Teaching kids to think – or not.

"Just the facts, ma'am."
That's about all that many college kids are learning.

Talking with my son's high-school teacher a while back, I very politely alluded to those superior education scores other countries' students were pulling. She responded authoritatively, "Many of the leaders, Japan for instance, teach by rote. In the American education system, we teach students to think. That's why there are no great software companies in Japan." I took comfort; indeed I'd read similar claims before.

Seems it was cold comfort.

A study published last week reports that

"Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication are either exceedingly small or nonexistent.

"At least 45 percent of students in our sample did not demonstrate any statistically significant improvement in Collegiate Learning Assessment [CLA] performance during the first two years of college.

"Further study has indicated that 36 percent of students did not show any significant improvement over four years."

Three of six students can't think any better after two years of college; two of six after four years! No wonder America's competitiveness and our national decision-making are worries.

The study's authors point to some causes, but none of those is going to get fixed any time soon. What can we do?

Tutoring? Tough. College students can be pulling good grades without knowing they are learning mostly rote stuff.

Enrichment and after-school activities like those that parents worked to create for their middle school kids? No, most parents aren't near their college kids, nor welcome in their everyday lives.

Get our students reading and writing more outside of college?  Maybe. The study says "half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week."

I've just read this report out loud to my college freshman. He's bright and, I think, ambitious. I urged him to take on whatever extra reading, writing, intellectual clubs, weekend workshops, and other work he can - and to wake up to the fact that his teachers and their curricula are not going to help him learn to think. To a large extent, he's got to teach himself.

"Set your own standards" is a heck of a responsibility to throw on a young person all of a sudden, but maybe it's the message that needs to get out - from parents, college counselors, the media.

What can we do to actually improve our college kids' minds?

[Update: some resources for out-of-school learning] [Update: don't neglect their grasp of economics and family finances]

7 comments to Teaching kids to think – or not.

  • David Stookey

    Jeffrey Ellis offers a collection of ideas and resources on improving “critical thinking” on his blog The Thinker.


      I have been teaching How To Think Like An Entrepreneur, a program that teaches critical thinking and creativity skills to middle and high school students, for more than 10 years. You’re right—if students can’t think, they CANNOT learn! These skills are critical! In five sessions nearly 100% of my students think they are CREATIVE! All because their brains are now THINKING!!!

      Ken Proudfoot

  • David,

    I read that same article. It misses the critical factor entirely. If we have to wait until college to try to teach kids to be curious and think creatively, those kids have absolutely no business even being in college. If the fundamental curiosity and habits of critical thinking are not well established in a kid by the fifth or sixth grade, they shouldn’t bother planning on college at all. It is time and money wasted.

    Unfortunately while we have a great university system in this country, our public education system for younger kids is a failure. While failing to educate kids in critical thinking, over the last generation or so, it has also generally stopped offering useful technical education while our society as a whole has devalued traditional skills and work that are essential to do things other than pushing paper.

    With something on the order of 50% of kids headed to college, one has to wonder who is actually going to do the real work of our society that all those folks hope to manage and design. In my mind we have to return to providing useful training and dignity to the trades that we need to actually compete in the global economy – machinists, welders, electricians, miners, farmers and all the other folks who actually work with real things.

    I read a great comment on this subject yesterday at the Atlantic, on an article on disappearing jobs. www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/01/what-really-happened-to-15-million-jobs/70005/ Commenter mrdon wrote:

    “Unfortunately our education driven culture not only fails to produce the kind of thinkers we probably need, it also produces a class of educated citizen who is unwilling (or at least resistant) to seek out plain old work. It is hard to visualize yourself shoveling manure when you were educated to visualize yourself as “riding the horse”. Somehow we have come to visualize ourselves as a society which consists mostly of managers and bosses — at the same time our technology and understanding of management has taught us how to manage more people with fewer people.”

    “Our technology has squeezed some of the nastiness out of many of the tasks which once made up a greater share of our economy. But vegetables still do not pick themselves, nor do shingles apply themselves to roofs nor do diapers change themselves — not even on our swelling population of senior citizens. It is not entitlements alone that have removed incentives to “earn” a job, but the foundation of the selling the value of a high cost “education” has become an assurance that, on one hand, you will not have to shovel manure if you pay the toll and, on the other hand, you will be able to start out riding the horse.”

    “The ultimate irony is that the educators who assure us that if we give them our time and money that we will not have to shovel manure have neither shoveled manure nor ridden a horse. They make their living telling us how do avoid one and promising us that we will be qualified to do the other.”

  • LizGrove

    That study you’ve quoted puts some of the blame for the problem on the amount of time college students are expected to spend on “social activities”. I’m wondering if anyone heard Michelle Rhee being interviewed recently on NPR’s Marketplace? Here’s the link: marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/01/18/pm-a-successful-economy-begins-with-education/

    Michelle Rhee, whose family is from Korea, was the former chancellor of the public schools in Washington DC. Asians see education as an economic issue, not just for the individual but for the future of the whole nation. How they focus on fostering that, is in sharp contrast to American schoolrooms and a student’s family life. Students are ranked one through 40 in their class and everybody knows where they stand. Teachers and parents are honest about what kids are not good at and how far they have to go until they are number one. The goal is very clear.

    That’s not what an American classroom is all about and I do see a good side to that. But there’s a real downside. We’ve gone in a different direction. We see education as social. We’ve lost a lot of that academic competitive spirit and you can see the results in the profile of the students America is graduating from its high schools and colleges.

    I agree with Michelle Rhee that we’ve become so obsessed with making kids feel good about themselves, we’ve lost sight of building the skills they need to have to be actually GOOD at things.

    When big income producers for nearly all educational campuses in America are their sports teams, the focus has become warped. Education has become a business in itself – and in doing so it’s lost its way. We really need to sit up and take notice because the future of America’s creativity and academic standing in the world is shrinking. Even if the football fields are full.

  • LizGrove

    Here’s another problem: local community colleges around the country didn’t obviously get that $12 billion meant to stabilize their funding (it got blocked by Congress), and so they’re struggling against State cuts at the worst possible moment: huge numbers of displaced workers enrolling, trying to improve their education and training. Add to that, 43 States have slashed financial aid funding for needy students. Just great.

    NPR did a piece on this, just a couple of days ago:
    All Things Considered (27th January 2011)

  • I agree completely with Mr. Unger: the problem starts way earlier than university. My favourite writer on this subject is John Taylor Gatto, who taught high school in NYC for years, and says in his book “Dumbing Us Down”, about school.

    1. It makes the children confused. It presents an incoherent ensemble of information that the child needs to memorize to stay in school. Apart from the tests and trials that programming is similar to the television, it fills almost all the “free” time of children. One sees and hears something, only to forget it again.
    2. It teaches them to accept their class affiliation.
    3. It makes them indifferent.
    4. It makes them emotionally dependent.
    5. It teaches them a kind of self-confidence that requires constant confirmation by experts (provisional self-esteem).
    6. It makes it clear to them that they cannot hide, because they are always supervised.

    I would add to this that school teaches that creativity is disruptive, that students are not to be trusted, that nothing is worth more than 50 minutes of your time, that you don’t know what’s good for you, and if you’re not completely certain of the “right” answer you better just hide.

    Our school system is the biggest impediment to our education. Who ever thought segregating children by age and making them sit still 5 hours a day was a good idea? Don’t get me started. (Too late.) Check out Sudbury Valley School, run entirely by the students, who even hire and fire the teachers. That’s where children learn to think.

  • Meredith


    This link to a youtube video created by RSA I think has some interesting insight on the current structure of education.

    I will say that my education in a private school earlier in life, where competition was much more aggressive, placed me far ahead of students when I transferred to a public school where “everyone is a winner” attitude was/is more prevalent. There are always pros and cons to any system, but it appears to me that education systems are “dumbing down” to look good on paper and get that extra funding, especially public schools. I’ve never been a straight-A student, but I’m appalled at the number of undergraduates who don’t have basic study or program skills, such as the ability to research or use Word. Friends in graduate school teaching freshman have chiefly made these complaints.
    I do agree that critical thinking needs to happen sooner and not just in college, especially considering the dropout rate is over 50 percent. But where is the motivation? Why are students enrolling in college and why are they dropping out? For many it comes down to finances and if they can get a decent paying job now, why suffer through years of additional schooling to only increase their debt without a real guarantee they’ll get a job, or one that is any better than the one they can get now?
    For younger kids, there’s also so much external stimulus (I think it’s mentioned in the video) from technological advancements in communication that many are now prescribed medication for ADHD when in fact they’re having a hard time processing all the information coming at them. Who isn’t distracted?
    I’ll admit, my ability to think critically is not where I’d like it to be. I think it’s because I learned how to play the education game and played it for so long that I’m still adjusting to “real world” thinking. As a student you have very clear expectations based on assignments and grading schemes. I’m now finding myself in a position where I don’t have any basic guidelines or description of what my job is and how I’ll even be evaluated, which is not the way I was conditioned to operate through standard education. Creativity and innovation are championed as good concepts but aren’t given real practice in the traditional classroom (or even on the job sometimes) because of the risk of failure, which is unacceptable to report at the end of the year. Failure means you’re getting fired or the program’s funding is squashed.
    I’m an idealist and think that what’s hurting our ability to think critically and creatively is our motivations. If the bottom line is the number in your bank account or the number of gold stars next to your name how can you truly contribute to a community mindset? I think we need to provide meaning again to education, meaning that connects and inspires students.

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