So Many Questions

so many questions

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.

I’ve been busy in recent days.  As many of you may recall, I manage a writing center at a community college in San Antonio, Texas, USA.  For a number of reasons, recent weeks at work have been especially stressful.  For one, I’ve been tasked with turning our center into a multipurpose learning facility.  In other words, we’ll continue to help students with their writing, but we are broadening our horizons by offering additional services.  These services include conducting hands-on workshops that help students develop their critical thinking skills.  In the past half a month or so, I’ve been creating and offering these workshops to a wide variety of students, and all this has kept me super busy.

This experience of talking with groups of people about thinking and what makes it artful and “critical”—I often tell others that I prefer the term “creative” to “critical”—has both kept me from publishing here recently and also inspired this blog.  I guess you could say my recent busyness has been a kind of double-edged sword.

Just yesterday I was doing a critical thinking workshop with a group of first-year students who were taking a course that helps them develop the kind of skills needed to succeed in both academics and life.  Their regular professor had heard about my thinking sessions and asked me to stand in for her as a kind of guest presenter.

I got them started doing a few thinking tasks and then, from time to time, we’d stop to talk about their perceptions of what they were doing.  One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was riffing on how outdated so much of what we do as educators is.  For example, the average classroom experience goes something like this:  Students are required to buy an expensive textbook and then reading assignments are given from it.  For all intents and purposes, the sole point of these reading assignments is to simply move the information from one location—the book—to another—the brains of the students.  Once this transference has taken place, the students are then required to move the information again—from out of their heads to a piece of paper called an examination.

Thus, under this model, education equates to little more than moving information from one locale to another.  The best students are those who are most skilled at keeping the information intact and complete throughout these transfers.  It is even possible that a student might be skilled at doing this sort of thing while having only a very rudimentary understanding of the meaning or importance of the body of knowledge that’s being moved hither and yon.

The fact that so much emphasis is still placed on doing these sorts of strange exercises proves how little critical thinking is actually taking place even among the most highly educated.

This current state of affairs in education raises lots of questions.  For example, what is the point of knowing facts and moving them from one place to another like this?  What good does it do a person to simply be a kind of vessel that’s full to its brim with information?  Certainly, it’s better to know than not to know.  But is knowing stuff (and being able to demonstrate a kind of mastery of knowing) the highest state of being one might aspire to?  What does it mean to be “educated,” “skilled,” “clever,” or “intelligent”?

In my critical thinking workshops, I ask students to think about knowledge and what use it is to “know.”  I ask them if there is anything bigger than knowledge, and if so, what it might be.  I certainly have a point of view on all these questions I’m raising.  But I’m really writing this to hear what you have to say.

28 thoughts on “So Many Questions

  1. Thankyou for your post. I thought it was brilliant to start a discussion on the meaning of education in today’s world. I am one of those who can learn facts, put them down on paper and score high marks while not necessarily understanding the content. I’m working on digesting the facts that I come across to be able to give a fuller picture to that knowledge.

    1. Like you, I was really good at just absorbing information and then giving it back to whoever handed me a test. I think, as an undergraduate, that I actually had something akin to a photographic memory. Learning information is certainly important but we too often stop there. Innovation takes place not by those who are able to totally understand what others (in the past) have done. Innovation happens by moving beyond what others have known or accomplished.

  2. Very interesting post that certainly requires critical or creative thinking. I think much of what we learn is fairly pointless in formal school environments. There is still quite a bit of value placed on the alphabet soup after one’s name. I think the ability to acquire and apply knowledge for the greater good. That’s a real skill.

    1. It absolutely shocks me that we actually teach in virtually the same way we did a couple of centuries or so ago. There are a few truly experimental teachers pushing past boundaries out there but far too few. I applaud these revolutionaries. I say let’s look again at all the things we think to be true about how to teach an how to learn. Of course, this reexamination will make many uncomfortable. Thanks for the comment.

  3. You pose important questions. As a retired political science instructor, I remember considering such questions every day. I built critical thinking activities into my classes, but usually felt like I should do more. My college (and most, I am afraid) needs to revamp curriculum and methodology. This should happen for our children as well. Question is, how do we move systems entrenched in the old way?

    1. I think the revolution begins with us doing away with binary thinking. In the world of education, there are teachers and there are learners. (This is the traditional way of categorizing participants in the educational process.) As a retired teacher, though, you certainly must remember times when you learned a lot from your students because they taught you something about themselves or the world or yourself. Teachers are learners and learners are teachers. If we free up both groups so they can freely play both roles, then progress is likely to take place. Rigid categorizations and we-do-things-this-way-because-we’ve-always-done-them-this-way sorts of thinking keeps us stuck in place. Everything races forward but education seems a touch fossilized. Education and educators need to develop more agility and courage.

  4. I have always hated the educational system. They don’t teach a person to think, they simply teach people how to regurgitate facts and pointless bullshit. I never scored well in school. I struggled throughout and any big test I was always in the bottom percentile of the class or grade level. Now what did those tests really prove? It didn’t say shit about my actual skills or ability to do well in life. There is book knowledge and there is common sense. I have found personally that the better a person does in school, with facts other non important stuff the worse they are with day to day living. I know some brilliant people who scored off the charts but they are dumb as fuck when it come to real world things. I personally would rather have common sense over being able to recite useless information. We need apprenticeships and hands up learning in the fields where people are actually going to work. Why waste money and time taking classes that do not pertain to real life jobs?!? Seriously, my daughter told me the other day that at Berkeley (I believe that was the school) that kids can now take a two hour course to learn about BTS. If you want to know KPOP come to me and I will teach you for free or you can pay thousands of dollars to sit in a class and learn nothing useful. I’m sorry but that’s extremely stupid.

    1. Thanks for your comment and the passion you used to express it. I like your use of the term “commonsense.” I think it might be a kind of synonym for critical thinking because it is born out of careful observation and the need to solve problems. Observation and solving problems are both related to good thinking. I often say we can’t turn on our minds until we turn on our senses. Nor can we solve a problem until we’ve understood (analyzed) the problem carefully.

      1. Yeah, I do get a little bit too worked up. It’s just most of my life people have looked me dead in the eyes and told me I was stupid and didn’t know anything so the truth is overwhelming at times.. I look around at this world and think am I really the dumb one?

  5. Knowing facts and internalizing them are two very different things. Educations systems do not focus on the latter. That, we have to figure out ourselves. This is a pity because just knowing facts is not production, nor it contributes to humanity.

    1. You are absolutely right. Your use of the word “internalizing” is interesting. To internalize means to “take inside” to “incorporate something so that it is absorbed and becomes an organic part of the one who has taken it in.” Once we internalize information, it becomes a part of our makeup. There is a kind of merging of the one who knows and the known. This merging makes possible the creative using of that information. I’m reminded that Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge.

      By the way, are you from Turkey? I lived in Ankara for four years.

      1. What matters is to become one with the knowledge we acquire. Otherwise, there is duality.
        And yes, I am from Turkey and my hometown is actually close to Ankara. Four years is a long time. Were you a teacher there?

  6. I love this post. Our former housemate worked in the writing center here, and is now helping run one in another state. What I learned from her was how very poorly we prepare our students for “real” life.

    Some of this comes out of standardized testing – a waste of time. It shows that you can train a kid to fill in circles with a number two pencil. Pointless. Not every child needs to graduate High School or college; technical school and apprenticeships are vastly underrated. If someone can’t do the work required of the next grade, they shouldn’t be passed on up anyway. That’s dead useless for the student and the educators. Yes, it’s painful when you don’t move on with your peers. That’s life.

    Creative thinking is something we’re doing the most to stomp out of student’s minds. Not every student needs chemistry for their future – but basic math skills would be nice. Ditto for writing and understanding what is being said.

    1. Thank you! I agree with just about everything you’ve said here! Testing is mostly BS. Long ago, back when I used to teach full time at university, I quit testing. Tests that require students to use information in some new and interesting way can have value though. There is a lot of talk (in virtually every country) about wanting to have citizens who can think critically. Well, here’s the issue. Critical thinkers ask LOTS of questions, and I truly wonder if countries really want folks who take nothing at face value. Critical thinkers are (by definition) quite subversive.

      1. Yes! That’s what made America such a force in the first century or so of being a country. People thought, they experimented and they pushed questions. THey actually considered possible alternatives and outcomes. We’ve lost that, and it’s sad.

  7. I was watching some kids tv the other day (with my small child) and one of the presenters was cobbling together an imaginary boat because he wanted to learn about the sea. The other presenter said ‘you don’t need a boat to learn about the sea; you just need a tablet!’ That really made me cringe. For sure, my child is not going to find out how many species live in a coral reef (or whatever arbitrary fact you care to think of) by going out in a dinghy but nor will she come to ‘know’ the sea by fiddling with tech on a sofa.

    I haven’t fully sorted my views on the nature of knowledge or the nature of being but I know for certain that knowledge is much more than retention of information.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Your child should have a real experience of sailing and the sea, not a virtual one. I applaud you for realizing this. Sadly, many prefer the virtual over the actual. Sad.

  8. Hmmm…as a student, I both agree and disagree with you. For example, while taking Biology classes, you are supposed to memorise a lot, but, truthfully, this information has helped me in my everyday life, even in the winter break. I guess it depends on whether you’re passionate about the subject you are memorising or not. On the other hand, as you mentioned, unnecessary information, according to the learner, will be easily forgotten, which is not so practical. I believe Finland (?) Has tried to create a different teaching way that could benefit students on the long-term. And indeed, it did work. I guess what I’m saying is that we need more realistic lessons and information; something that actually helps us through life, yet in the same time, we still need the same traditional ways to fully engross us in our fields.

    1. Knowing things is important. Knowing how to use information so that you can create something new, start a business, or decide important things on your own is even more important. We learn information to use, to grow, to expand our horizons, to innovate, to become entrepreneurs. Teachers do a good job telling us what others know. Your task in life is learn what you know and to become the person you want to be. Thank you very much for your comment. Yes, lots of people are writing and talking about Finland. Europe kicks America’s butt in many areas of life.

  9. As a Middle School English Language Arts Teacher, I am most concerned with the skill of how to decode and process information. I wish the state standardized tests would go away! I just want students to learn at their own pace and be delighted to do so. That means exploring subjects that they are most curious about or drawn to instinctively. I want to see my students having fun learning and asking tons of questions in the process. I do not agree with the current education system at all. I do my best to compromise every day in the classroom – so my students are engaged and pleased. It’s tough!

    1. I hear and feel your frustration. We often use the word “serve” to describe the work that people in the military do. I think we need to begin to realize how much teachers serve their country. I would say that educators are on the front line of the whole national security issue. You sound exactly like the kind of teacher I’d want my child to have. You come across as insightful and dedicated. (And given that you work with middle school children means you are tough as nails–tougher than I am by far.) My next blog will include some concrete suggestions about how might reform the education system so it turns our more than robots who can memorize and jump through educational hoops. I’ll hope you’ll read it and provide feedback and suggestions. By the way, thank you for your service!

  10. I want to thank everyone who is “liking” and commenting on “So Many Questions.” My next blog will include a list of suggestions about how we might reform our education system so that it produces thinkers rather than simply information acquirers.

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