Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer
Teach Our Children to Think
As I observe our contemporary problems, I am struck by how many people make poor or uninformed decisions. They make disastrous financial decisions which have long-term, painful consequences. They eat foods which make them obese and ill. They are duped by unscrupulous advertisers into buying costly products they do not need, and they are persuaded to vote a particular way by politicians who are more interested in their own reelection than in governing well. I am sure you can think of many examples.
I think a good remedy for this, the Texas School Board notwithstanding, is to teach our children to think and reason clearly. Unfortunately, with all the emphasis on standardized testing, much of K-12 education has become more concerned with rote learning, teaching to the test.
So how can we teach children to think critically?
First, we can teach them to be skeptical. Canada has done a much better job than the US teaching media literacy to children. Many schools offer courses which teach children to evaluate what is being fed to them by the media. Adults need to teach children to evaluate claims made on television commercials. They need to watch the news broadcasts with children and discuss what is being reported and what is being omitted.
Our schools can teach children to develop criteria for deciding whether to believe something is true or not. This naturally will lead to a discussion of what a fact is, what an opinion is, and how to evaluate the evidence offered in support of a claim. My experience is that children and adults enjoy participating in such discussions because it is so interesting.
Another essential skill children need is how to formulate and dare to ask good questions. So much communication in popular culture is passive and does not require children to interact. The ability to think of useful questions requires that children bring some skepticism to the discussion and learn to probe for more information. Rather than just accept something they see on television or read in a newspaper or in a book, children need to learn to question and assess for themselves whether a claim is likely to be true.
Of course, teaching children to really think can be a bit subversive. The Texas School Board halted thinking instruction in the schools because it undermined parental authority and challenged fixed beliefs. Well, if our goal is to teach children to believe everything they are told and never change their beliefs, then we should clearly not teach them to think independently.
In reality, children need to prepare for a quickly-changing world. To succeed, they will need to adapt and learn to make adjustments to new job requirements and carefully consider their financial, health, and social decisions. If they have not developed the skills to evaluate information and make clear, informed decisions, they will be easily deceived and likely end up in unhappy situations.
Raising them to think for themselves, of course, causes them to question their parents, teachers and other authority figures. This may not always be pleasant, but it is necessary to ensure that our future generations are ready to assume the responsibilities of supporting themselves adequately and making informed decisions about their lives. Our democratic institutions are in trouble because of apathetic and ill-informed voters. If more voters understood and practiced clear thinking skills, they could elect better leaders and insist on better government and more accountable corporate behavior.
The alternative is not pretty.