by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 11
April 2020
Weekend read
07:00

Teach children knowledge — not critical thinking

Without background information of a topic, comprehension will be limited even for the most able reader
by Mary Harrington

Take a breather from the onslaught of corona-content this weekend with a thought-provoking essay on education, critical thinking and knowledge, from D.J. Buck in Areo magazine.

The author describes feeling dismayed by the sometimes stupendous ignorance of ordinary students. These seemingly knowledge-free young people have been educated within a framework that emphasises the importance of ‘skills’ in the belief that facts are secondary, just nuggets of data that can be obtained by anyone using a search engine. In this theory, reading comprehension is wholly separable from the content of the writing, and comprises teachable skills that can be learned in the abstract.

But, as Buck points out, in fact the content of writing cannot be separated from reading comprehension — because without background knowledge of the topic, comprehension will be limited even for the most able and competent reader:

Most American scholars probably fancy themselves strong readers, but given a text on cricket I imagine few would be able to comprehend what it said. Their capacity for phonetic pronunciation would be of little use, faced with words like yorker, googly or doosra.
- D.J. Buck, Areo

And this, the author points out, is where attainment gaps begin to grow between socioeconomic groups. Even assuming equal levels of ability, those families with higher levels of cultural capital will impart greater levels of background knowledge to their offspring, which in turn creates a positive feedback loop with reading comprehension and subsequent attainment.

The author examines the arguments of John Dewey and bell hooks on critical thinking, suggesting that Dewey’s description of ‘a general attitude of doubt’ amounts, absent sufficient background knowledge, to just a feeling rather than the product of critical thinking. “In other words, to doubt well takes time and knowledge.”

Likewise, bell hooks promises to discuss critical thinking but her book on the subject is in reality, Buck argues, more an argument for teaching critical theory. Buck suggests that while critical theory is an important set of ideas that adults should have some familiarity with, it is not a replacement for other knowledge sets or worldviews: “to teach only critical theory, as bell hooks suggests, is to rob students of a store of background knowledge and of exposure to other substantial worldviews.”

The central argument for teaching knowledge, then, is to widen individuals’ frame of reference in order to give them not just the tools for thinking but material to think with. The author argues that while encouraging students only to read ‘culturally relevant’ books may draw them into reading, it will teach them nothing new. Similarly, encouraging students to read only material that reflects their existing interests effectively teaches them never to question the echo chamber of their existing references.

Our role as educators is to show our students the history, culture, philosophy and science that they would not otherwise learn, not to reinforce their existing adolescent interests. […] There are students in my school who have been labeled struggling readers, who spend upwards of three hours a day on choice reading—often to little effect.
- D.J. Buck, Areo

The solution to readers who struggle is not to provide more easy reading that fits within the existing frame of reference, but to expand the frame of reference: “They need to learn about the world if they want to become better thinkers.”

As a growing chorus of voices worries about the disintegration of our public discourse into suspicious, low-information echo chambers, it might be time to reconsider the value of teaching our children a greater body of shared and canonical knowledge.

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Juilan Bonmottier
Juilan Bonmottier
2 years ago

If you don’t have a capacity for critical thinking what use is knowledge (at least in the way you appear to define knowledge -which seems to be something more akin to information, than true knowledge -and I think that’s an erroneous definition). True knowledge -‘knowing’ is founded upon the capacity to think critically for oneself, to analyse and assess data, to find the ‘selected facts’ and use them for action. I’m not sure you can ‘teach’ knowledge. It seems to me to be something acquired by the individual, in the ‘noosphere’.

I think Buck’s idea is flawed in that we can all be ‘stupendously ignorant’ in the face of any unfamiliar text or collection of ideas. It’s a strange and rather omnipotent fantasy to think we could pick anything up and understand it -atomic physics anyone? Many subjects have developed their own language to articulate concepts beyond the common realm of understanding. If one has an openness to learning, as well as an interest in the subject, then that’s usually enough to stimulate a desire to understand its language.

I agree with the sentiment that it’s obviously a good thing to read widely. But I do think that at some stage in one’s learning it can be a waste of time to read things considered ‘cuturally relevant’ – ‘The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow’. There are hierachies in learning too, but these can be arranged through one’s own capacity for critical thought.

My experience of a difficulty with modern education and learning is that children and university students are being encouraged to learn (and accept uncritically -without critical thought) particular ways of seeing the world. This is often dressed up as open critical thinking, but it isn’t -you discover this as soon as you attempt any serious critique of the theoretical approach advocated -for which you will invariably receive a fail or dismissal – the which reveals that what you are being taught as open critical thinking is actually a totemic dogma.

norahmaydean
norahmaydean
2 years ago

Good points. Obviously kids should be taught critical thinking if that is possible to teach. They should also be taught history / truth, but who determines what is truth, especially with regard to history.

Scott Allan
Scott Allan
2 years ago

My 8-year-old came home telling me the “indigenous peoples of the world had no homes and the world was burning”. I had to calm her down and remind her that she had that year been on an Aboriginal site in Australia and First Nations reserve in Canada that year. I asked her did you see homes? She answered “yes” but were they the same as ours to which she answered “no”. I had to tell her that her teacher had not told her the truth, not because they were evil liars but because they had not gotten this information for themselves but by listening/reading another’s opinion. I suggested this was not wise.

Education includes the imparting of wisdom. This is impossible in the modern school because none of the teachers have usually ever left school. The went to school, then university and back to school. As such they really do not know anything for sure. Thinking that reading about something is actually knowing something is the fatal failing of an industry that calls itself “Education”.

There is no substitute for boots on the ground or getting your hands dirty to actually learn a thing. Books are limited because only so much understanding can be gained without experience. I ask every teacher to question if they actually know personally the things they are telling our children. If you have not witnessed it or had your hands in it then I will suggest you do not know it. Perhaps then you should not be misusing your position to teach something you don’t know. Especially complex international problems and social science that is in dispute.

Lastly every teacher it seems needs reminding that your authority is not absolute to teach someone else’s child just anything you want. That each child is someone else’s God given responsibility and it is the delegated authority of the parents as the source or authority and not the school. When any doubt is present seek the consent of the parents.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

I agree with you entirely, and I have often made the same points in response to various articles on the subject. But I don’t suppose that the teachers have even done the ‘reading’ you mention. Instead they simply ingest the propaganda handed down from the Department of Nonsense and impart it to the kids.

Paul Dobbs
Paul Dobbs
2 years ago
Reply to  Scott Allan

I agree with much of your opinion here, but I’m not confident about your interpretation of the incident with your daughter’s teacher. Another possible (please note POSSIBLE) interpretation follows. Much of the teaching in an eight-year-old’s classroom is conversation. And a tool of conversation, among people of all ages, is exaggeration. It’s a tricky tool, and like sarcasm, can be dangerous, but it can be very useful,.Like sarcasm, it can jolt an audience, a society or a classroom out of the doldrums, or worse, complacency.. Eight year olds are quite capable of understanding that the whole world is not burning, and that all indigenous people are not homeless, but that so much of the world is burning, and so many of those people have been made homeless by the plundering of their environment, but that the situation generally is dire and needs to be addressed. Without knowing more details of the context, that teacher’s declaration may well have been one of exasperation, meant to provoke a consideration of the situation, and most eight-year-olds would be capable of deducing that. Your daughter, possibly, may have been using the same conversational technique on you.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
2 years ago

Whatever…our current education system seems incapable of teaching either knowledge or critical thinking.

CYRIL NAMMOCK
CYRIL NAMMOCK
2 years ago

I think the title of this piece- for which title the author may well not be responsible- should be “Teach Children knowledge- Not Critical Theory“. The article then makes perfect sense. I mean in terms of a transfer of the meaning implied in the headline to the opinions offered in the article. Whether or not you broadly agree with it. The article, I mean. Which, FWIW to anybody, I do. Broadly. Well, quite strongly, in fact.

Paul Dobbs
Paul Dobbs
2 years ago

Two points. First, as someone who home-schooled (or rather un-schooled) his son with considerable success, I have to say the obvious, one needs to learn both knowledge and critical-thinking skills, but that both are best absorbed by children who are self directed. Second, I learned from a fascinating and well-researched book The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, that French education of children is VERY focused on knowledge, and that many kids actually enjoy this.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago

” teaching our children a greater body of shared and canonical knowledge.”

Slipping in that second last ‘trigger’ word has us all rushing to the barricades to attack or defend the idea of a canon. Unless we’re all too exhausted by the last dust up over it.

rosalindmayo
rosalindmayo
2 years ago

I agree broadly with this essay but would question its conclusion as to ‘canonical’ knowledge? I wonder what the author means by this ? For e.g Bell Hooks would I suggest not be included in canonical knowledge- surely the so called ‘canon’, is also something that needs questioning whether in literature -history, or theology etc.

J Cor
J Cor
2 years ago

Sometimes I think the belief that education will make dumb people smart is like imagining that basketball lessons will make short people tall.

bethannmacmillan
bethannmacmillan
2 years ago

“Critical theory” should be considered highly suspect when taught by teachers who have an obvious agenda. Students need a deep understanding of history in order to critique it.

heslin415
heslin415
2 years ago

I was surprised by many who said that ‘if you don’t have a capacity for critical thinking what use is knowledge’. But without a thorough background knowledge what’s the point of critical thinking? Ricky Gervais wasn’t wrong when he said ‘lots of people now think “my opinions is worth as much as your fact” and it’s just not true.’

Critical thinking isn’t something you should learn the same way as you learn history, science, literature etc. Instead it should be learnt through the teaching of history, science, literature, by encouraging students to have constructive discussions. People who have a good knowledge of history, science and literature will be able to develop their worldview and morality standards, and this is how they develop critical thinking.