Tilling Our Children’s Mental Soil

One of the most mind-blowing ideas I learned in grad school was in a seminar on anthropology and education. We read about how societies educate their children in order to replicate their society, not to change it. Status quo, baby. This cultural tendency means we teach our children how we were taught.

This sounds like a benign problem until we consider cultures that teach memorizing and regurgitation of facts. We need facts, of course. However, unless we’re taught how to evaluate their veracity or how they fit into a larger context, we’re missing the boat—and a big one at that—for two reasons. First, even if we could keep pace with memorizing all the information stacking up at breakneck speed, it’s not a sustainable approach to education, because facts are, in a sense, history—they have already occurred—whereas critical thinking affords the ability to address the future.

Take technology, for instance. We already know how to build computer chips and solar panels. But how do we teach our children to take that information and create the next big idea in technology? That’s where critical and creative thinking come in. We need to give them those skills too. Do you think Steve Jobs would have come up with the Apple computer if he’d merely memorized how to make the kind of computers that already existed? Hardly. Yes, he was a genius, but he also grew up in a society that encourages critical and creative thinking. He was taught to ask open-ended questions and synthesize all the information about computers, consider what we want or need them to do, and then look at what is possible with today’s technology. He asked that all-important what-if question a lot.

The second reason that memorizing facts is a dead end has to do with what it does to a student’s cognition. If you are busy memorizing the fact that in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, you are not learning the significance of that fact. For example, how did his landing affect Native Americans or change Spain’s maritime might or alter mapmaking? And if you’re not learning to ask those questions, you are not learning to think critically.

Memorizing is one way to train one’s brain. Bards of yore were masters at memorizing and recited poetry for hours. But is that what we want for our children? Do we want to till their mental soil, so to speak, to memorize facts and stay in the past, or do we want to launch them into the future by teaching them to analyze those facts, apply them to other situations, and think about them from various perspectives?

I’ll take the latter, please.