Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Teach the Tension

Two recent topics of discussion around my house have been the presidential election (obviously) and the challenges of teaching critical thinking (just as obviously, if you know my family). You will perhaps not be shocked to learn that I think the two topics are related.

There used to be a saying in politics that if you tried to fly a plane with only one wing, all you’d do is go in circles. And yet, we no longer seem to value having a left wing and a right wing in our country, to balance our flight and help us move forward. Discourse and compromise are seen as weakness at best, capitulation at worst. Only one side can be right. And it has to be 100% right, 100% of the time.

Part of this is just power politics. But part of it has to do with a dualistic view of the world. There are two (and only two) sides to every issue, and if one of those sides is Good, the other must be Evil. If you’re on the side of Good, why would you want to compromise with Evil? You wouldn’t.  And since no one thinks their own opinion or viewpoint is evil, everyone feels justified in building walls and fighting against what they see as the Army of Darkness. It is a medieval, even Manichaean, way of thinking, and it makes democracy, from town halls up to the halls of Congress, very challenging.

Our education system can fall victim to the same kind of thinking, in its own way. Within any subject, there are Basic Facts that have to be learned. They are true, and correct, which is why they’ve been written down in textbooks for students to learn. Some things are simply correct, and some things are simply incorrect. Students need to learn the difference between the two. That’s why we have tests. We grow up seeing each school day as a series of right and wrong answers, and it’s hard not to impose that view on the rest of the world. Even in English classes, where literature is supposed to be open to interpretation, students quickly learn that there are right interpretations (the textbook and the teacher’s) and wrong interpretations (theirs).

There are neurological reasons why we think this way—and end up teaching this way--and reasons why it’s difficult to stop thinking this way. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, does a great job of explaining how our lazy brains fight against critical, analytical thinking whenever possible, replacing genuine thought with reflexive reaction. It’s not that we’re incapable of reason; it’s just that it’s hard work that our brains would rather not do. When faced with an array of political policy ideas from two or more candidates, our brains will defer to simpler, more visceral decision-making options, like a candidate’s party, or height, or hair, or smile, or the strength of his or her chin. If those characteristics have correlated (even somewhat) with strong leadership skills over the years, our brains will substitute the knee-jerk reaction to the hard work of reasoning. We “know” that one candidate is better than another, but how do we know that we know? What makes us so sure we’re right, and the other side is wrong?

It’s easy to say things like, “Question everything,” in response to the knee-jerk reaction, but how can we teach ourselves—and our children—how to question things effectively, in order to challenge our confirmation bias and think more critically about the issues in front of us?

I believe the first step is to remind ourselves that in most cases, the two sides of an issue are not separate from each other, at war with each other, and utterly irreconcilable. In fact, in most cases, the two sides of an issue live in dynamic tension with each other in a constant push-pull on our affections and desires. We believe strongly in equality, but we know that mandated, enforced equality, whether in school or in political systems, can kill initiative and creativity, and create a world of drab sameness. We believe strongly in freedom, but we know that unregulated, unrestricted freedom can lead to chaos and a world where physical or economic might makes right. Equality and freedom are both important aspects of American political thought and life. Their demands push and pull at us all the time. Sometimes we move more in the direction of equality at the expense of freedom; sometimes we do the opposite. We are always in search of the best middle-ground. The middle-ground isn’t capitulation to an enemy; it’s the attainment of balance.

You could have the same discussion about freedom versus security—whether it’s my freedom of speech versus your right to be safe from insult and offense, or my freedom to carry a gun versus your right to live without being afraid of me. Which is more important—freedom or security? It’s a false question; they’re both important. The question is how we balance our rights and needs.

What I’m saying is that, instead of spending all of our time teaching discrete things—things which, in themselves, are simply right or wrong—we should make sure kids have time to explore the tensions among things—because critical thinking is all about assessing how things interact, play off each other, and affect us. And when you understand that you are eternally caught in a tug-of-war between competing needs, you will stop seeing one side as God’s and other side as Satan’s—or, in school—one side as The Right Answer and one side as The Wrong Answer.

It’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve tried. When students are used to reading history textbooks, it’s very challenging to bring competing first-person accounts of an event to them. They don’t find the diversity of perspective and agenda fascinating; they find it annoying. They don’t relish the idea of evaluating resources, synthesizing arguments, and reaching their own conclusions. They slam their books shut, glare up and me, and say, “So, which is it? Which one is right?” Remember: we have lazy brains.
Reason is an amazing gift, but it’s not a gift we like to use. We think we like it—we fool ourselves into believing that we’re rational, reasoning creatures. But we’re not. Not if we can avoid it. If Position A is published in a glossy-looking, professional published book, and Position B is published as a third-generation photocopy, we will want to believe Position A.  If Position A is presented first, we will want to believe Position A—or, at the very least, our deference to it will color the way we read and think about Position B.

How do you know what you know? What makes you so sure what you know is true? What makes you so sure that what you don’t believe in is not true? What if you’re wrong?

Our history of thought goes back to Socrates, who badgered and annoyed people with questions that came at them from every angle, undermining every conclusion and assumption they had, so that people had to stop assuming and start reasoning. Who can provide that annoying but necessary service for us today, if not our teachers?

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