A Call to Action: The Need for Critical Reasoning Instruction

“Critical thinking, analysis of facts and proper policy formation have become extremely difficult in a politicized and media-saturated environment,”

–  Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan CEO, April 2018


Over the span of three decades as an educator, I’ve had a driving passion to help students think critically – meaning to assess and evaluate their own thinking in order to improve it. My journey began as an undergraduate in pursuit of an understanding of how best to teach “thinking.”

As a teacher practitioner, I pursued this goal through professional development opportunities, but found the results to disappointing. I soon abandoned relying on others in the education field and evolved to self-direction.

I based my Masters and Doctorate research on people’s ability to develop and utilize quality reasoning – within the context of organizational leadership.  I discovered a wealth of research focused on how the brain works and what constitutes quality critical thinking. It became clear, however, that few practical connections have been established between the research, knowledge and classroom implementation.

I came to realize how much society in general, and educators in particular, ignore and distort the established lessons of critical thinking.  Ironically, if you Google critical thinking, you will find almost 29,000,000 sites referenced. Critical thinking has become, like so many other disciplines, whatever someone wants to make it.  As a result, classroom practitioners struggle to establish a cohesive, substantive and accurate approach to critical thinking. Unfortunately, my experiences as a teacher, administrator, researcher, educational consultant and now a Board member indicate that schools fail to teach critical reasoning skills except in superficial ways.

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In preschool, children bubble with energy, curiosity and excitement. They want to understand the world, express themselves and relate to others. Instead of capitalizing on this wealth of potential, our schools pursue discipline, conformity and short-term skills acquisition and memorization to perform successfully on standardized tests. Once vibrant minds become passive, lose motivation to learn and become satisfied with the superficial. Instead of seeing education as an opportunity for growth and enjoyment, students learn how to survive the system.

What is incredibly disturbing is that teachers, parents, students, board members, etc. quickly fall into line and become so indoctrinated in current approaches that they no longer see alternative paradigms to education.  We simply accept the status quo as unrefutable truth. Many of these people reading this are probably already getting defensive and are wanting to refute what I am proposing. This is an indication of a trapped mindset designed for self-protection.

While some blame teachers for this superficiality, it really falls upon the entire education system. Flawed groupthink, from the federal level down to the local level, has produced a system lacking substance and an environment that fosters superficial learning with little motivation or resources to improve. Driven by educational fads and short-term decisions, schools continue to struggle to deliver the rigorous, substantive education our children deserve. Educators have become trapped in a fishbowl, unaffected by the knowledge that exists outside the educational system. Nothing significantly new emerges. Instructional strategies, curriculum and levels of rigor get repackaged and reused decade after decade. This helps people keep their jobs and companies make lots of money without having to really change anything.  In the words of Richard Paul, a leading authority in critical thinking, “The history of education is also a history of educational panaceas, the comings and goings of quick fixes for deep-seated educational problems….The result is intensifying fragmentation of energy and effort in the schools, together with a significant waste of time and money.”  Our latest efforts are packaged as “personalized learning.”  Will this simply become another superficial fad, representing the old rather than the new only with a different name, which makes us temporarily feel good and gives the appearance of change? Or we will truly embrace rigorous student learning with new paradigms?

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Many of our politicians and community leaders and many educators continue to buy into the misconception that educational change simply requires schools and classroom teachers to follow dictates about what the outcomes should be and then apply stringent accountability measures. Many believe that tweaking direct instruction around vocabulary, fluency and basic comprehension, adding some technology gadgets into the classroom and having students pursue their self-identified interests, is the key. Rather than elevating student achievement, these erroneous and simplistic methods continue education stagnation.

Society as a whole has created a false perception of being intelligent and educated. We pride ourselves on our intellectualism and try to convince others of our brilliance. In schools, this false perception equates to a belief that excellence in thinking means mastery of basic comprehension skills, a few activities labeled as higher Bloom’s Taxonomy, followed by standardized tests. This approach does little to develop deep reasoning skills or intellectual character. Ron Richhart, another educational leader, reflected on his educational experience by saying, “I quickly discerned that school was more about style than substance, breadth than depth, and speed above all else…I learned that being smart meant having the answers readily at one’s disposal.”

It is a bit ironic that we convince ourselves as a highly sophisticated and educated society, yet one of the major issues we are dealing with right now is how outside countries are able to easily manipulate public perception and thinking to impact elections. In other words, other countries realize our voting citizenry are lacking basic critical thinking skills which can be exploited to manipulate voting outcomes and cause disruptions.  Do we need a louder wake-up call?

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I sincerely believe that all students have the ability to become better thinkers and I would like our district to offer a vision of hope and create a blueprint for a pervasive culture of thinking.  Let’s focus on the development of highly-skilled readers, writers, mathematicians and scientists and most importantly, the development of students with high intellectual character.  Let’s challenge long-standing assumptions of education and move away from a system of indoctrination and memorization to one of intellectual awakening.  We need leaders with long-term thinking based on a substantive theory of education. We need to move critical reasoning instruction from faddish rhetoric to practical reality.  If we fail to develop adults capable of thinking, well, what good is school?

Admittedly, this is a difficult challenge. History demonstrates that external factors dictate education priorities. Accountability measures as “basic” as state standardized assessments that measure minimal skills make for great political rhetoric, but establish educational priorities contrary to the development of quality thinking.  These tests establish an achievement ceiling that I believe should be our floor of achievement.

The powerful impetus for change may have arrived. Political and economic pressures continue to mount. Other world powers, especially China, have gained considerable influence in global politics and economics. For the past seven decades, the United States possessed the military and economic power to promote its interest and maintain world stability. We’ve compelled others to do what we wanted them to do. But the tide has begun to flow out. As the United States faces deep internal problems, emerging countries, aggressive and self-promoting, have moved closer to parity. These trends should encourage business, political and educational leaders to collaborate for the common good.  We can maintain our status and the benefits that come with it by exploiting a competitive edge of free, high-quality thinkers.

Schools stand among the most complex of all societal organizations and must be respected as such. The move toward developing quality thinkers remains to me a moral and ethical calling that requires rising above the mediocrity of politics and short-sided fads. It is definitely a road less traveled. Critical thinking can become a powerful, comfortable and routine aspect of everyday teaching and learning. Most educators sincerely want to move their students past superficial memorization and fragmented information towards deep, connected learning. We just need to redesign our system to prioritize and support this vision. We can do it. And we can do it for all teachers and students.IMG_5039.jpg

I’ve learned much about creating quality thinking classrooms. The Foundation for Critical Thinking highlighted my work and contributions by recognizing me as their national leader in Critical Thinking ten years ago. I continue to teach courses to educators across the globe and provide consulting across our country in pursuit of quality education.  It is difficult to be a prophet in your own land, as people would rather beat you down for their own comfort and protection than support efforts to change. But I hope that as a Board member, I can spark a community-wide conversation about how we want to educate our children and how we can develop world-class critical reasoners.

Dr. Paul Bankes
Thompson School District Board of Education

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