|Black Belt in Bloom’s. Can’t spell ‘Taxonomy’.|
Here’s my James Randi challenge to educators: Thinking Skills don’t exist, at least, not in the way we are led to believe. Despite the fact that many schools like to flush precious resources on Thinking Skills days, they only serve to give teachers the illusion of what is often, terrifyingly called ‘deep learning’ (God save us). They are the phantom limbs of learning. They are a quite perfect waste of time, which is bad enough in the schools of the middle classes, but disastrous for any child who already starts with an economic disadvantage. The con is on.
Now a proposition of that magnitude is going to take some propping up, so before anyone pops a vein, I’ll issue the caveats. I don’t mean that thinking doesn’t exist. Descartes did a tidy job of showing us that it was perhaps the only truth that we could reasonably claim as being intuitively demonstrable. My man, who farted? buzzer sounds for the relatively modern claim that there are a specific set of skills that can be taught independently of the factual content of a topic, and that they can be taught in a meaningful way.
The first problem is that there is no consensus about what such a set of skills might even resemble. I get into a lot of arguments with indignant Thinking Skill fundamentalists who are perfectly happy to give me their definition of Thinking Skills, but who are then unable to show me why their taxonomy is superior (or even different) to alternatives. Before I discuss TS with anyone, I have to say, ‘Wait, what do you mean, first of all?’ So there’s that.
Worse than that wobbly leg is that there isn’t a table at all. What evidence is there to suggest that thinking skills exist as a discrete discipline of their own? I’m happy to advise at this point: none. It’s an ontological invention. There is neither empirical evidence of their existence, nor are they demonstrably true by appealing to reason alone. As the Torquemada of Humanism, Richard Dawkins is tirelessly fond of pointing out, the burden of justification lies with those who assert the existence of the entity.
So that’s a pretty big strike against them. But because I don’t like to leave a job half done, I’m going to kick the non-existent skills when they’re down: they assume that children need to be taught how to think. Which is completely absurd. Children don’t need to be taught how to think. No one does. We think constantly. It’s a pre requisite of consciousness, of cognition, of awareness. The very experience of experiencing, is thinking. It’s the one thing I don’t have to ask my kids to do. It’s like teaching them to have a pulse.
What do people even mean when they say we have to teach thinking skills? Usually they mean ‘to think in a certain way’, or more commonly, ‘to agree with what I think,’ but that has often been the ambition of educational reform: not to teach children to be more intelligent than their tutors, but to conform to their specifications. Ironically, many people determined to inspire a generation of free-thinkers do so in a way that attempts to commit them to conformity.
As with most abstract, abstruse objectives of well-meant but essentially misguided reformers, demonstrating this in the concrete is the way to dispel smoke and shatter mirrors. Let’s pick a skill. Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them…well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit’s guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don’t fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.
Eventually they develop the abilities you are looking for, but none of it happens without the dissemination of facts: facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious. Knowledge is best learned in context. Context is a web of knowledge placed in an appropriate order. Children need to be told this stuff, otherwise you condemn them to perpetually repeat the efforts of the past. Which is fine, if you want culture and science to freeze at exactly the point at which you started this pointless, precious project.
These skills can’t be taught, separately from content. They certainly can’t be assessed on it. We don’t even know what they are. They can’t be meaningfully demonstrated without the possession of knowledge. Let’s stop wasting time teaching something as tangible as Tinkerbell, and invest the time our children so desperately need on things they need to know. Let them deal with the thinking. They’re fine on their own with that bit.