Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Will this be on the final exam?: a plea to educators

Teachers are busy preparing for their school year: putting up bulletin boards, attending meetings on classroom management, reviewing policies, writing lesson plans, etc. These are stressful days, as well as a time pregnant with promise.

As a grandparent, a pastor, and a citizen of the United States, I have one big request of educators. Please teach your students to think critically. Let it be the explicit and implicit curriculum in everything you do. It could solve a lot of problems down the road. I know because I can see the problems that have come about because the people of my generation seem to have missed it, and we’re leaving the next generation with a mess to clean up.

It took me a long time to figure out that I couldn’t believe everything I saw in print. Just because someone wrote it in a book, or a newspaper, or even the Bible, doesn’t mean that it’s factual. Every author has a bias. I can’t remember ever learning this until I got to college. As an English major, I was introduced to a whole new way of thinking. Without critical thinking, literature was no more than a bunch of words bouncing around in my skull. When my eyes were opened, I saw how a lot of stuff that had been fed to me as "fact" had distorted my view of world.

Critical thinking has become even more challenging today, with immediate access to every piece of information that ever has been disseminated in the history of civilization. It’s literally at our fingertips. How do we sort through it all? Unfortunately, many people take the easy way out. They gravitate to whatever reinforces the view they already have. They listen to a cable news station that is clearly biased, but are deaf to that bias because it tells them what they want to hear. Many adults I know these days receive the bulk of their news on Facebook. On Facebook! That’s the place where you can unfriend people who say things you don’t like. Where you can flat out lie about someone you don’t like and before anyone can dispute it, the lie is out there and they’re toast. I know other people do the same thing with other social media sites.

How do our youth negotiate all this? They need help! Parents can challenge them to think critically, if they have become critical thinkers themselves, but I wouldn’t count on it. Teachers, please, can you take this on for the future of our country and world?

There’s a story about Paulo Freire, a Latin American educator who began as a language teacher and then an adult literacy instructor. At that time, literacy was required before a person could vote in presidential elections in Brazil. By design, this prevented the poor from participating. As the story goes, when he taught the sounds of the word for water, he used a picture of water being pumped from a well. Then he taught the word for well. Once the words had been mastered, he asked his students, “Now, who owns the well?” That’s what teaching for critical thinking looks like. How many teachers would teach the words and consider the lesson ended?
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire wrote: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want our youth to simply conform and perpetuate the world as it is now. I want more than that for them and for my grandchildren. I want them to transform the world. I know many teachers share this passion and I thank you. We need more of you!
There are all kinds of tests students take before they can graduate from high school--tests that measure their ability to conform to the academic standards set for them by educators (or in too many cases, politicians, who know nothing about education, but that's a subject for another blog). This can be as stressful for teachers as it is for students. I don't mean to add to their load, but I wish that we could make it a rule that nobody can graduate from high school until they demonstrate critical thinking skills. Is there a way this could be added to graduation requirements, please? Maybe if students and teachers know it will be on the final exam, they'll take it seriously.
Believe me, it will be on the final exam. 


After posting this blog, I heard from my sister Wendy, who is an educator in Massachusetts. She informed me that critical thinking skills are required on some of the questions on their state tests, so that's a step in the right direction. Is this true in all states? So, I stand corrected here. But I wonder if this makes a difference in whether or not a person graduates. And Wendy writes that this raises a bigger question, "... can our students apply this skill to the world beyond the school walls? Or do we as adults beat them down when they question?"

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