Critical Thinking vs Confident Thinking

Pete recently had an article published on the website: 'Innovate My School' about introducing critical thinking skills in the classroom.  A couple of The Philosophy Foundation specialists had some challenging remarks on the idea.  First of all, here's David Birch's idea - outlining his concerns with teaching critical thinking; David advocates a different approach with an emphasis on building confident thinking before the critical thinking can take place.

Critical Thinking vs Confident Thinking

by David Birch

The need to teach critical thinking in schools is a common refrain. It is argued that children should be equipped with the skills to evaluate arguments, identify fallacies and recognise spurious assertions. Particularly in a world where we are all constantly online and constantly subject to the internet’s wellspring of lies and misinformation, the ability to think clearly and critically is regarded as essential.

While the reasons for teaching critical thinking are well-intentioned, the proposal is ill-judged. If we want children to listen to each other, to be open and curious, to learn the pleasures of being influenced and affected by other people, we should not teach them to erect boundaries of suspicion. The basic stance of critical thinking is akin to paranoia. It encourages an outlook whereby constant vigilance is required. It suggests that deception is an ever-present danger. It is predicated on the assumption that everything we hear or read is guilty until proven innocent, that we must only absorb what we have already analysed. Should this sort of impermeability be our ideal?

Imagine an RS lesson in which a child is emboldened to say that she knows God exists. She’s asked how she knows this. She says she knows it because she knows that she has been saved. She’s asked how she knows she has been saved. She says because she is no longer scared of the world.  

This child’s comments do not withstand critical scrutiny: she’s apparently based a question of objective fact on her own subjective feelings. As such, those children versed in critical thinking would dismiss her remarks out of hand. Yet, whilst not bearing the certified hallmarks of reason, her remarks may otherwise have had a profound effect on her peers. Far from being corruptive or toxic, her words may have been a great catalyst for their own thinking. She may have opened up their minds in unfathomable ways.

We cannot know what will change us or how it will change us. And if education is supposed to be a process of formative change, then we should not be teaching children to be dismissive of apparent nonsense. We should not be pre-emptively imposing limits on what they may find to be meaningful or enriching.

Thinking is bizarre. It just happens. It is no more a skill than dreaming is. Attempting to teach children how to think is as misguided as the Persian king Xerxes’ attempt to whip the sea into submission. Critical thinking seeks to standardise thought and subdue the wild dance of the mind. Its mission is to regulate the Muses. But teaching children that there are proper ways of thinking will only suppress the idiosyncrasies of their minds and hamper their ability to find out what they uniquely believe about the world.

None of this is to deny that thinking can descend into vapidity. It is certainly dispiriting to see students cling to beliefs with boorishness, belligerence, servility or incuriosity. We see education failing when we see children dismissing or accepting ideas without consideration. These failures, however, are not instances of bad thinking but of a lack of it.

Simplistically put, thinking is letting thoughts happen. Thinking fails when the mind is not granted the freedom and space to let thoughts happen, when its fluidity is impeded. To encourage children’s thinking, we needn’t burden their minds with additional skills, we simply need to remove the impediments of thought. Though we cannot teach thinking, we can, as with pleasant dreams, provide the conditions favourable for it.

The two fundamental prerequisites for thought are a lack of resentment and a lack of deference. Where excessive deference stems from a fear of change and uncertainty – a fear of one’s own mind – debilitating resentment arises from a fear of being conquered and overridden by alternative ideas and voices. To help children think we need to undo their fear of not knowing and their fear of being silenced. A pluralistic and non-hierarchical classroom can achieve this; a classroom, that is, in which children are accustomed to thoughts and ideas that are both ambiguous and abundant, where the supposed infallibility of authority and knowledge is looked upon as a strange fantasy.

The belief that there are sacrosanct and monolithic truths guarded by powerful authorities creates an insurmountable obstacle to thought. This understanding leads us to see truth as a zero sum game: the value of my belief depends upon the falsity of yours, and the value of your belief entails the worthlessness of mine. When I hear an alternative belief, I cannot bear to listen because it threatens to nullify my own belief. I must kill in order to survive. And if I cannot endure the fight, I will mindlessly defer. I’ll escape the fray by surrendering. I will not speak, nor will I think, because I do not want to be wrong, and I am afraid of being attacked.

This environment, governed by a fight to be right, forecloses the possibility of thought. It doesn’t give children the necessary space or freedom in which to be experimental in their thinking. An alternative environment, one conducive to thought, would be constituted by the belief that passionate opposition to an idea needn’t require its annihilation. This alternative environment would be free from competition. It would be one in which children are not made to see themselves as either inferior or superior to each other. One in which they are not conditioned to think of their work in terms of grades and levels. It would not reward fast answers or domineering voices. It would rather celebrate the inconstancy of the mind, the fecundity of confusion, the impermanence of facts and the incompleteness of knowledge.

The child at home in this environment is best characterised not as a critical thinker, but as a confident thinker. Confident thinkers have no need to defensively screen alternative beliefs because they desire new influences and delight in the unpredictability of their minds. Since they know there are no absolute authorities, they trust their own power to think. Feeling no obligation to obey, they have no need to fight. Recognising that truth is not a zero sum game, they do not regard listening as a form of acquiescence.

The confident thinker does not think with the certainty that she is right. She thinks without the fear of humiliation, without the fear of appearing stupid or of being ignored. Her freedom from both resentment and deference is based on a trinity of vital beliefs: It is OK to change my mind. It is OK to be confused. It is OK to be different.

By imposing new criteria, critical thinking introduces new ways of being humiliated, of getting it wrong. And it risks undermining one of the great features of schools: the very fact of leaving home to be immersed in a vast body of different people with different lives and different thoughts. Schools should be organised so as to harness this opportunity, not to occlude it. They should encourage openness rather than suspicion. They should teach the pleasures of influence rather than the dangers of deception. Such a school would have no need for critical thinking, for the minds of its students would be alive with the uninhibited energy of confident thinking.  

For more on this discussion...

Take a look at Steve's attempt to reconcile David's critical comments with Pete's original idea by clicking the link to '...Versus Thinking' below.

Posted by Joe Tyler on 12th December 2016 at 12:00am


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