Monday, October 4, 2010

Thinking like a ....

Various educational learning that I have done in the past suggested that as teachers we want to teach our students to think like experts. This sounds great when you are in the middle of an upgrade course in Math or Science, but an article that I read a few months ago twigged me to the problems.

First, most of the students in any given class are not going to become experts in that field. So, is it really of any value to the students to "think like an expert" in a field they will not enter? The second problem is that if EVERY course is trying to teach students to think like experts then students will be likely overwhelmed by the fact that we are trying to get them to think like scientists, mathematicians, historians, writers, etc. all at the same time.

So maybe we do not want to try and teach all of our students to think like experts. Obviously we should leave the path to expertise open for students who are interested, but what should we do with/about the students who are less interested?

I am going to suggest that we try to teach students to "think like citizens". In our technological and democratic society, citizens need to have at least a basic understanding of fields of expertise such as math, science, history, writing to be able to make good decisions on policy that involves those fields. An excellent example was this summer's controversy over the proposed changes to the long-form census. To make a reasonable decision on the question, citizens needed a basic understanding of statistics and sampling. There was no need for them to be experts, just to know enough to see whether the government was making a sound decision. Similarly in the evolution/creation debate, there is no need for citizens to be steeped in the evidence and arguments for both sides. A sound knowledge of the scientific method and the way in which science works will allow people to decide whether the fact that evolution is "just a theory" means that it is uncertain.

As teachers, if we want to do right by our students, I think that we need to make sure that those students are getting good solid grounding in the basic principles that underlie our disciplines. And by principles I don't mean basic skills like multiplication in mathematics or spelling for writers, I mean the underlying attitudes and methods that allow us to say things like how likely a scientific theory is to be true (evolution, global warming) or whether a new idea will produce an accurate census. Part of those attitudes is the habit of being informed and up to date. New ideas, evidence, technologies, thoughts and theories are always occurring in all areas of knowledge. No one can stay on top of everything, but it is possible to be aware of any big changes in a wide range of fields, especially with the prevalence and ease of access of information on the Internet.

If our students can stay informed about important developments in various fields and then make good judgements about policy, our country will do just fine, no matter what the challenges. As a teacher, I really want to help make that happen.

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