Teaching Folks to Think

Professor Brian Cox made a good point recently.

“These are dark times, potentially to be in a democracy, never mind a scientist,” Cox says. He firmly believes the solution to be education. “Clearly, in America and I think in Britain as well, what we’ve seen is an under-investment in education. And that means that people don’t know how to think, and that’s certainly not meant to be an insult to anyone: everybody has to be taught how to think. It’s not natural to be able to weigh evidence and to be able to, crucially, realise that you might be wrong about something.”

I only have one thing I’d put slightly differently. People DON’T have to be taught how to think. They have to be given the opportunity to learn how to think, and you have to avoid teaching them NOT to think. That’s not really a criticism: it’s a change of emphasis, raising a question about what sort of teaching works best.

From 1989 to 1991 I was a Senior Project Officer at the Scottish Schools’ Equipment Research Centre (SSERC). That was the best job I ever had. I loved it. Unfortunately it was a temporary contract, funded by the Training Agency (formerly the Manpower Services Commission, who’d also funded two of my previous posts), for two years. After the contract finished, SSERC wanted to keep me on, and were trying to find a source of funds to do this. Lothian Council agreed to fund my post temporarily while alternative funding was found, on a month-by-month rolling basis.

As the months rolled by and it looked increasingly hopeless, I started looking for a new post – and very rapidly landed one, as Director of Information Technology at Highgate School, in north London. A public (that is, private) school; not ideal from my point of view, but it was any port in a storm. I endured it for a whole year. But that’s really another story.

At SSERC, one of my roles was as a member of the Scottish Central Council on the Curriculum’s Electronics Working Group. I became firm friends with several of the other members of the group, in particular I.M. who was an HMI – Her Majesty’s Inspector of schools. He encouraged me to apply for a post as an HMI myself, which I did – after first completing my Open University Maths degree, and getting the good honours that were a prerequisite for becoming an HMI.

I didn’t get the job, which was probably a good thing. Christopher Woodhead was appointed Chief HMI at the same time. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a more different approach to education from mine – whereas I.M. and I sang from almost identical hymn sheets.

One particular conversation I had with I.M. came to mind when I read Cox’s quote. We talked about how school, so far from teaching children how to think for themselves, tends to teach children to regurgitate other people’s thoughts instead. This is definitely a weakness in the education system – and one which is getting worse due to interference in the education system by arrogant, ignorant politicians. (And the likes of Christopher Woodhead.)

We shouldn’t think so much in terms of teaching, as in terms of providing the opportunity to discover, providing encouragement, and avoiding teaching anyone to meekly accept other people’s ideas. It doesn’t mean avoiding exposing anyone to ideas, of course; nor does it mean providing a false balance of ideas, giving equal weight to nonsense. You don’t need to provide the nonsense, plenty of other people will do that. Nor do you need to pooh-pooh it: present your own ideas with a conviction proportional to your own confidence, without insisting that anyone agree with you, and let them work out for themselves whether you or the purveyors of nonsense that they meet elsewhere are right.*

This is of course a sort of teaching. But in my opinion, it’s a far better sort of teaching.

See also: The Damned National Curriculum.

* There is a small problem here, one scientists are acutely aware of. As Bertrand Russell put it, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” The solution to this is not to feign greater certainty than you really have, but to draw attention to this issue, and continue to be as honest as you can.