Information + Analysis = Critical Thinking . . . Howard Gardner has it right!

Two of the most important of the “Critical Skills” are the skill of acquiring information and then doing something with it to solve a problem or draw a conclusion.

This is the essence of “Critical Thinking” . . . and noted Harvard professor, Howard Gardner, has been arguing for years about the importance of critical thinking in the educational process.  One needs “Critical Thinking” not only to make sound life decisions, but to succeed in virtually any career or profession.

Some educators argue that students must be taught FACTS . . . . necessary, of course, to pick the right answer (or “none of the above”) in a standardized test.  After all, the teacher’s (and the school’s) performance is based on the ability of students to select from among four or five possibilities, the “right answer” to a question.

There are those (including me) who disagree with this approach – at least when a student reaches the high school or early college phases of his/her education.

Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor and the author of the new book “The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand” (Simon & Schuster), Gardner argues that critical thinking and analytical skills in various disciplines should be the backbone of any educational approach, and that these do not depend on studying a particular subject matter or using a core curriculum.

His essay on Critical Thinking follows.

Toward Good Thinking On Essential Questions


“As one concerned with precollege education, I’m gratified by the attention paid to this topic over the last two decades. At the same time I have to signal my uneasiness that so much of the discussion centers on means: should we have charters, vouchers, teachers’ unions, national tests etc. I think it is essential that we step back, at least periodically, and ask about the ends or aims of education.

My own answer can be stated succinctly. A dozen or more years of education should yield students who can think well about the essential questions of human life: who are we, where do we come from, what’s the world made of, what have humans achieved and what can we achieve, how does one lead a good life? Many people, institutions and experiences can contribute to formulating these questions and the answers. The distinct contribution of formal education is to equip students with the ways of thinking, the scholarly disciplines, that have been constructed over the years to allow individuals to think well and deeply about these questions and some viable answers.

In speaking of disciplines, I have something specific in mind. Disciplines did not always exist; they are human-created methods and structures for approaching long-standing puzzles. Historians evaluate documents and testimony to reconstruct plausible accounts of past events. Scientists generate hypotheses about how the world works, collect data relevant to those hypotheses, analyze the data objectively and then revise or endorse the original hypotheses or theories. The arts are also disciplines: they involve clear procedures for production (how does one write a fugue, stage a ballet, render a portrait) and for interpreting the productions of others. For those inclined to dismiss the disciplines, imagine a world without such mental furniture.

By a convenient pun, the attainment of disciplines requires discipline. This is because our natural, common-sense ways of making sense of the world are non- or even anti-disciplinary. Only through years of asking questions and following well-honed strategies can we replace common-sense accounts (e.g., human beings have always existed, the best portraits are photographs) with more nuanced and grounded disciplinary accounts.

The disciplines are arguably the most important human inventions of the last two millenniums. Yet their importance tends to be obscured, especially in the rhetoric-filled discourse of education. Instead, we hear a lot about facts, skills, tests and subject matter. None of these terms should be dismissed, but they attain fresh significance when they are considered in a disciplinary context.

First, skills. I know no one who opposes the acquisition of basic skills: reading, writing, calculation. One cannot even enter the disciplinary worlds unless one has mastered the three R’s. Basic skills are the means for acquiring the disciplines, just as the disciplines (and ultimately interdisciplinary amalgams) provide the means for thinking well about important issues.

Next, facts. You cannot think well about a topic or question unless you have information, data, facts. However, that information should be acquired not for its own sake but as a means of finding a better answer to a consequential question. Facts can only be well used if they relate to one another in a meaningful way: otherwise, to use Alfred North Whitehead’s term, they are simply “inert knowledge.” Facts need the connective tissue of disciplines, or they are undisciplined, rote information.

Subject matter is typically collapsed with disciplines, but it is important to honor a distinction. One can have lots of facts in a subject without having any disciplinary understanding. Too often a person is considered a master because she or he has taken a certain number of courses, often called Carnegie units. A person understands to the extent that he or she can apply knowledge appropriately in a new situation. Only an individual in possession of disciplinary moves can do this.

Which brings us to tests, or assessments. There may be some who oppose assessments, but I am not in their ranks. Not in the least! At the same time, I reject as inadequate most of the short-answer instruments currently being adopted at the state level. These instruments may probe factual or subject-matter knowledge, but they typically fall short of probing disciplinary mastery and understanding. In life no one presents us with four choices, the last of which reads “none of the above.”

I favor instruments that actually determine whether a person can think in a disciplined way. So rather than ask students to name nine Civil War battles, I would ask them to assess two historical accounts based on the same primary documents (or create their own). Rather than asking students to recall a chemical formula, I would provide them with data from an experiment and ask them to extract the regularities (and perhaps indicate which other data need to be collected next). Rather than asking students to memorize authors or lines from a poem, I would ask them to edit or complete an unfinished poem.

Every educational philosophy reflects a certain knowledge base and a certain value system. My educational regimen builds on findings from cognitive science. These findings indicate that, when young, individuals develop intuitive theories that are very powerful and difficult to eradicate. While some are on the mark, most are remote from the disciplines. Only a concerted effort over years to establish disciplinary ways of thinking can eradicate or educate the unschooled mind. My own belief is that this goal is best achieved by focusing in depth on certain important topics; not only does one come to understand those topics well, but in the process one gains incipient mastery for what it is like to use the methods of a discipline.

This incipient mastery can be built upon for the rest of one’s life. I am idealistic enough to believe that once individuals have genuinely understood a theory like evolution, a historical period like the Holocaust, a work of art like “The Marriage of Figaro,” they will insist on commensurate understanding of other topics in the future.

Pursuing this line of reasoning, I find myself out of sympathy with a preordained canon. One can acquire disciplinary ways of thinking from a variety of topics, and it simply does not matter that much which ones happen to be used. It is more important, in my view, to use examples that are valued by the community and that come alive for students than to insist that everyone read the same play or master the same theorem or learn the same topics in science. I don’t care that much if one can name the planets; one can always request that information from a Palm Pilot. I care mightily that half of the American population (and perhaps some of our recent Presidents) can’t distinguish astronomical from astrological ways of thinking and that two-thirds of Americans don’t see the disciplinary difference between evolutionary and creationist accounts of the origins of human beings.

In putting forth these views, I find myself at odds with much of the program put forth by E.D. Hirsch Jr. Perhaps it is possible to reconcile our work to some extent — for example, by emphasizing his “Core Knowledge” in early grades and my disciplinary focus for the later grades. I have admiration for his democratic vision, his belief in public education and his sponsoring of programs in our schools. Still I think it is valuable to put forth these quite different educational visions: one focusing on questions and on ways of thinking, the other on factual answers and on shared knowledge. The value is in part epistemological, different views of the mind’s use; in part cultural, different views of an educated society.”

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