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:

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