Critical thinking is critical

Last year, over the course of two semesters, I had the privilege of supervising student teachers. I call it a privilege because I was able to observe our seniors developing into active classroom teachers. Some of them started out as careful and vulnerable, but all seemed to reach the finishing line with confidence and competencies to make them caring and dedicated educators. I was also able to observe them learning to abide by rules and routines of the cooperating teachers and schools, who were generous in sharing their classrooms with our student teachers. 

There were at least three situations that gave me pause to think about how we are teaching children to unquestioningly follow orders, however meaningless those orders seem to be. Indeed, we are repressing imagination and creativity all skills necessary for developing critical thinking skills – not to mention innovation. We are teaching children from a young age that obedience is more important than intellectual rigor. I will go one step further in saying, we are teaching our children to be ignorant rather than develop curiosity and imagination.

One of the situations I mention above, I wrote about in a previous blog post. A second was at the same time alarming and intriguing to me. One morning, when I entered a kindergarten classroom to observe one of my students, the cooperating teacher approached me hugging a large jar filled with pretzels. She greeted me warmly, and then wistfully told me that there would not be much for me to see that day because they had to do some spelling exercises with the children that were so meaningless and boring for them that they hated doing them. In fact, the only way she could get them to cooperate was to feed them pretzels as rewards. I asked her if there was no other way to teach this exercise to the children. She shook her head saying they were required to do this as part of the curriculum. This was in one of the schools that our college considers as one of the best placements for our student teachers. 

The third situation happened around Thanksgiving when children in a different kindergarten program were celebrating the holiday by pretending they were "Indians (that is to say, Native Americans)," and "Pilgrims" in a scripted teacher-directed morning meeting. Again – when I questioned this overly simplistic and stereotypical history lesson, I was given the same line: they were required to do this as part of the curriculum. 

Regarding each separate situation, I have much to say pedagogically, philosophically, and sociologically. However, I will leave that for a different essay or blog post. The main point about all three of these events was that at no time were the children given an opportunity to question, nor were they provoked into thinking about anything other than what was scripted as required.

In my classes of undergraduate and post baccalaureate students every semester I ask them where they think curriculum comes from. Without exception, they stare blankly at me. Some murmur something about standards or the common core. It takes a full hour and a half to help them understand that curriculum is pedagogical, political, idealogical, psychological, sociological, anthropological, and emotional, and that it comes from human beings with beliefs, values, and ideas about what children should learn to fit into and succeed in our society. I try to spend most of my classes encouraging students to ask questions – even if I don't have answers, or the questions cause me discomfort. I try and give them assignments that develop their creativity and imagination. In fact, I was happy to read what one of my former students, now a teacher, wrote about this recently

This morning I sat watching Morning Joe on TV when Mike Barnacle asked the Libertarian candidate if he was President, what he would do about Aleppo. The candidate responded: "What is Aleppo?" There was amazement and flustering all around the television and social media communities. I sat silently, staring at the screen in dismay and sadness, and at the same time I was not surprised. Just as this election season has frightened and saddened me for months now … I am no longer surprised by the endless stream of crazy, ignorant statements that come pouring out of candidate's mouths.

For, I just keep on thinking about supervising student teachers and at least three situations that I touched on above. I just keep on thinking: And so – if children are taught to eat pretzels to get them through rote, meaningless tasks, or excluded and ostracized when they are curious, passionate, and think outside the box, or if they are taught about history in a simplistic, stereotypical manner – it is no wonder to me that today many, many people are inclined to vote for a man, who this morning on national television, owned to not knowing what an "Aleppo" is. Why should he know? Where would he have been encouraged to develop curiosity, creativity, imagination or critical thinking skills?

And … I just keep on thinking: America, be very afraid … and act fast to reform our school system – I mean really reform it. We have not one more moment to lose.

Indeed, I fear it might already be too late.