Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Learn. Think. Repeat.

Engaged students in my intro class have often told me that my class almost always overturned many of the ideas that they had.  And they had believed many of those ideas to be established truths.  Some of my favorites include these:
  • Students came into class believing that human population growth would continue forever and lead to huge problems, and in my class they had to think through the fact that women are having fewer children than ever before and, therefore, population growth is slowing down.
  • Students would passionately defend the importance of buying locally, and then through the materials they had to think through the complex global interdependence and how we benefit from trade.
The second one--buying locally--is one that I had to even explicitly explain to, and argue with, a few Berniacs, who, like tRump supporters, parroted the rhetoric of how we in the US do not manufacture stuff anymore and how we, therefore, need to do something.

Both the examples clearly conveyed the link between content knowledge and critical thinking.  One has to know something in order to think through that content.  Critical thinking is not something as a standalone skill.  Critical thinking requires asking a lot of questions, which we cannot intelligently do unless we know about the content to even phrase a question or two.  I often tell students that in this age of access to information right from the small little device that fits into the palm of one's hands, we are only as smart as how smart we are in asking questions.  The ability to ask interesting and meaningful questions is, I believe, more important than before.

Typically, some time in the term, when a context comes up, I quickly slip in my advice to students that they need to seriously think about what they want from their four or five or six years of college.  I suggest to them that a broad introduction to as many ways of understanding the world will serve them well.  And, if they combined that with thinking and communication skills, they will be set for the rest of their lives.  Content plus skills.  Never about the skills alone.  And never about the content alone.

Johann Neem writes along these lines in his essay.
Cognitive science demonstrates that if we want critical thinkers, we need to ensure that they have knowledge. Thinking cannot be separated from knowledge. Instead, critical thinking is learning to use our knowledge.
Neem adds:
We can only think critically about things about which we have knowledge, and we can only make use of facts if we know how to think about them. As James Lang writes in Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, “knowledge is foundational: we won’t have the structures in place to do deep thinking if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge related to that thinking.”

Neem echoes my thoughts here:
One has to know things to answer things. This is true even in the age of Google. If one looks up something online, one needs to know a lot of background information to make sense of the definition and explanation—and given how unreliable many online sources are, without that background knowledge, one might be led astray. But perhaps most surprising, those with more knowledge can learn more when they look something up on Google. That’s because if they already have background knowledge, they can add to it the new information and insights from what they are learning. This means that someone who understands political science and has some knowledge of how parties function will learn more from an online news story about elections than someone lacking that knowledge. Those who know more learn more than those who do not.
In other words, intellectual skills and knowledge are not two distinct things. They must work together to produce critical thinkers.
A mighty challenge it will be to get these ideas across when we live in an era of a President who prides himself on his gut instinct and with his party on an anti-intellectual crusadeThink about that, too!

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