Watch What You’re Thinking, or Others Will Do It for You

Worried that your government might be controlling your thoughts? News flash: it already is.

Schooling affects cognition. We all learn various ways of thinking no matter what kind of classroom we are in. The final product, that is, what cognitive skills we acquire, can vary widely depending on the classroom, state, even country—and (and here is my point) who is running the joint.

You might think teachers are the ones who “teach” us and that’s the end of the story, but you would be wrong. Yes, teachers deliver the “product,” so to say. But what that product (read: education) is, is also determined by the administration running the school. If the administration wants you to be one of many sheep and turn out to be just like your parents and grandparents (and the administrators themselves), then teachers teach you using rote learning and multiple-choice tests. If the school wants you to be an independent thinker, then it employs instructors and chooses books that accomplish that goal. Teachers teach how the institution expects (or tells) them to teach.

But we’re not done climbing that educational food chain to determine who controls your thinking. Many educational institutions can be centralized or decentralized. In the extreme, governmental control can be absolute. Examples of highly centralized systems include North Korea, Saudi Arabia, the (now defunct) Soviet Union, and Cuba; less centralized systems would include those of the U.S. and Finland. In the highly centralized systems, the government controls who gets government funding, what to teach, how and how often to test, which books to use, how to train teachers, whom to hire, and so forth. In the U.S. many of these decisions are left to states. This control happens not just at K-12 levels: state colleges and universities also have to dance to the tune of their government’s policies if they receive federal or state dollars. If those policies say you should memorize everything or paint by numbers or imitate the great writers by copying their work, then that’s what you learn to do. That is your cognitive training.

I call it the educational system that Jack built: governmental officials write policies that inform educational institutions, who train teachers, who in turn teach our students to memorize or critically think or whatever they are told to do. So, beware of your government officials because they’ve got their hands on your brain!

Jean Piaget quote

Questions, continued, a.k.a. Making Pink

We think that getting an education is all about answering questions when it’s really all about asking them. That’s because questions help focus and sharpen our thinking. Answers just stop it cold. As Paul and Elder1 state, “Feeding students endless content to remember… is akin to repeatedly stepping on the brakes in a vehicle that is, unfortunately, already at rest.”

Questions, Paul and Elder continue, “determine where our thinking goes” (p. 62). Scientists would never get anywhere if all they did was collect facts. Instead, they ask questions such as “What other uses can we put this drug to?” “Why does Washington State have an inordinate number of cases of multiple sclerosis?” “How can we send a man to the moon?”

Interestingly, not all questions are created equal, especially in terms of critical thinking. Let’s take Bloom’s Taxonomy, that 60-year-old warhorse of a classification system that divides thinking into levels of cognitive difficulty. Recalling knowledge, a.k.a. remembering, as it is called by some, is at the bottom. Unfortunately, that’s where most of our education is stuck—stuffing facts down our students’ gullets. No question that facts are necessary. But what good are they if we don’t question their validity, hidden assumptions, and logic, or ultimately connect them to the big picture?

Here is the graph that shows the various levels Bloom outlines:

Blooms taxonomy1

I have attached a PowerPoint presentation in which I apply Bloom’s cognitive levels to Goldilocks and the Three Bears (with a great deal of help from

For comparison, look in the PowerPoint presentation at the questions I developed for “The Global Child,” an essay (on tape) in National Public Radio’s excellent series, Raise the Issues. You can do this for any text you want. Better yet, have students do it on their own.

At the beginning of the PowerPoint, you will also see the slide below of paint cans with the question, How do I make pink? Behind the question is a story told by Indiana-based artist Marvin Bartel. He told me he teaches critical thinking by asking questions of elementary kids in his art classes. Really? I asked. Critical thinking in elementary school? In art class??? It made perfect sense after he explained it.

Paint cans

Consider this scenario. If a child comes to you and wants to know how to make pink, you have two choices. You can tell her how to do it, or you can say, What do you think? By choosing the second approach, the child is then free to hypothesize and experiment (i.e., analyze and create). Yes, she may get it wrong the first couple of times. But if you give her the information, she will have no opportunity to develop those higher level processes. If allowed to experiment, she becomes invested in the answer and begins to rely on herself for information. It’s so simple, and yet so powerful.

And speaking of questions, what kinds are you asking in your classes? I think you’ll find that the higher you climb on Bloom’s cognitive steps by asking questions that employ those cognitive skills, the more engaged students become.

Socrates was killed in 399 BC because those in power thought he was corrupting youth by encouraging them to question the status quo. So don’t think questions aren’t powerful. They are the very antidote we need against muddled thinking and seductive propaganda.

1Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2007). The thinker’s guide to the art of Socratic questioning. Dillon Beach, Calif.: Foundation for Critical Thinking.