Two Critical: Knowing is Critical for Critical Thinking

It amazes me how so many in education push creativity/critical thinking/skills so hard while often forgetting or ignoring the importance of content knowledge.

“Creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status”

Sir Ken Robinson, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Warwick (Source)

“Facts and figures once held as paramount in classrooms, and knowing facts and figures, is no longer relevant in today’s society”

Kris Willis, School Improvement Director of Canberra, Australia (Source)

Ken Robinson is a professor who became Ted Talk famous. Kris Willis is in charge of leading Australia’s education system. Both of these sources should know better.

It is confusing that people denigrate knowledge and memorization. We can see how important both are if we start with a basic skill, like going to the bathroom. Children who are being potty-trained struggle with this because it is new and they do not know how. They must first memorize many steps before they can apply the skill.

  1. Recognize that they need to go to the bathroom.
  2. Know where the bathroom is.
  3. Be able to open the door.
  4. Pull down their pants.
  5. Sit on the toilet.
  6. Let it out.
  7. Wipe
  8. Flush
  9. Wash hands with soap

And this list is a simplification itself. But I think that there is value in a small thought exercise like this. As adults, we often take this knowledge as self-explanatory, but every child needs to be explicitly taught how to use the bathroom. They do not discover how to do it. This interestingly titled article from Pull-Ups, Help Your Turtle Recognize The Urge To Go To The Bathroom helps show how much knowledge children need to have before they become potty trained.

We can step up the age and see that memorization holds its importance. If you are reading and understanding this, it is simply because you have memorized the alphabet, memorized basic grammar rules, and memorized the rules of phonics. You do not learn to read organically.

You learn to read from…

  1. Knowing how to speak
  2. Being read to
  3. Recognizing both upper and lowercase letters
  4. Memorizing the sounds of individual letters
  5. Know basic phonics
  6. Understand that letters make words
  7. Understand that each word has a specific meaning
  8. Know that books are written left to right and top to bottom

This list is also a simplification, yet it shows how necessary memorization is. If you do not memorize, you cannot read. For a more in-depth look at what it takes to read, check out this Reading Rockets article, How Most Children Learn to Read.

Now, the previous two examples are very simple. I think it is also important to check and see if it holds for advanced subjects. Consider the ability to think critically about complicated issues such as the relationships of countries.

This is an issue of paramount importance. Yet, in order to do it well, you need to know many things such as…

  1. The individual histories and cultures of each country.
  2. The history of interactions between each country.
  3. The current political climate of each country.
  4. External pressures on each country.
  5. Relevant international laws and agreements

There are at least two full university degrees of information included in the above list. Any attempt to apply critical thinking on this without deep subject knowledge will at best apply simplistic rules that lack the depth and nuance of reality. This is because when people think critically without deep background knowledge, they are looking at the subjects surface structure. Daniel Willingham succinctly describes this need for background knowledge in his AFT article Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? In this example, scientific thinking is analogous to critical thinking.

“The idea that scientific thinking must be taught hand in hand with scientific content is further supported by research on scientific problem solving; that is when students calculate an answer to a textbook-like problem, rather than design their own experiment. A meta-analysis 20 of 40 experiments investigating methods for teaching scientific problem-solving showed that effective approaches were those that focused on building complex, integrated knowledge bases as part of problem-solving, for example by including exercises like concept mapping. Ineffective approaches focused exclusively on the strategies to be used in problem-solving while ignoring the knowledge necessary for the solution. What do all these studies boil down to? First, critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context. Second, there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely. Third, the ability to think critically (to actually do what the metacognitive strategies call for) depends on domain knowledge and practice. For teachers, the situation is not hopeless, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of teaching students to think critically.”

(Emphasis is my own)

Dylan William mentions critical thinking in his paper, “How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine?

“The idea of “critical thinking” seems important in every single school subject. Indeed it is common to hear teachers discussing with apparent consensus what this means in different subjects. However, this apparent consensus is the result of a failure to explore in depth what critical thinking really means…. Knowing that dividing by zero invalidates an equation, and being aware of ways in which this can be done accidentally, is learned in mathematics classrooms, not in generic lessons on critical thinking. In the same way, knowing enough about the history of the period under study to read an account critically requires subject specific knowledge. Most importantly, developing a capability for critical thinking in history does not make one better at critical thinking in mathematics. For all the apparent similarities, critical thinking in history and critical thinking in mathematics are different, and are developed in different ways.”

Critical thinking is critically important. Educational leaders (and everyone) should promote and celebrate memorization (knowing things) as a way to increase critical thinking. Go on, think about it.

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