Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Basics v. Critical Thinking

This is the big fight in educational circles right now. It can also be framed as essentialists v. progressivists.

Let us look at the caricatures of each side first, since they are shaping the debate:

The essentialist is all for the 3 Rs. He supports drilling on the skills and memorizing the facts that go with them. He is strict, and he runs a tight classroom with everyone involved in the same activity. Rules are rules. He does not believe much in self-esteem. He values skills above all else. He crushes creativity with his “drill and kill” teaching. He thinks information must be committed to memory. He thinks students learn best from a teacher. He is the sage on the stage.

The progressivist is quite the opposite. He supports experiential learning where students construct their own knowledge. He thinks the 3 Rs will be picked up naturally. He runs a class with many different things going on. There are no rules, only requests, since rules hurt self-esteem. He values critical thinking as the vital skill of the new century. He embraces creativity. He says that one can always look it up. He thinks students learn best when learning from other students. He is the guide on the side.

Which caricature is more on the mark? They are both close, but I have heard various progressive educators utter every single idea in their caricature, so that one wins. The only part of the essentialist caricature I have not heard an essentialist admit to is drill and kill crushing creativity. That is an invective hurled at essentialists (or traditionalists or anyone else advocating direct instruction) by progressives.

The next issue is whether these caricatures are the only two paths in education. The obvious response is, “Of course not, there are thousands of teachers out there who are neither of these.” These teachers could, of course, be pulling various ideas from each, which would make these two caricatures like the political right and left.

An alternative view is that both these caricatures cherry pick ideas from the practice of teaching, making them incomplete views of the whole. This is the view that I hold.

My picture of the practice of teaching is that in any discipline, students must master the basic knowledge and skills to the point of automaticity to allow advanced work to be effective. This requires rote learning and drill practice, what the progressivist derides as “drill and kill.” When a student has achieved mastery of the basic skills of a subject, he can then begin to be a more independent learner, beginning to decide the best way to take in the information and skills presented to him. It is also at this point that a student is capable of being creative with or critically thinking about the basics of a subject. As the student takes in more information, he will have a larger base of information about which to think critically, upon which to draw in the creative process, and to which to relate new knowledge.

In addition, the student has another advantage when he internalizes basic facts and skills. They become available to his unconscious mind when it is working. This unconscious work is a vital part of the creative process. When a student internalizes knowledge and skills that are more advanced, which is impossible without having the basics upon which to build, he can then become creative with and think critically about them.

The process continues on that way, with each new skill or fact becoming easier to learn since there is a greater base of knowledge to which to relate it. It eventually leads to college-level work. Once in college, a student (ideally) has a mature enough body of knowledge about a subject to be an independent thinker who is able to critically evaluate and creatively manipulate incoming information. That’s why there is no one right answer to most college-level questions. The knowledge base that one is using in the process of evaluating a new piece of information will determine the outcome of that evaluation. That’s also why a college campus is such a fun place to be when the marketplace of ideas is operating well. I can plainly see why progressive educators want to make the entire education process like this.

The seemingly restrictive and soul-crushing methods that are needed to teach basic skills lead to the intellectual freedom and creativity found in college-level thinking. That is the apparent paradox of education. It is also the reason why this argument is split into an either-or proposition instead of being seen for the progression that it really is.

Now let us go back to our caricatures. The essentialist in the above caricature looks at what works best in elementary learning, i.e. disciplined rote learning and memorization, and applies them to higher educational levels. The progressivist does the opposite; taking the open inquiry and free thinking involved with college-level work and applies them to lower educational levels.

Here is the big question: Which path (essentialist or progressive) is the more dangerous one for our schools to go down? The comments section is open and waiting. (You’ll get my answer in an upcoming post.)

TOPIC: Education