Documentary Examines Schools That Emphasize Critical Thinking

By Mark Walsh — October 18, 2017 2 min read
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Here’s a thought: What if there were more critical thinking in our schools?

“Re: Thinking,” a new documentary, spends time at several public schools that are said to be teaching students how to think, as opposed to what to think.

A school administrator explains early in the hourlong film that young children are naturally curious and teach themselves to walk and talk.

“Over those first few years of life, everything they learn is based on the fact that they want to learn it,” the educator says. “And all of that seems to come to a screeching halt when they get into formal education.”

The film by Deborah C. Hoard and Rachel Ferro is set to have a premiere in Washington on Wednesday, with the requisite panel discussion by some of the educators who appear in the film, as well as a representative from the U.S. Department of Education. The film is going to be available for free online from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2 at www.rethinkingmovie.com.

The documentary does not spend a lot of time laying out criticisms of overly rigid educational practices, although there seems to be plenty the filmmakers could have pointed to, from schools that focus too much on teaching to the test to charter schools with inflexible behavioral rules. (Writer Scott Santens had a recent commentary in Education Week on the topic of teaching critical thinking.)

The three schools featured in “Re:Thinking” seem to be on the progressive side. The film says the three embrace “a culture that values thinking over memorizing information” while still meeting state standards.

The three are Green Hills School, a K-8 school in the Green Township school district in New Jersey; the Bard High School Early College program in Long Island City, Queens, a partner with the New York City school system; and the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, N.Y.

Derek Cabrera, a cognitive scientist at Cornell University, explains four fundamental patterns of thinking: distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives. (The film is based on the work of Cabrera and his wife, Laura Cabrera, the founders of the Cabrera Research Lab at Cornell.)

The goal of teaching thinking “is to produce a citizenry capable of thinking critically and thoughtfully and prepared for the rest of their lives,” one educator says in the film.

There are quite a few talking heads, but this short documentary succeeds in showing aspects of this theory in action at the three schools.

At the Lehman Alternative school, we see students engaged in exercises designed to teach the them to view some hot-button international issues from the perspectives of various stakeholders, including terrorist groups.

At the Bard High School program, educators are implementing the Common Core State Standards while also trying to keep the focus on thinking skills.

“Straddling both worlds is what we’re doing now,” a teacher there says.

At one of the other schools, a student tells his classmates he’s reading the Dale Carnegie classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.

“It says that 85 percent of your job is based on how well you work with people, and the other 15 percent is your knowledge,” the student says.

“Re:Thinking” seems designed to foster a conversation about teaching methods and how critical thinking can be incorporated in different kinds of schools facing different organizational and accountability pressures.

Consider the conversation started.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.