A Reform Strategy That Is (Quietly) Working
While most of the educational-reform efforts generated in the wake of A Nation at Risk have run their course without notable effect over the past 10 years, one unheralded activity continues to generate slow but steady improvements in the teaching and learning taking place in the nation's classrooms. It is the critical-thinking movement.
It is succeeding for two basic reasons: First, students whose education involves critical thinking--the ability to evaluate information and make judgments--learn more effectively because they have opportunities to think about what they are studying and are not treated as sponges asked to absorb what they are being told. Second, the movement relies on infusion rather than demonstration.
To observe that most of the last decade's other reform efforts have run out of steam is not to say that all of them have. Nor is it to suggest that the more visible surviving ones, such as those directed by educational statesmen like Mortimer Adler and Theodore Sizer or by cognitive psychologists like Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg, are not resulting in improved student performance. They are, in part because they, too, emphasize the need to give students time to think.
However, they, like most educational-reform efforts, require the involvement of entire schools or school systems to make their cases and the replication of their successes in different settings to spread their gospels. Yet the road to educational reform is sufficiently strewn with the remains of exemplary pilot projects that have not survived transplanting to suggest that alternative strategies, like the one being used in the critical-thinking movement, also warrant attention. It relies, as I have said, on conversion to its beliefs through infusion rather than demonstration, on generating classroom reform teacher by teacher and subject by subject rather than school by school or school system by school system. And it is a strategy that is working.
While many innovative ideas for improving our schools have burst brightly on the educational scene only to fizzle out after a couple of years, critical thinking is no pedagogical flash in the pan and has been steadily gaining new converts since it was launched over a decade ago. Why is this so? There are a variety of reasons. First of all, the premises on which the concept is based go back to the time of Socrates. Originated by members of university philosophy departments who believed that their field had something to offer which could be used to improve teaching and learning generally, the idea of critical thinking was then embraced by some of the scholars in a new field, cognitive psychology. They saw in it opportunities for implementing some of their findings about how the human intellect operates.
These beginnings produced a somewhat schizophrenic reaction in educational circles. On the one hand, the idea of applying the lessons of philosophy to something as mundane as classroom teaching offended many philosophers. On the other, classroom teachers tended to be put off by the concept's esoteric (to them) roots, and particularly by the vocabulary transplanted from philosophy and psychology. Today, however, while many philosophers remain skeptical, more and more teachers are beginning to understand that, after all, "the Socratic method'' simply means discussion and that someone using the "didactic method'' is lecturing.
These same beginnings also fostered an introverted perspective on the part of the founders of the movement and their early disciples. Ten years ago, for instance, a burning issue with them was whether or not critical thinking should be offered as a separate subject in secondary school. To many early adherents, the idea of diluting the purity of the concept by infusing it into the teaching of mundane subjects like English and mathematics seemed like nothing less than heresy. But as the movement began to shake itself down, even the most rabid defenders of its mystique came to recognize the impracticality of getting courses in critical thinking included in all high school curricula across the country and of training a national cadre of critical-thinking teachers. In that process of conversion, they came to realize that the greatest opportunity for applicability at the secondary level would be the use of the principles of critical thinking to improve the teaching of traditional high school subjects.
In retrospect, it may well be that those beginnings and that evolution account in part for the current and growing strength of the critical-thinking movement. The early, introspective focus of the founding philosophers and cognitive psychologists provided the opportunity to get their domain established and articulated. The emergence of a number of proponents of the concept, each with a slightly different interpretation of it, as well as the establishment of several centers for the study and promulgation of critical thinking, served to preserve the vitality of the movement by avoiding the concentration of all wisdom about it in a single source.
This dispersion of authoritative expertise has, however, been a mixed blessing. While it has kept the concept of critical thinking from becoming stereotyped and sterile, it has also prevented the coalescence of the movement into a recognized and respected coherent whole. As a result, its proponents, and the centers they have set up, operate at the margin of or outside the established educational institutions with which they are or have been associated. In turn, this means that there has not been a unified base from which either to spread the critical-thinking gospel or to appeal for the kind of philanthropic help that has been forthcoming on behalf of the more visible educational-reform efforts. But these circumstances are about to change. They are because the leaders of a number of significant critical-thinking enterprises have been meeting to establish a coordinating body, one currently being called the National Council on Excellence in Critical Thinking.
Their discussions still have a long way to go in terms of defining the new association's mission, drawing up a charter and bylaws, establishing budgetary guidelines and operating procedures. But on matters of role and strategy, there is already agreement. It is that critical thinking's role at the secondary level should be as an academic competency as essential to learning as reading, writing, or arithmetic and that its use as such should be promoted by a strategy of double-barreled infusion: that is, by training individual teachers to include instruction in critical thinking as an academic competency in their different subject-matter offerings and then by having them infiltrate their individual schools with their new-found "truth.''
Because this strategy of infusion by inclusion and infiltration, so different from most other current approaches to educational reform, is working, both the strategy itself and the concept it supports are worthy of attention by an educational community and a public eager for ideas around which to rally the forces for positive change in our nation's schools.
George H. Hanford is president emeritus of the College Board and a member of the ad hoc executive committee of the National Council on Excellence in Critical Thinking.