Professor Guy Claxton will be speaking at the 2014 WISE Summit.
When people talk about education, they often focus on two dimensions. One is: What shall we teach children? The other is: How will we know if they’ve learned it? Curriculum and Assessment. These dominate educational debate worldwide. But there is another dimension, less obvious but much more important: How are we getting them to use their minds? What kinds of learning skills are we getting our students to make use of? What kind of mind training is going on, day in, day out, in our schools? We know that people’s minds are made up of mental habits, and many of those habits of thought are developed in school. So we need to be sure that the habits of mind we are training are the ones that young people are really going to need.
Teachers strongly influence the mental skills that students activate in their classrooms. In mathematics, you can teach “area” in a way that builds students’ capacity for problem-finding – not just problem-solving – and their dispositions for curiosity and collaboration. Or you can teach “area” in a way that strengthens their inclination to be passive, dependent and instrumental. You can teach the history of World War II in a way that cultivates empathy and tolerance. Or you can teach it as if there were a single “correct” point of view. Every teacher has to decide – consciously or unconsciously – what kind of mind training goes on in their classroom.
I was chatting to a group of history teachers the other day, and we got on to the subject of young people’s lack of critical awareness as they browsed the Internet. They read things on Wikipedia and assumed they were true. We agreed that a healthy scepticism towards “knowledge claims” was a pretty useful habit of mind in the 21st century. I said to them: “Just reassure me, will you, that the way you are teaching history to your 9th-graders is designed to develop the sceptical disposition towards knowledge claims that you are now (quite rightly) complaining that they don’t have…” And I have to tell you that they went a bit quiet. Because it had never occurred to them that a history topic could be used as an exercise-machine for stretching a vital 21st-century attitude such as scepticism – as opposed to a dysfunctional inclination to believe everything they read. You can’t opt out and say “I just teach knowledge”. However you teach, every teacher is a mind trainer, somewhere on a continuum from building compliance to building creative intelligence.
So HOW schools teach is more important than WHAT they teach. Children need knowledge, but they need even more the habits of mind that will enable them to prosper in the real world. Every school leader needs to keep asking herself two questions. Which teaching methods are going to get students the best grades? AND: Which methods are going to help them develop the supple, curious, creative minds that they are surely going to need if they are to flourish in a complicated world? These two questions are yoked tightly together. Teaching in a way that stretches a lot of different, useful mental habits is more engaging, and engaged students do better on the tests. Just pitting “traditional” against “progressive” is an antiquated and sterile debate. We can and should think better than that.
What kinds of mind trainers should we be if we want our students to develop creative-mindedness, as well as get good grades? Creativity isn’t about music and art; it is an attitude to life, one that everybody needs. It is a composite of habits of mind which include curiosity, scepticism, imagination, determination, craftsmanship, collaboration and self-evaluation.
If we are truly going to prepare young people for the 21st century, teachers have to learn to teach history in a way that cultivates scepticism, maths in a way that develops curiosity, and English in a way that stretches and strengthens children’s imaginations.
For example, Napoleon Bonaparte wrote “History is the story written by the winners”. Get students to discuss this, and then to critique their textbook in terms of the unacknowledged opinions and values of the writer. That gets them to practise being appropriately sceptical about text, not in awe of it. Then get them to write about a historical event they have been discussing through the eyes of three different protagonists – to stretch their “empathy muscles”.
Or: if you are teaching younger children the colours of the rainbow, get them to look intently at a picture of a real rainbow and argue about how many colours they can see. (There aren’t seven colours in a rainbow; that’s just a convention.) Get them to cut it up in new ways, and think up beautiful names for the new colour-bands they have chosen. This stretches their ability to look carefully, discuss accurately and think imaginatively. If you want, you can tell them the conventional colours, but for heaven’s sake don’t confuse them by saying they are “right”. (If you insist on being a dinosaur, you can teach the rainbow in a way that stretches children’s ability to remember lists, and makes them anxious about “getting it wrong”. But that’s not the 21st-century way.)
As they move from Maths to English to History to Science, are we offering young people a narrow regime of mental exercise that fits them only for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and multiple-choice exams? Are we making them into people who love certainty and correctness, are ashamed of ignorance or confusion – and get the grades? Or are we helping them stretch and value their curiosity, conviviality and thoughtfulness – and get the grades? Are we building strong, rounded minds that can attend carefully, think laterally, disagree respectfully, persist imaginatively and tolerate uncertainty? The French writer Voltaire reminded us that “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition – but certainty is a ridiculous one.” If we were so mesmerised by the PISA tables that we were inadvertently educating children who knew only how to trot out ready-made answers, but not how to think on their feet, it is we who would be ridiculous.
[NB: Parts of this essay were published as the Finding Common Ground blog in Education Week, 3 June 2014. No copyright was assigned.]