Teaching students how to think

The great need that Dorothy Sayers and classical educators have always claimed to meet is teaching students how to think. I’m still amazed, however, at how little of what schools do with their students actually trains them to do so. So much time is spent getting through materials and learning what they are supposed to think that no time is left to learn sound habits of thinking.

Schools, to my astonishment, don’t teach higher level reading skills after around 5th grade. I’m afraid that most teachers might not know what those higher order skills are. Writing usually follows formulas that should have been mastered in middle school. Math is taught in such a way that students can apply processes to controlled situations, but are unable to adapt the ideas to other contexts.

If this describes your classroom or school, you don’t need to despair. The trouble with thinking is not that it’s so difficult, though it isn’t easy. It’s that it takes time and practice. And when my generation was growing up, we didn’t learn to take the time to think. We had work to do, things to get done. No time to think.

But think about it: The assumption behind thinking is “I need to figure something out,” or “I don’t know what I need to know.” In short, I am ignorant.

This may be the ultimate fear of the unknown – the fear that I will have to admit that I don’t know what I need to know and I don’t even know what I need to know I need to know.

So how do we move from ignorance to knowledge?

By asking questions.

Therefore, when we say we want to teach our students how to think, what we mean is, we want to teach them how to ask questions.

But we’re afraid to do that, often, because we fear that they might come up with different answers than we have or that they’ll find out something we don’t know. And they will too. They’ll grow beyond us. They might even liberate themselves from some of our fears.

That would be a good thing.

Teaching children the seven great questions as outlined in classical rhetoric (e.g. in The Lost Tools of Writing) will enable them to think at a level beyond what their peers can reach – and beyond what we have reached too. If we are afraid of this, we should stop teaching and, if necessary, admit that we are not teaching anyway.

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