Tuesday, May 10, 2016


I can claim no actual original ideas here. Concepts of critical thinking go back to Ancient Greece, body and mind as a whole to Charles Darwin, applied specifically to education by visionaries like John Dewey and Maria Montessori, studied by modern neuroscientists like Sian Bielock and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and written about by educational philosophers like Sir Ken Robinson to name a few. We have thousands of years of evidence supporting the concept that experiential learning and critical thinking give us a deeper understanding of a topic.  I think our current school system and society at large run in stark opposition to this idea. Here are some of my musings as an educator, parent, and life long learner.   

The other day I was driving home and a story came on the radio about how scientists have discovered that peacocks can communicate with infrasonic sound, frequencies below the human hearing range, produced by their tails. The story talked about how this may be true of many species. What this means is that our perception of reality is limited by how we experience it. What this also means is the "truth" we get from our senses might not be the whole truth. When I started to think a bit more about this I found a common thread in many innovations. They all were driven by trying to experience things from a different angle. We would have never known that the peacock was communicating like that if we hadn't have moved outside of our own paradigm. This has been a common thread throughout human history. From the use of the first tool, to the advent of heliocentrism, the printing press, combustion engine, flight, the frisbee, the computer, the smart phone; innovation has always been driven by creativity.  

I think our definition of creativity is kind of amorphous. We look at creativity as some kind of voodoo. We also look at it as something this is relegated to a select few that we call "artists" and we think they are kind of eccentric. The truth is we all use creativity every day. In the aesthetic sense it is making choices like how to comb your hair or dress yourself. How you plant your garden or decorate the room involve creativity. How you choose to season your food counts too. Unfortunately these all fall into the category of aesthetic decisions. I say unfortunately because I feel this is a very limited definition of a much broader concept. By defining it this way we limit it to things our senses experience. It also limits our idea of the types of jobs that require creativity. If we instead think about creativity, or at least an element if it, as a willingness and ability to look at things from a different perspective and make choices therein I think our field of how we experience the world is greatly expanded.

I tend to ascribe to the belief that our current model of education actually stifles this kind of alternate perspective thinking. This is not a new phenomenon either. Our current model of education was developed in a time when training a workforce with similar skill sets was important to driving the economy. I believe this is no longer true. I was very fortunate to have grown up in a school founded by John Dewey. Learning by doing, critical thinking, collaborative learning, and experiential learning were hallmarks of his educational philosophy. I thought this was just the way school was. When I got to college I met a lot of VERY smart people that didn't know how to think critically. They could spit out the "right" answer but lacked the ability to read and discuss text. I have a distinct memory of sitting in Freshman English and the professor posed a question about book that was not stated explicitly in the text. Crickets. I actually sat there in shock that everyone got a deer in the headlights look in their eyes when they were asked to think critically. Then it occurred to me. It is a skill that needs to be taught like any other.

By this point you are probably noticing that I am using creativity, critical thinking, and experiential learning interchangeably and maybe even questioning the coherence of this essay. While they are certainly not the same thing I do think that on a base level they all get to a willingness and ability to to look at things from different perspectives. I think the arts are ideal for teaching kids this way of thinking. I also think it can be applied across all subjects.       

In our current climate of excessive testing, removing the arts and humanities in favor of a math and science oriented curriculum, abstract desk learning, and quantitative assessment of students it is no wonder this skill isn't learned. Not only is there no time to teach it but I would argue that thinking critically and creatively is actually taught as a bad thing in favor of a black and white or right and wrong world. We are teaching that being wrong is one of the worst things.  As a result we are afraid to look at things in different ways. Learning by doing is about taking chances. Creative thinking isn't just limited to the arts and humanities. Innovation has always been driven by out of the box thinking. My fear is that, by teaching kids there is one right and one wrong answer, we are inadvertently stifling their drive to innovate.  

Sir Ken Robinson points out in his book Out of Our Minds that there is no way we can anticipate the kinds of concrete skills children will need when they get out of school. The world and technology are moving too fast. What I think we can do is cultivate the concepts of critical thinking, creativity, and willingness to look at things from a different perspective. Learning to learn.  

Remember our friend the peacock. His view of reality is based on his experience.  As humans we have the ability to think abstractly outside our paradigm. That requires that we see our experience as just that. A paradigm. One that can be altered.

Originally published in The Chicago Progessive.  Archives can be viewed at www.thechicagoprogressive.com.