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.