Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why Public Schooling Discourages Critical Thinking
by Gary K Claubaugh, Ed. D.

Exploring A Fundamental Conflict

There are more than 16,000 school districts in the United States and just about all of them say they teach 'critical thinking.' In fact if you combine "critical thinking," "school district," and "mission statement" in a Google search you get 1,650,000 results.

Click on any one of them and you will find mission statements like this one from the Mountain Crest High School in Utah's Cache County School District.

"Students will have the ability to acquire new knowledge, solve complex problems, and apply learning to new situations with creative and critical thinking."

Friends, we have trouble …

A laudable goal; but imagine encouraging Utah youngsters to apply it to the Book of Mormon. This Mormon source authority asserts that the Amerindians have, among their ancestors, remnants of the House of Israel. So let's suppose that a Mountain Crest High School teacher attempting to fulfill his school's mission statement, asks his students to research what contemporary scholars have to say about the Amerindian's gene pool; then apply what they have learned to the Book of Mormon.

The students would soon discover that scientific experts all agree that there is no trace of the House of Israel in Amerindian's DNA. This discovery would demonstrate their "ability to acquire new knowledge." Now they are expected to apply their learning to new situations. In this case their discovery that the Book of Mormon's account is incorrect. What sort of creative and critical thinking might come out of that? One possibility is that if a Mormon holy book is wrong about this, it might be wrong about other things.

Plainly this lesson is in keeping with Cache County School District's mission statement. And there is little doubt that this is critical thinking in action. But would the youngster's parents— especially those that are Mormons — celebrate this achievement? What about the general reaction of Mormons in Cache County? Think they would be happy? Or would this lesson stir up a ton of trouble for the teacher and the district.

Note that the critical thinking described is not mere logic chopping. The "these are the premises" and "this is a conclusion," sort of stuff. Formal logic sometimes passes for critical thinking in school districts, but it rarely results in a serious challenge to anything of consequence. We're talking about high impact thinking that systematically searches out and reconsiders deep assumptions that suppport our basic beliefs. We're also talking about the thinking that questions authority. Real critical thinking has to include these kinds of things or it is hardly critical.

Transfer of Learning

Some argue it isn't necessary to tackle sensitive issues head on; that if we teach generic methods for critical thinking, learners will eventually bring these tools to bear on important issues.

Too many things interfere with transfer of training to depend on this. To become critical thinkers, students must have well-focused opportunities to consider things that really matter. The trouble is, school officials understandably avoid fostering any thinking that might anger important components of the community. Their caution is understandable but this almost universal weaseling out gives the lie to thousands upon thousands of critical thinking mission statements.

Critical Thinking v. Socialization

There is a deep-seated but largely unnoticed conflict at work here. Yes, in the abstract, educators are expected to teach youngsters to think. But they also are expected to socialize students to think and behave in ways that are accepted in their community. And to the extent that students do, in fact, think critically, to that extent they might decide to reject these community norms.

This does not vex educators whose minds are untroubled by critical thought. They champion critical thinking while remaining blissfully unaware of where it might lead. But thoughtful educators know that teaching kids to think can lead to their questioning deeply held community values and beliefs. And this will result in epic hassles with parents and other community members. So it's no surprise that thoughtful teachers tend to be cautious and typically try to avoid such conflicts by adopting the pedagogical equivalent of a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.


Public educators routinely celebrate critical thinking; but they characteristically avoid setting that process in motion. Luckily, bright students with inquisitive minds find lots of food for thought outside-of-school. And that is where most of them will have to do their critical thinking.

A consideration of other basic tensions in schooling is available here:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Rites, Rules, and Regulations:
constraining, or enabling competition?

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. -- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations Book I, Chapter X, Part II

During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. -- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part 1, Chapter 13.
Taming Leviathan. People tend to fear guns and pitbulls, unless they can control them for their own purposes. Similarly with competition. Corporations work to forestall inroads by employee unions. Unions, once accepted, struggle to establish closed shops. Sectarian priesthoods struggle against each other even as their laities, unless severely tamed, pursue religion despite priestly warnings against going beyond Church walls.

Bluntly put, whether competition is looked upon as a benefit or a threat depends upon who is looking and whose interests are threatened. But it is a widely-used, critical stratagem to obscure or deny this insight into idiosyncrasy.

So it is that we often hear those who feel threatened by possible competition -- whether “liberal” or “conservative" -- to decry “selfish individualism,” “lack of social conscience,” or “pernicious relativism.” Those who see that same competition as offering them an advantage welcome it as “personal liberty,” “transformative social benefit,” or “a fundamental social dynamic.” (See Believer vs Atheist, Conservative vs Liberal, and other distracting frauds.)

Moral Talk. The assumption of the moralist -- and I don’t mean to dismiss or demean it here -- is that human actions can be evaluated not only on a scale between effective-ineffective, or wise-unwise but also as good-bad. What makes the moral dimension special is that good-bad characterizations are intended to prescribe or proscribe for everyone, whereas a single individual’s action may be judged as effective-ineffective or wise-unwise for his purposes alone without prescribing or proscribing that action for others.

“How many divisions does the Pope have?” Joseph Stalin is purported to have said, dismissing Winston Churchill’s concern with the Pope’s influence. Clearly, moral importunity can be proferred where either knowledge or power is lacking. The ancient philosophical chestnut is accurate: Is is not Ought. And even evils themselves can be morally recommended, whereas non-facts and unwisdoms are not.

”Moral” Language as Constructive. There is an interesting use of moral language which has little or nothing to do with Good or Evil. Imagine that you are involved in a game. You and your competitor are being closely watched by a referee of some sort. Ask yourself, why, when you play, say, chess, (or baseball, or scrabble…) you should follow the rules of the game?

Well, if your intent is to best your opponent at chess, (or baseball or scrabble) then (being caught} “cheating” invalidates any result you might accomplish by your deviance. “Game-morality” is constitutive morality: what it is you are doing is only recognized and awarded as such if you concede to the restrictions of the game's rules.

Whatever game-competition occurs, only occurs by virtue of the moral framework of the rules. All your boxing skills matter little if you bite your opponent’s ear off.

But to play a game you have to concede consensus to a framework of rules and regulations. Game-moralities are generally not controversial for consensual participants: mostly because participation is optional. An interesting point: although people may compete with each other within a framework of rules that constitute a game, competition among people is not possible across the boundaries that distinguish one game-type (say, chess and checkers). from another. Rules and regulations define what is recognizable as within-game competition.

“Life-Morality” is not a Game. By way of contrast, morality when pursued outside of well-defined games, is not proposed as merely optional, a matter, say, of choosing a pasttime. People who propose life moralities, e.g. religions, ethical systems, class or tribal mores, etc. are not usually offering choices among competing options.

A strategem used by moralists of this sort is to not recognize differing views as competitors, but as deviants from the Truth or from Right Thinking, e.g. heretics, apostates, the invincibly ignorant, etc. Moral language in this context insinuates a consensus that tends to be highly restricted to “the faithful.” Such language is highly sloganistic, generating, even among members of a given congregation, false consensus on the meanings of basic concepts of faith. (See Slogans: junkfood, dead-weight or poison? )

So it is that you can find increasing numbers of people who hold that their personal faith alone guarantees their salvation, although their consensus on what defines such things as faith, charity, mercy, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, and even God, is rather haphazard, even when they refer, for example, to a common Bible. (See God, Church and Schooling for Democracy: American Faith in "Faith.")

Can Competition Be Moral? Those of us who see competition as an expression of individual liberty have to (a moral “have to”?) face an interesting conundrum. It is rules and regulations which provide the frameworks within which competition can be judged to be something more than merely efficient or wise. For Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, morality -- for them, Enlightenment Christian morality -- provided such a framework within which economic competition could be allowed to be “free.”

Present-day claims that fewer governmental constraints must necessarily increase benefits to society as a whole, are not so much the conclusions of arguments based on the theories of Smith and Burke. Rather, they are masks for present-day agendas of dubious morality. (See Masks: Words That Hide Agendas)

For more information on these and related issues, see Choosing The Lesser Evil: a Moral Failure?

--- EGR

Sunday, August 3, 2014

School Reform and the Pathology of Domination
by Gary K. Clabaugh

Present school “reforms” involve non-consultative top-down changes that are force-fed to gagging teachers. Research reveals that this approach not only doesn’t work, it is counterproductive. Successful innovation requires voluntary, highly motivated participants.[1] Forced change, on the other hand, produces frustration and anxiety while it increases resistance to change.[2]
Unfortunately, this imperious style of school reform is bipartisan. It characterizes both conservatives and liberals. William Bennett, the blowhard Clown Prince of Education in Reagan’s day, gave top-down school reform a distinct right wing edge. But these days the left wing Arne Duncan, President Obama’s conspicuously unqualified Secretary of Education, is up to the same tricks.

Since teachers must implement classroom change, their resistance to strong-arm tactics can be quite effective. They have numerous opportunities to suffocate imposed change, ranging from half-hearted, foot dragging to outright sabotage. And, when they close their classroom door, some of them do resist. Too often, though, they just stew silently or even blame themselves.

Autocratic Reform and Teacher Morale

The condescending style of school reform dates way back to the days when classroom teachers were long-suffering females and the power holders were self-satisfied males. Today’s “reformers” are far less chauvinistic but every bit as patronizing.

Sometimes it does seem that teachers, or at least teacher’s unions, reflexively oppose change. And the widespread perception that teachers stand in the way of needed reform is a major motivation for imposed change. But resistance is a common response to any major change in any organization.[3] And if those changes are being pushed on you by people who are disrespectful and don’t even ask for your opinion, resistance is sensible. But the would-be “reformer’s” react to the resistance they themselves provoke by becoming even more controlling, autocratic and disrespectful.

To neutralize teacher resistance they design straightjacket policies, dramatically reduce teacher authority, and ratchet up coercion via so-called “accountability” measures. And they do these things with complete disregard for its impact on teacher morale. They seem incapable of imagining the negative state of mind their actions promote. In fact, the most authoritarian reformers have lost all concern for the actual consequences of their “reforms” on those who must carry them out.

The Myopic View from Olympus

One reason policy makers fail to appreciate that they need teacher cooperation is how far removed they are far from classroom realities. Many top-down “reforms” seem plausible when viewed from the Olympus of Capital Hill or the White House. They also seem reasonable in the think tanks of plutocrats. They even seem credible in the rarified atmosphere of a state capital. But on the ground, at the classroom level, non-consultative, out of touch, top-down change fuels resentment and mistrust, lowers teacher morale, and decreases teacher effectiveness.

Sure teachers must be held accountable for being informed, caring and doing their best with the resources they command. But contemporary reformers go way beyond that. They demand that teachers be miracle workers who can somehow nullify anything that impacts school achievement. Never mind what goes on in the home, on the street, in the community, the economy, and so forth. There are “no excuses.” In other words, if a child fails in school it is ultimately attributable to some teacher’s failure! What humbug!

The “Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations”

Teachers know from bitter experience that what the boss calls “excuses” are often well-founded explanations. And researchers have found that a major source of employee resistance to change is fear of failure in a new environment.[4] So what are the reformers doing? They are demanding change that literally allows no room for failure no matter what intrudes. Who wouldn’t be fearful of that craziness? And who, with any guts, would fail to resist?

Reformers say they simply are requiring teachers to outgrow “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Common sense says this is rubbish. And, because it trivializes the misery, hardship and suffering that many children daily endure; it’s heartless rubbish as well. Push aside the privacy concealing what goes on at home can be horrifying and inexpressibly sad. Do these horrific situations influence what the child learns at school? Of course they do. Can teachers change these situations? Generally they cannot. In fact they often remain totally hidden.

Adding to out-of-school difficulties are the many in school things that influence educational outcomes yet are beyond teacher control. If those in authority build inhumanly large schools, if penny-pinching results in overcrowded classrooms and inadequate support, if school boards wrangle while school buildings fall apart, if school managers select wretched textbooks or badly constructed instructional packages, if school administrators fail to curb bullying and/or tolerate chaos, teachers must live with the results.

Accountability Without Authority

Teachers endure all of these limitations, yet in today’s “no excuses” environment they still are held to account when kids get “left behind.” In fact, if President Obama were to get his way on incentive pay, teachers will take a hit in the wallet if the kids score poorly on those misbegotten high stakes tests.

Research reveals us that accountability without authority fuels frustration, generates feelings of futility, feeds resentment, causes anxiety, worry, depression, aggression and, if the stress continues, a decline in performance.[5] It eventually leads to resignation and learned helplessness.[6]

Moreover, those unfairly held accountable hold back information, refuse cooperation and suppress dissent within their ranks — all in self-defense. Researcher Kenwyn Smith describes this sort of reaction formation as “the pathology of domination.” Pray tell, how is inflicting this on teachers going to improve our schools?

[1] Paul Berman and Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin, Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, Vol. VIII, Implementing and Sustaining Innovations, R-1589/8—HEW (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, May 1978).
[2] Piderit, S.K. (2000, Oct). Rethinking resistance and recognizing ambivalence: a multidimensional view of attitudes toward an organizational change. Academy of Management -794. A, 783
[3] Albert Bolognese, Employee Resistance to Organizational Change, 2002 (
[4] Kotter, J. P., & Schlesinger, L.A. (1979). Choosing strategies for change. Harvard Business Review 106 - 114.
[5] Stress, Shared Resource,
[6] Kenwyn K. Smith, Groups in Conflict: Prisons in Disguise (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall-Hunt, 1982).

For more information on school reform see: