer 2007 American Educator article, overlooked until now by me, is not a skill like riding a bike or diagramming a sentence that, once learned, can be applied in many situations. Instead, as your most-hated high school teacher often told you, you have to buckle down and learn the content of a subject–facts, concepts and trends–before the maxims of critical thinking taught in these feverishly-marketed courses will do you much good.

“The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge),” Willingham says. “Thus, if you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives.”

Willingham’s work builds the strongest case I know for why narrowing the curriculum to load up on reading and math at the expense of other subjects is ultimately self-defeating.  If we want kids to be critical thinkers, they need the broadest possible education.  Describing Willingham’s upcoming book, Why Don’t Students Like School? — A cognitive scientist answers questions about how your mind works and what it means for the classroom,  Mathews says “Willingham’s own work is, in my view, a triumph of critical thinking because he knows his content so well….We need to do our homework and remember that no matter how brilliant we think we are, we can be useful critics only after we master the facts.”

Is It Better To Read Junk Than Not Read At All?

by Robert Pondiscio
August 11th, 2008

Where’s Richard Whitmire when you need him?  A pair of Wall Street Journal articles raise interesting questions about boys, reading, engaging reluctant readers…and sports trivia.  A Page One piece by John Hechinger points out what just about every elementary school teacher figures out 20 minutes into the job: if you want to see a boy engaged with a book, slip him any of the burgeoning genre of gross-out books.

Publishers are hawking more gory and gross books to appeal to an elusive market: boys — many of whom would rather go to the dentist than crack open “Little House on the Prairie.” Booksellers are also catering to teachers and parents desperate to make young males more literate. ‘There has been a real revolution’ in books that ‘have more kid appeal,’ especially when it comes to boys, says Ellie Berger, who oversees Scholastic’s trade division. ‘It’s a shift away from the drier books we all grew up with.’

The bottom line, the kind of book you used to sneak into school, and hoped not to get caught reading, has gone mainstream.  So is “Captain Underpants” the only way to turn boys into readers?  More to the point, is all reading created equal?  Does time spent with ”Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger?” help reading comprehension?  As a teacher, I’m all for engaging boys, but a steady diet of this fare invites the law of diminishing returns. 

In an unrelated WSJ piece, “Raising Bob Costas: Is Memorizing Sports Trivia Good for the Brain?” James Freeman frets that his son is spending all of his time memorizing sports trivia, and hopes to find an academic silver lining in this obsession from neuroscientists, Harvard’s Howard Gardner, and Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

I figured that if anyone would trash the idea of kids consuming trivia it would be Hirsch but he found reasons to appreciate Will’s hobby. The University of Virginia professor recalled the line from Keats that “every thing is worth what it will fetch, so probably every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer.” Mr. Hirsch said that it’s great to find an interest like Will’s because “it means you like to do something intensely, and you’re more likely to be successful in life” when you do.  But Mr. Hirsch was not suggesting that learning about football had any value at all in helping one to learn about academic subjects. “I don’t think there’s any benefit as far as ‘learning-to-learn,’ because that’s been exploded.”   

I’m with Freeman’s kid.  When I was his age, I could tell you from memory the teams who plated in every World Series ever played.  Numbers invariably invoked baseball statistics: 367, 511 and 714? Ty Cobb’s liftime batting average, Cy Young’s career wins and the number of homerun Babe Ruth hit, respectively. 

But you knew that. 

 Update:  Sir Fartsalot author Kevin Bolger weighs in below in the comments section.