The

cti PODCAST

Critical Thinking vs. Content: Resolving the Frictions

PUBLISHED: Jan 13, 2022
CATEGORIES: Headagogy

In This Episode.

Headagogy 4 January 11, 2022

  • Do you want to teach critical thinking but struggle to do so given how much content you need to cover?
  • Do you feel departmental, institutional, or disciplinary pressures to cover certain material?
  • What are the four major objections educators voice about teaching critical thinking relative to content?
  • Why are critical thinking and content actually never at odds?
  • What does the Brad Pitt movie, Moneyball, have to do with all of this?
Find out all of this and more as Steve not only answers all of the above, but empowers you with the knowledge and responses you need to keep critical thinking at the forefront of education.

Episode Archive

Critical Thinking vs. Content: Resolving the Frictions

January 13, 2022

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Podcast Transcript

 

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

As a preamble to today’s episode, I’m going to play you a scene from the movie Moneyball, the movie Moneyball is based on the book Moneyball The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. Moneyball is based on the true story of Billy Beane, who was the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, the Oakland A’s. Beane was the first major league adopter of what was called sabermetrics sabermetrics, which originally was an acronym essay B.R. for the Society for American Baseball Research, has actually been around for a long time, and in 1971 it was coined sabermetrics by a guy named Bill James, who is one of its biggest proponents. Moneyball, however, takes place in two thousand one, and Billy Beane, as the general manager of the Oakland A’s, is losing three of his top players, including all star first baseman Jason Giambi, to bigger fish in the Major League Baseball pond. Most notably the New York Yankees, but other organizations as well. And the reason he’s losing them is because Major League Baseball had absolutely no parity in salaries between large market teams and small market teams. And as a small of small market teams, the Oakland A’s had no budget to retain the bigger name players. Billy Beane, again portrayed by Brad Pitt in this scene, is looking for some way to balance the scale, some way to make his team successful, even though richer teams consistently hoard all of the better players in the league. With the help of statistician Jonah Hill, who is portraying Peter Brand being recognized as an opportunity to win through sabermetrics, which means building a team based on deep statistical analyses of what makes players successful rather than on conventional baseball wisdom. For example, there was this pitcher, Chadwick Lee Bradford, who had this very unconventional release of the baseball.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

It almost at times looked like he was bowling instead of pitching. And because his release, frankly, was so weird and unconventional, he was highly undervalued by Major League Baseball as a whole. But if we looked at the statistics about what he accomplished, he was actually one of the more proficient relief pitchers in all of Major League Baseball. And this is the idea of sabermetrics to dispense of conventional wisdom of what seems right with respect to baseball, about typical attitudes, about what makes a player successful and instead rely on facts and data analysis in order to build a team and in order to approach the season properly. And so in this scene, you’re going to hear Billy Beane again portrayed by Brad Pitt in a room full of old, hardened, hard nosed old school baseball scouts who are flaunting conventional wisdom about what makes players successful. But Bean’s paradigm has already shifted, and he’s realizing that whatever they’re saying with respect to what makes players successful isn’t going to work, certainly not for the Oakland A’s. And so as you listen to this clip, I would ask that you listen for two things. First of all, listen to the characteristics that these old school scouts are lauding with respect to what will make players successful. Second, listen at the end for the idea that being realizes that none of them actually understand the true nature of the challenge they’re facing with respect to how to build a baseball team. So here’s Brad Pitt as general manager of the Oakland A’s in two thousand one facing down a room of old school baseball scouts.

“Moneyball”

What do you got? I like Geronimo. Yes. It was an athlete who played big, fast talent. Top of my list. Cut. Good face. Yeah, good job. Five tools guy. Good looking ballplayer. Can he hit? He’s got a beautiful swing, right? Barry Ball explodes off his back. He throws a club head at the ball. And when he connects it, he drives it. It pops off the bat. You can hear it all over the ballpark. A lot of pop coming off the bat. If he’s a good hitter, why doesn’t he hit good? He is a good hitter leaguer. He’ll be. He’ll be ready. So he’s going to be a good hitter. When we put him up against big league guard could be a great hitter. I don’t think so. This kid needs some at bats. If you give him four hundred at bats, he’s going to get better. You can play, he said everywhere along the line. One of our guys. Ok, let’s move on. All righty. Who do you like? I like Perez. He’s got a classic swing. It’s real clean stroke. I don’t know. Can’t hit the curve ball. Well, there’s some work to be done. I’ll admit that. But he’s noticeable and an ugly girlfriend. What’s that ugly girlfriend means no confidence. Ok, I know you guys are full of it. Artie is right. This guy’s got an attitude and attitude is good. I mean, it’s the kind of guy walks into a room as Dick has already been there for two minutes. Yeah, it passes the eye candy test. He’s got the looks. He’s ready to play the part. He just needs to get some playing time. I’m just saying. His girlfriend is a six at best. We’re trying to replace the. This guy could be it. I agree with you.

 

“Moneyball”

Damn, Billy, was that a suggestion? I suggest talking Oh la la la la la like this is business as usual. It’s not. We’re trying to solve the problem here, Billy. I like this. You know, you’re not even looking at the problem. We’re very aware of the problem. I mean, OK, good. What’s the problem? Look, Billy, we all understand what the problem is. We have to look good. What’s the problem? The problem is we have to replace three key players in our No. What’s the problem? Same as it’s ever been. We’ve got to replace these guys with what we have existed. No, what’s the problem, Barry? We need thirty eight home runs, one hundred and twenty RBIs and 47 doubles to replace. The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game and now we’ve been gutted like organ donors for the rich. Boston’s taken our kidneys. Yankees are taking our heart. And you guys are sitting around talking the same old good body nonsense. Like We’re selling jeans. Like we’re looking for Fabio. We got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies. Really, that’s a very touching story and everything. But I think we’re all very much aware of what we’re facing here. You have a lot of experience and wisdom in this room now. You need to have a little bit of faith and let us do the job of replacing Giambi. Is there another first baseman like Giambi? No, not really. No. And if there was, could we afford him? No, no. Then what the fuck are you talking about, man?

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And so with that, as our preamble, I’m going to ask that you take it and you put it aside in your mind for just a moment, and I’m going to get into today’s podcast. But I will come back to the clip from Moneyball shortly on Pedagogy. Today, I’m actually talking about the tension or friction, or at least the perceived friction between teaching critical thinking and teaching subject matter content that’s so often expressed to me by faculty members. If we want to be able to move to a place where we’re teaching critical thinking in the classroom, then we have to be able to resolve these tensions. And although there really isn’t a friction, the way people often think there is, if a friction at all the perception of these frictions is perfectly reasonable because certainly there are many of you had to go out there who want to teach critical thinking, who want to bring more critical thinking into your class, but nevertheless are concerned about and for some very important reasons, covering certain amounts of content either because you feel that’s ethically right with respect to your field or you’re feeling departmental or institutional or disciplinary pressures, some of which might very well emerge from standardized tests or national accrediting exams that are actually very important for students to pass. So let’s get that out of the way. Some tensions are real, and if nothing else, it’s eminently reasonable to at least perceive that there are frictions between spending time teaching critical thinking and spending time covering subject matter content.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But while it’s certainly important that I cover this content because it’s essential that people understand how to resolve these seeming frictions between subject matter and critical thinking, the reason that I’m casting this particular episode today comes from the last few years in the United States of America, which has resulted in a deluge of news articles clamoring for higher education, if not education as a whole, to teach more critical thinking and even putting aside the numerous political motivations for those editorials. We also see them emerging because of things like vaccine hesitancy and the increasing fault line of a population that’s unable to subordinate ideology to factuality. And I don’t think there’s only one side of the political spectrum that’s guilty of that. Extremists on either side of the political spectrum can be guilty of that. It’s easy enough for you to exercise the Google machine and come up with a horde of articles and editorials that are doing exactly what I just described. The particular article that sparked this particular podcast comes from the Hartford Courant on December 19 20 21. It’s by John J. Pattillo, who is the president of Sacred Heart University. It’s entitled I’m a college president. I fear we have failed to adequately prepare our students for a difficult political future, and for me, it is the fact that he’s a college president and he hasn’t been the only one, mind you.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But it’s the fact that he’s a college president and making this point that in part makes it so compelling to me because it’s a member of our. Unity calling us out to do better and saying that collectively, we really need to do more. We really need to shift our paradigm about what we’re doing educationally with our students. Pattillo writes We’ve done a good job in the classroom, despite the pandemic focused on STEM and business science and health care technology and research. But I am concerned about arming our next generation of leaders with the tools they need to deal with the near future, particularly the onslaught of blind partisanship, the instilling of fear of differences as the motivator for protest and violence. The relentless pursuit of power at any costs. And the unfathomable willingness by so many people to disregard facts when they are not convenient, emotionally comforting or socially useful. He goes on to write Our institutions of higher learning need to teach the importance of listening with open minds. We must encourage listening to alternative opinions and using facts, not rhetoric and ideology, to form judgment and beliefs and to promote action. A college education should embrace people’s differences and teach the importance of personal responsibility, truth and service. And near the end of the article, he puts this out there. Institutions of higher learning might be the last bastion of support for true democracy while we pursue vocational preparedness.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

We should never forget the priority to instill critical thinking skills and to be a safe harbor and a reliable place for discourse, protest and differences. We must take a stand, no matter the consequences from those around us who would prefer to stifle dissent. We must be places of comfort in the free and open discussion of differences. What an articulate and compelling argument for the importance of education, for the idea. Again, that quote institutions of higher learning might be the last bastion of support for true democracy. End quote. And so, as I’ve said so many times on this podcast before, and I’ll repeat again in the future, we must fulfill our obligation in higher education to promote strong critical thinking skills that supersede disciplinary bounds that supersede academic bounds and fortify society with a populace rich with critical thinking and problem solving skills. All educators k through PhD arguably have no greater societal, if not ethical, if not moral obligation, than to create that populace as an outcome of our good, hard fought, often misunderstood and certainly underappreciated efforts. As a side note to that, if there’s an argument that anything is even more important than the teaching of critical thinking, it might be the teaching of compassion and empathy and love. As Andy Warhol said, every student should take a course in first grade on love because we certainly not only need a thoughtful society, we need a compassionate, empathetic society.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But let’s be really clear about this. The teaching of compassion and empathy and the teaching of critical thinking are not mutually exclusive. Rather, and more to the point they reinforce one another, the teaching of critical thinking is also the teaching of empathy and compassion. It is the teaching of understanding other viewpoints of thinking outside of one’s own needs and one’s own biases. It is the open mindedness to perspectives that are not our own. It is the respect for other people’s truths, even when they are uncomfortable to ourselves. But how are we doing? Well, to answer that question, I’m going to refer to yet another article about critical thinking outcomes, one that I haven’t referenced before on pedagogy. This one is from higher education in twenty seventeen dynamics of undergraduate student generic problem solving skills captured by a campus wide study. This study took place at a large Canadian university where they had over 1000 student participants. Roughly half of the students were first year students, and roughly half of the students were third or fourth year students. And what the researchers did, which is exciting and should be done so much more, was that they tested the students on problem solving skills. They tested the first year students at the beginning of the term and at the end of the term, and they tested third and fourth year students at the beginning of their term and the end of their term.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

It’s important to note that this is not a longitudinal study, meaning that they didn’t test the first year students as first year students and then wait three to four years to test them again as juniors and seniors. And while a longitudinal study certainly would be important and the authors acknowledge that and saw that as one of the next steps, it’s also perhaps not unreasonable to assume that the third to fourth year students are rough cognates of the first year students and vice versa being drawn from. Roughly the same population with roughly the same kinds of scores and criteria in order to enter the university, so arguably demographically and intellectually similar. The problem solving examination they used came from PISA or the Program for International Student Assessment, which is part of the OECD, and it’s an international assessment of problem solving skills across many countries. In this case, it involved only a few questions. Students were given 15 minutes to complete the exam. And is it a perfect metric of problem solving skills? Certainly not since the students were only given 15 minutes to complete the exam, but is it some metric of problem solving skills? Yes, absolutely it is. So what were the outcomes? The outcomes are as fascinating as they are disturbing. First of all, maybe as a bit of good news, the first year students saw a statistically significant 8.7 percent, let’s call it, nine percent growth in problem solving ability between their first exam at the beginning of the term and the second exam at the end of the term.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

So the good news is that their scores went up. The bad news is that I don’t think nine percent growth over the course of a term is anything to be lauded in particular, but it’s one heck of a lot better than what we’re seeing in the third and fourth year students, which was a one point eight percent decline in critical thinking skills between the beginning of the term exam and the end of the term exam. In other words, though not statistically significant, the trend was towards lower problem solving skills at the end of the term than at the beginning of the term for the third and fourth year students. This is, if not consistent, then certainly not in mathematic to multiple other studies that often show that juniors and seniors actually show declines in critical thinking skills relative to first year students or over the course of later terms of study. The reason for that typically is that higher level courses focus more on disciplinary knowledge than on generalizable skills. But let me get to the comparison between the scores of first year students and the scores of the juniors and seniors. Overall, juniors and seniors at this university tested just six percent better at problem solving skills than their first year counterparts, six percent better after three to four years of college education, after what at least in the United States, could be tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars after learning for four years.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

From what our truthfully some wonderfully smart intellectuals who excel in their fields, juniors and seniors were just six percent better at problem solving than first year students. And since this was not a longitudinal study, it is entirely possible that that six percent difference could have resulted theoretically, potentially hypothetically from demographic or other intrinsic differences of the population, rather than from any actual result of their university education. I’m not saying that’s the case. We don’t know, but it’s possible. It’s possible, therefore, that the university education had no impact on their critical thinking or problem solving skills whatsoever. And in what I’m going to characterize, though, the authors didn’t characterize it this way. But what I’m going to characterize as a last ditch hope for a silver lining. The authors write quote Overall, the lack of any significant downward trajectory in the problem solving skills of undergraduate students indicates that their university experience on our campus does not negatively impact their problem solving skills. And so one of the strongest conclusions the authors could make in defense of college education was that there isn’t evidence that it negatively impacts problem solving skills.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

So to paraphrase Brad Pitt from Moneyball, what are we doing here in education? What are we doing as educators? And I’ll take the risk to characterize the head of Ogoja audience as already part of the metaphorical choir. But if we truly believe that critical thinking skills are essential and problem solving skills are essential and I’m perfectly comfortable with conflating those for the moment, then what do we have to show for ourselves as academics and intellectuals and more importantly, as educators for what our students are achieving? And what are we doing? Instead of teaching critical thinking? I’m going to tell you what we’re doing instead. As I opened today in my email, a number of the periodicals that I receive about education on a daily basis and today is not distinct from any other sampling of periodicals that I receive about education. Here’s a smattering of the key titles of the articles that are presented what teachers can do to help struggling readers who feel ashamed Omicron is making. A mess of instruction, even where schools are open. How schools can support older students who lag in reading the benefits of intensive tutoring for older readers. Most educators believe parents should be involved in curriculum choices. Why the science of teaching is often ignored A vulnerability in proctoring software should worry colleges. Experts say they’re surveilled student. The allure of Chabad on campus Fewer high school graduates go straight to college curriculum.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

Incentive plan prompts political backlash. Income inequality drives up tuition, study argues. And then, of course, a large smattering of articles addressing COVID and the crisis in the classroom, which are, of course, absolutely necessary. And in fact, all of those articles are absolutely necessary. I am not going to stand here and protest those important discussions about education, nor am I to govern what we should discuss. In what way could I ever say that helping a student who is ashamed because they can’t read well enough is not something important to education. Of course it is, and more power to the people having that discussion. But what I will go on to talk about and the case I’m going to make as we begin to return to this friction between the teaching of critical thinking and the teaching of content is that the teaching of critical thinking can help ameliorate so many of the other issues that are consuming our discourse as educators right now, not fully ameliorate them. It’s not a magic bullet to our demons, but it can take us a long way. See, when I hear all of these other topics that are consuming our discussion, all of the other topics in the articles that we read, what I hear is a cacophony of the same kind of old school discussions being had by the scouts and Billy Beane’s meeting.

“Moneyball”

Clean-cut good face pops off the bat. You can hear it all over the ballpark. A lot of pop

“Moneyball”

Coming off the bat and an ugly

“Moneyball”

Girlfriend. What’s that ugly girlfriend means no confidence. This guy’s got an attitude and attitude is good. I mean, it’s the kind of guy walks into a room as Dick has already been there for two minutes. I’m just saying his girlfriend is a six at best,

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And if there’s a place where my argument immediately breaks down, it’s that these academic conversations that are being published are probably more important to academia than some of the characteristics being discussed in Billy Bean’s meeting, as it was characterized or perhaps characterized in the movie of Moneyball. So perhaps pragmatically so, but not so in principle in principle. We’re having so many discussions about what content to include and how do we test and should we flip our classrooms and all of these other things that also hold importance and relevance, but it’s not tapping the root of those problems or what should be the root of education, which is really the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills. With that comes authentic emotional engagement and compassion and other things that I talked about before. But I’m going to posit for now the idea that critical thinking, perhaps not solipsistic, we should nevertheless sit as the locus of what we’re doing as educators because its absence fuels so many of these other problems.

“Moneyball”

We’re trying to solve the problem you’re building. I like this, you know, you’re not even looking at the problem,

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And it’s light could otherwise help to illuminate their solutions. And I’ll come back to that as I move through this discussion of why critical thinking and the teaching of content should not be at friction. I’m going to talk about the four key objections I hear to teaching critical thinking relative to the need to cover content. These overlap and they might not be the actual top four concerns were there to be some research study on this conducted. But these are the four that I hear most often, and I hope in going through these that I’m able to shed some light on why it’s the absence of critical thinking instruction that actually fuels so many of these other problems and discussions that we’re having to have. And this is something that I hope you can use when you feel pressured in discussions with colleagues or when you’re having a department meeting or a school meeting, and the discussions are revolving around the need to cover large blocks of content. My hope is that I’m providing other headache out there with the support and the retorts to larger discussions and pressures about the covering of content. Pedagogy will resume in just a moment, but first, if you’re a high school, college or graduate school educator, then I’d like to offer you a full free preview of my online level one critical thinking program for students. I actually developed this program because so many educators have asked me for a way to jumpstart their students critical thinking skills.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

This program, which is approximately a three hour student experience, does the following. It teaches your students three essential mindsets for thinking critically. It teaches them a copyrighted neurobiological process for thinking critically about any subject in any discipline, and then it does something particularly distinct. It prompts students through a step by step process in which they actually compose a very short essay entirely driven by their own critical thinking. Students can complete this program outside of class with no impact on your class time, and you can see the final product when they’re done. I think you’ll find this to be an exceptional program for your students, but whether you assign it or not, I’m confident that it will be an asset to you in terms of infusing critical thinking in your own approach to teaching. So provided you’re an educator, I’d be excited to grant you a free preview of this program. Please just come to the critical thinking initiative Korg podcasts. Sign up with a Dot Edu email address or if you don’t have a Dot Edu email address, just email info at the Critical Thinking Initiative Porg with confirmation that you’re an educator. Again, please just come to the Critical Thinking Initiative DAUG Podcasts and sign up for a free preview of the entire program. Please make sure you either sign up with a Dot Edu email address or email me at info at the Critical Thinking Initiative Porg with other confirmation that you’re an educator, and I’d be excited to grant you free access to a program preview.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And for everyone who’s listening, please remember to like and share your pedagogy. Find the critical thinking initiative on Facebook and LinkedIn and follow me on Twitter at at Steve J. Pearlman that’s at Steve J. Pearlman. Now back to pedagogy. The first objection is this, but my students need to know x amount of material or I need to cover X amount of material. First of all, whenever we hear that, I’d like to refer back to what Joshua Isler, author of How Humans Learn, mentioned in an earlier podcast when this was under the critical thinking initiative moniker, something Josh said was that when thinking about what content they have to cover. Educators should really consider the distinction between what material they really need to cover versus what content they feel pressure to cover from external sources such as from their department or their colleagues, or because those are expectations they put on themselves or formed from the ether, instead of putting greater emphasis on what really needs to be learned by their students. But let’s put that aside for a moment and just take this idea that my students need to know X amount of information, and therefore I can’t spend the time to teach them to think critically, and I’m going to respond to that pejoratively in a moment.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But first, I want to acknowledge the reality that many educators are facing realities with respect to departmental expectations that they cannot control or university expectations or expectations from accrediting bodies that they cannot control, or perhaps even valid ethical concerns that students exiting a course need to know a certain body of information if they’re going to go into any given field and be successful or responsible in that field. So with all of those caveats in place to the snarky ass statement I’m about to make. Who gives a shit if students know a whole lot of information, if they can’t think about it, if they can’t actualize it, if they can’t use it to solve problems? Who cares? Well, for one, the brain doesn’t care, as I talked about in previous podcasts. The brain is wired to retain information for which it has application and use, and to discard information that it considers to be junk. Information that has no function and of no less importance is the fact that the vast majority of what is memorized is forgotten. Barring a short term accrediting exam or the equivalent, if you had a choice as an educator to teach students one hundred units of information without the critical thinking skills in hand to engage those 100 units of information or thirty three units of information with the critical thinking skills to engage those thirty three units. Which would you do in the process of considering your answer? Remember that according to just about all of the research, if students memorize one hundred units of information for your course this semester, the vast majority of those units are gone by the end of the next semester, much less in a year or two, where virtually all of it’s gone.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But if we teach students thirty five units of information and they think critically in the process of understanding those thirty five units of information, a high percentage of those thirty five units will remain at the end of the next semester. And more importantly, what the student will still have. That student who learned the thirty five with critical thinking involved is still the capacity to think critically and to think critically about the next thirty five or next. Sixty five units of information that come to that student, so we’re giving them the critical thinking skill and we’re retaining as much information as they would anyway over the long term, and the students are better for it and they’re learning how to engage new information through critical thinking lenses. But again, just as a prima facia answer to this, who cares if they know things? If they can’t think by analogy, consider the absurdity of a school for plumbers, or maybe an apprenticeship where they’re tested on the different functions of wrenches and that plumber comes to your house having graduated that school and they look at the Tom Hanks Shelley Long Money Pit style catastrophe that is whatever plumbing situation you’re having.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

And you say to this person, Hey, can you help me fix my plumbing? And the plumber says, I don’t know. I can tell you a lot about these wrenches, their torque strength, whether they’re metric or imperial, the amount of chromium in the steel, but I don’t know how to use them. I can’t solve your plumbing problem, but I know a lot about plumbers, wrenches and plumbing tape and the relative advantages or disadvantages of PVC piping relative to copper. And you would say rightfully, you pay too much for your plumbing degree because you can’t plumb again. We have students who, after three to four years of college, are maybe six percent better at problem solving than students just entering college. Whatever more knowledge they have in whatever fields they might have it, they don’t solve problems any better. So let me get to the second objection. And again, my hope is that this empowers you with retorts to the pressures that you might feel or discussions that might emerge in your field or department or institution. The objection is, but my students cannot learn even basic things or accomplish even basic intellectual tasks. How do you expect me to get them to achieve these higher order critical thinking outcomes? This might be the single most common objection that I hear, and it makes good sense on the surface because the perception is that if we’re having a student who’s struggling to be able to offer a basic synopsis of a text, then asking that student to do deeper intellectual work with that task would seem like something even farther in the distance.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

So it seems perfectly logical, but in actuality, it’s not how the brain works judging students by what they’re able to do when they’re not thinking critically versus what they’re able to do when they are thinking critically is like judging a car’s performance with the engine off versus with the engine on. Imagine if you were selling cars and had an older couple who came in and wanted to take a test drive. So you walk them out to the car and you hand them the keys and you sit them down in the car, in the parking lot and you say, Hey, go ahead for your drive, enjoy it. I’ll be here. When you get back and you walk back into the dealership, you have a cup of coffee. You notice a bit of time has gone by and you walk back out into the parking lot and there’s the couple sitting in the car and the exact same place where you left them. So you ask them, how is your test drive? How is the car? And they say, Well, the car is terrible. It doesn’t move at all. And you say, Well, did you turn it on? And they say, Well, no, and they didn’t realize that cars don’t work on keys anymore.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

They have pushed buttons. Or at least this one did. And you say, but you didn’t turn the car on and they say, yeah, but the car handles terribly. In fact, there’s not even a way to turn the car on. You say, no, no, how can you judge the car? You didn’t even have the engine on? Well, we’re doing the same thing with our students when we determine that because they cannot achieve lower order intellectual outcomes, they also cannot achieve higher order intellectual outcomes. When the root of the problem might be, in fact, that we didn’t turn their brains on. Let me go back to that article about how to help a student who is ashamed that they can’t read, and I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of that article or the larger complications. But when students are asked to read in order to understand there’s a certain amount of brain activity that goes on, and most students can achieve a certain level of understanding of a text when they’re asked to read to understand it, so as to offer a synopsis or to summarize a text or to pick out its key points. But when students are taught to read to evaluate a text meaning to think critically about it, not to understand what points are made, but to evaluate by what means and how well points are made, then we see an entirely different level of cognitive activity and entirely different caliber of reading skill emerge, and it takes the same amount of time to read a text in order to understand it, as it does to read a text in order to evaluate it.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

We can ask students to do one or the other. One of them turns their brain on more. One of them turns their brain on less. As a similar case in point, we know that students often show some of the least brain activity of their lives while they’re sitting in class. And then we will have faculty members who say, I can’t even get my students to learn these 20 units of simple information. How do you expect me to get them to think critically and to do something of higher order intellectual skill? With those units, well, we need to remember that if they’re showing low brain activity during class, then we’re trying to get them to learn when their brains are off. But we know that when students start thinking critically, they engage information more deeply. They understand it better. They remember it longer. So is it a question of what the students are capable of doing relative to that information? Or is it a question of what we are asking students to do intellectually and how we are inculcating them as intellectuals relative to that information? That’s the problem. So the point is that there’s not friction between either teaching them information or teaching them critical thinking.

“Moneyball”

We’re trying to solve the problem here, Billy. I like this. You know, you’re not even looking at the problem.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

If we turn their brains on, if we get them thinking critically about information, they can learn it better. It is the engine by which they can learn and acquire and understand and put into application and solve problems with information. So now let me get to the third objection and the third objection that you have a way to respond to. It is, but my students don’t want to go through the work of learning to think critically. Now there’s certainly a case for this because as many people with whom I’ve worked will tell you, some students will have an initial, albeit fleeting negative response to having to learn to think critically. And the reason is in their defense that it becomes a change of protocol from how they’ve been learning from most of their educational careers. As I mentioned in an earlier podcast, it can actually be more challenging to teach older students or more successful students to think critically than younger students or less successful students, because the older, more successful students have found success through their prior methods of learning. And they can be more reluctant, therefore, to risk changing that or challenges to those protocols that have worked so well for them. Let’s not begrudge them that, because that makes perfect sense. But as I said, those initial reactions are typically fleeting, and the reason they’re fleeting is very simple. We evolved such that our brains actually enjoy thinking.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

As I’ve mentioned before, parts of our brain called the basal ganglia release our pleasure drug dopamine when we simply memorize information. Our basal ganglia does not release dopamine. For us, memorizing in and of itself is not a pleasurable task unless for some reason, the student has a particular idiosyncratic affection for the information being presented. I have a particular peculiar, idiosyncratic affection for information about martial arts that most people don’t and certainly shouldn’t have. So I can get a little high on interesting martial arts information, but that’s idiosyncratic to me and a very small community of people talking about our wider swath of the community and our students as a populace. Their brains are not turned on by information we’re presenting. However, the basal ganglia does release dopamine when we use information in order to make meaning and solve problems. The making of meaning, the solving of problems, the construction of ideas is pleasurable to our brains. And if it weren’t, then again, the most advanced tool we as a species would have today would not be cell phones and electric cars, but arguably a pointier stick, or maybe a sharper rock. So to review to this point, but my students need to know x amount of material who gives a shit if they can’t think about it. But my students cannot learn even basic things. Don’t judge what they can do when their brains are off relata, when their brains are on.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But my students don’t want to go through the work of learning to think critically. Ultimately, human brains enjoy thinking critically. They love it. It’s what they’re designed to do. So they’ll come around and we can also make that experience seem more profitable for them and positive for them through carefully planned, relentless incrementalism. And that comes to the final objection, which is but my students cannot think about a subject unless they have a lot of information already. This is a concern or an objection that I hear all the time. Students need a fund of knowledge before they can think critically. So let me acknowledge off the bat that of course, if we want to think more complexly and richly about any subject matter, then knowledge about that subject matter is obviously integral to that experience to students with equivalent critical thinking skills, but one with a large body of knowledge about the subject and one with a minuscule body of knowledge about the subject, we’ll think at very different depths about that subject. It would be foolish to suggest otherwise. But why are we working from the presumption that information should be acquired without thinking about it along the way? Remember that I already said that information that’s learned absent of critical thinking just for memorization is more quickly forgotten. That reading to understand produces less understanding. Then reading to evaluate that brains take no pleasure in the acquisition of random information, but certainly do take pleasure in making meaning and thinking critically about and problem solving with that information.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

So yes, of course we want students if they’re going to think about a given subject matter to have as much information as possible, ultimately in thinking about that subject matter, especially if they’re going to become majors in that discipline or members of that field. But why are we creating some mutual exclusivity between the earlier assignments by which they are so-called acquiring information and the later assignments by which they are so thinking critically about that information? Why would we habituate them merely to acquire information at one stage of their intellectual experience and then later at some other stage, think critically about it? Why can’t we do it all at the same time? Why can’t the acquisition of any body of information also involve critical thinking? Of course, if we ask students in a history course to think critically about a civil war problem based on just a few articles or artifacts relevant to the subject matter, of course, if we view it from the totality of our understanding of the Civil War as Civil War scholars, whatever they reason through will be feeble relative to the complexity of the Civil War. But that doesn’t matter, because aside from the fact that having them think critically about material will help them learn it more effectively and deeply and with greater attention.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

What we’re also doing along the way is habituating them and teaching them how to think critically about Civil War information and if we’re doing our jobs right, how to think critically about anything. Because otherwise, when we get to the point of the semester, when we want them to think critically, we might find that they’re not highly capable of it. And in fact, this is part of that concern that comes from faculty members. Maybe it should be the fifth one listed, which is that when I asked students to think critically, they can’t. Well, if most of your assignments, theoretically over the course of a term or over the course of a college experience, have been asking them to read, to understand and to acquire information for some future point at which they’re going to be asked to think critically about it. But it’s not teaching them to think critically along the way. Then why should we be surprised when we suddenly ask them to think critically about it, that they fail to do so to our satisfaction? Have we not wrought what we have sown? Why not instead cultivate them along at every single step of the process, at every opportunity to think critically about what they’re learning and whatever data is being presented to them at that particular point in their educational experience? And with you now fortified with responses to those objections. I want to add one more point about the importance of critical thinking relative to subject matter, and I call it the Newton principle as the fable goes.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

Sir Isaac was sitting under an apple tree when an apple fell upon his head, and in that moment his mind sprang into critical thinking and he developed the concept of gravity. Well, let’s break that down a little bit and look at what happened there for thousands of years or tens of thousands of years, humans and their ancestors saw apples fall from trees. Apples always fell down from trees. Apples always happened to fall in the fall when they were ripe and heavy. But as the fable goes, at least until Newton came along, everyone looked at that same data set and came up with a different answer. The answer as to why apples fell down off trees was that it was God’s will. God had, at a certain point decided that Apple, four million three hundred and twelve was going to fall on Tuesday at 12:15 p.m. But Newton came along and said, Hey, wait a second. You know what? I’m going to think critically about this data set, and I’m going to come to a different answer. The data is not going to change the knowledge will. This data is still that there are apples and they always fall down and they typically fall down in the fall when they are ripe. So I’m going to say that there are natural laws in place, and one of those natural laws is Gravity and Newton allotted for the idea that God might have put those natural laws in place.

Steve Pearlman, Ph.D.

But he nevertheless said apples don’t randomly fall at the will of God. They fall because there is this natural law of gravity. That’s why things that fall only fall down. Nothing ever falls up, and that is why apples fall off the tree when they are heavier and riper. And the point is this critical thinking creates knowledge. The data might remain the same or the data might change, but knowledge solutions action ability only emerge from critical thinking. Thinking is not just the acquisition of an understanding of information, it is the use of information to the generation of knowledge and that returns me to Pattillo. Institutions of higher learning might be the less. Last bastion of support for true democracy, while we pursue vocational preparedness, we should never forget the priority to instill critical thinking skills and to be a safe harbor and reliable place for discourse, protest and differences. We must take a stand, no matter the consequences from those around us who would prefer to stifle dissent. And so forgive my brashness as I close. Like this. Is there anything more important than the teaching of critical thinking? No. And is academia as a whole developing students into masterful critical thinkers? No. Then what are we doing here?

“Moneyball”

Is there another first baseman like Giambi? No, not really. No. And if there was, could we afford him? No, no. Then what the fuck are you talking about, man?

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