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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Kind of Mind Trainer Are You?

By Guy Claxton — June 03, 2014 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Guy Claxton, Emeritus Professor of the Learning Sciences Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester in England.

When people talk about education, they often focus on two dimensions:

  • What shall we teach?
  • How will we know if they’ve learned it?

Curriculum and Assessment. Two dimensions define a plane surface, so we’ll call this Flat-Speak. But there is another dimension, less obvious but much more important: How are we getting them to use their minds? What kinds of learning habits are we getting our students to make use of, day in...day out? That’s the third dimension - the kind of mind training that is going on.

Three dimensions make a solid - so let’s talk Solid Education for a moment.

Learning isn’t just a matter of degree. The mind isn’t a kind of tape recorder that either records things clearly or muffled. You can bring quite different sets of ‘learning muscles', as I call them, to bear on the same information. As a teacher, you are constantly guiding the bits of their minds that students activate in your classroom. You can teach five-year-olds the colors of the rainbow in a way that stretches their ability to remember lists, and makes them anxious about ‘getting it wrong'; or you can teach the self-same thing, but do it in a way that stretches their ability to think imaginatively, playfully and critically. (There aren’t seven colors in a rainbow; that’s just a convention. You could get the children to cut a rainbow up in all kinds of new ways, and think up beautiful names for the new color-bands...)

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 the Civil War in a way that cultivates empathy and tolerance (for example, by getting students to write about the same event though the eyes of different people). Or you can teach it as if there were a single ‘correct’ point of view. It’s our call, as teachers, to decide what kind of mind training goes on in our classrooms.

Your classroom is a cube; that is to say, this third dimension is always there. All of us teachers are always mind trainers: there’s no opting out. The most boring, didactic teacher is training students in the arts of sitting still, inhibiting their own curiosity, and retaining undigested knowledge. We could be training the willingness to carry out operations that they barely understand, and not to question it. We could be training the ability to knock out formulaic little essays - a life skill for which there is very little call. The only thing we can’t be is neutral.

I was chatting to a group of history teachers the other day, and they got on to the subject of kids’ lack of critical awareness as they read stuff on Wikipedia. We agreed that a healthy scepticism towards ‘knowledge claims’ was a pretty useful habit to have in the 21st century. I said to them: “Just reassure me, will you, that the way you are teaching The Tudors to your 9th-graders is designed to develop that sceptical disposition towards knowledge claims - that you are now (quite rightly) complaining that they don’t have...” (In England, all students in Junior High have to learn about The Tudors - a bunch of Machiavellian kings and queens.) And I have to tell you that they went a bit quiet. Because it had never occurred to them that The Tudors could be used as an exercise-machine for stretching that particularly useful life-skill. However you teach, you are, as a mind trainer, somewhere on a continuum from building compliance to building criticality. You choose.

All knowledge is working knowledge - or it’s useless. It’s not the job of school-teachers to prepare young people to be general-knowledge game-show contestants - in a turbulent world, that would not just be a trivial ambition, it would be an irresponsible one. Teaching in a way that merely prepares young people for multiple-choice tests is a particularly vicious form of mental abuse of children. As Eric Hoffer kind of said, “Knowing things that help you make progress in weighty matters is essential. Knowing things that merely give you something to talk about over a meal is hardly worth a tin of beans.” And in any case I don’t meet many people who talk about quadratic equations over dinner. Prove me wrong, but I don’t think any great gardener was ever hampered by not knowing the chemical formula for photosynthesis.

There’s just two questions you need to keep asking yourself. Which method is going to get students the best grades? AND: Which method is going to help them develop the supple, curious minds that they are surely going to need, to flourish in a tricky time? These two questions are yoked tightly together.

Teaching in a way that stretches a lot of different mental muscles is more engaging, and engaged students do better on the tests. If you have learned to think and talk about the calculation of area, and not just apply the formula, you will do better when the examination throws a curve ball at you. So what I am talking about isn’t a matter of traditional vs. progressive or grades vs. ‘thinking skills'. Sorry, Professor Hirsch, but skills and knowledge can be woven together in all kinds of ways, and the more imaginatively they are interwoven, the better knowers and understanders your students will be.

So what kinds of mind trainers should we be, in our Mind Gym classrooms? As they move from Math to English to History to Science, are we offering a narrow regime of mental exercise that fits them only for game shows and 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 educating our children to be ridiculous, it is we who would be the red-nosed clowns.

Guy Claxton is the author of What’s the Point of School? and the originator of the Building Learning Power approach

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.