Why can’t education be more about thinking?

My Grandma once said to me something rather profound: that she does not know how to think. It was not an out of the blue statement; we were discussing educational philosophy at the time, something we discuss a lot, as she is a former primary school teacher. She did not attend university, but teacher training college, as this was the route into primary school teaching in the nineteen-fifties. When she was at college she attended lectures concerning education philosophy. The woman who taught the lectures was rather stern and not particularly approachable, and my Grandma (as quite a shy person) never had the courage to ask her after the lectures: can you teach me how to think?

I guess this could be seen as an overly provocative and exaggerated statement – how can anyone not think? But the very fact that she feels this way is very concerning. It is very concerning that any child (or adult, for that matter) would have issues with this, let alone someone who became a teacher! Of course this is merely one example, but I really do think it feeds into a larger, more important issue in education: when are we taught to think?

There does not seem to me to be any subject in which ‘thinking’ is necessarily encouraged. This is of course quite a vague statement – you can think about any subject, but in our current education system is there any subject that really encourages logical and critical thinking or reasoning? These are very, very important skills and the lack of time dedicated to them in the curriculum is, quite frankly, disgraceful.

I have already taken on the idea of exam-based education, as seen in my last post, but these two things are strongly linked. We have taken to believe that education is essentially a process of filling people with knowledge. Now, that is all well and good, but I am sure we are all aware of times when we studied very hard for an exam simply by remembering answers. Perhaps you did very well in the exam, but in a few months you had probably forgotten everything.

Surely this is not a desirable method of education – it should not just be a memory test. The skill of critical thinking is very important for the work place and life in general. If someone is not able to consider a problem and think through a logical, well-reasoned method to find a solution, then how can they ever progress in any field of work or study?

With these goals in mind I believe that we need to bring philosophy into the classroom. It is the only subject that specialises in thinking. This is not about trying to get young children to read Nietzsche, but there are plenty of interesting engaging questions that can be presented to children, with the opportunity for them to respond to these problems. So many life skills will be gained from these classes: how to disagree without having an argument; how to present examples and counter-examples; how to break down arguments – these are skills that really are invaluable.

I believe that many people who do well in education do so because they develop these skills outside of the classroom, perhaps from family life or extra-curricular activities. By not offering the opportunity to develop these skills to all children, we really are failing them. The Philosophy Foundation is doing some great things in the UK to encourage the teaching of philosophy to primary school children with some brilliant results. The link to their website is at the bottom of the page, along with an excellent TED talk on the subject.

We really need to produce an education system which is about thinking, not remembering. This will enable children to become great innovators and problem solvers, and with the current problems we face as a planet and a society, no one can argue that this is an important aim.




5 thoughts on “Why can’t education be more about thinking?

  1. I think you need to think about what thinking is. Knowledge isn’t the alternative to thinking, it’s the fuel it runs on. Thinking is not a generic skill that can be taught outside of subjects, it is part of every subject and you develop your thinking alongside the acquisition of knowledge.

    Oh, and the idea that cramming for an exam is not going to result in knowledge you retain, is quite true but this is because what you learn that way you don’t know very well. This is not a problem with knowledge, it’s a problem with a lack of knowledge.

    • Oh I agree that knowledge is important as well but I do not think that free thinking is encouraged in the current curriculum. Of course it can be taught in all subjects but what I find interesting about how Philosophy is taught to children, I would also direct you towards the Philosophy Foundation’s website the link is at the bottom of the page to see this, because I believe it is important that children develop these skills of building arguments, critical thinking and discussing but also children are natural philosophy they think about these question more than we give them credit for and I think if we supply them with a space to discuss these issues the benefits are ten fold.

  2. While I broadly agree, it feels like the problem here is the method of education rather than the subjects themselves. Every subject anyone studies at school is based on thought: literature- themes, meaning, analysis; mathematics- logic, problem solving; history- similar to literature and philosophy. As you mentioned, the problem is that we are not taught to think. We learn how to pass exams; we learn facts and we learn how to construct a facade of critical thinking (e.g. “William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies explores the theme of death through x, y, z; however, this is far less important than its analysis of the nature man, etc.” ultimately amounts to “My teacher gave us a chart with five key themes and by writing it out like this, it looks like I’ve thought about it. Thanks for the A*, by the way.”).

    If that’s the case, I’m not entirely sure if bringing philosophy into the classroom would be a solution. If literature, in all its philosophical complexities and analytical potential, is reduced to working out a formulaic essay two hours before the exam and thus passing regardless of what’s being asked, why would philosophy be any different at that level? Ostensibly, we might be teaching students to “think for themselves” and “challenge assumptions” and all those other quaint catchphrases, but would we be teaching them to think? They might know why Descartes argued what he did, and they might have a basic understanding of the objections to his dualism, but that’s completely different to thinking for themselves. To pass the looming exam, a student will memorize key points, key objections, and so on. They’ll be able to argue against Hilary Putnam all day, but when you peel back the layers, you’ll find an internalized chart of answers no different to the one your teacher gave you for Lord of the Flies. As long as an exam-based curriculum like the current one is in place, philosophy won’t be able to solve anything. Unfortunately, I have no alternative.

    • I agree it is not so much about subjects but skills, that is what the Philosophy classes would develop – please take a look at the Philosophy Foundation they have some great videos about what they do and it is all based on developing skills, whereby children are able to develop their own arguments so they do not need to be spoon feed these arguments when they get to GCSE. I reiterate this is not about introducing them to Descartes or Hegel this is about equating them with some interesting things to discuss such as ‘If all my atoms in my body are replaced in 7 years am I still the same person?’ or ‘What is knowledge?’ basic questions not difficult texts in the history of philosophy – I would encourage you to look at the TED talk I link at the bottom as well, she outlines very well how philosophy should be taught to children. Thank you for the feedback I appreciate it.

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