Can We Still Think? Do We Still Need To?

A recent commentator has opened discussion on the didactic ambitions of the UK educational system, claiming “something is rotten in the state of education today”.

The article in question, quite rightly, pointed out the shift in motive of the UK educational system from teaching people to think to teaching people to know. The article points out specific instances of students failing questions or even whole essays due to not jumping through the requisite hoops in the mark scheme. This is obviously a horrible corruption of the skills-based learning structure now in vogue with most Western governments, and is the bane of many creative students.

The point of the article, in this author’s opinion, is to shed light on an important question in education: are we teaching people to be excellent regurgitators rather than self-inquiring thinkers, and is that a bad thing? The mentioned article, gently perhaps, commits to yes on both counts.

It is hard to deny the first yes.   

The shift from a very wide, very shallow education to a very focused one has been happening for centuries. In the time of the ancient Greeks, education was seen as the business of teaching people how to think. This was a completely separate venture to learning specific ideas. If you want to know how to calculate how many days your sea-voyage will take (and so need to know time = distance / speed) you don’t require a teacher, you need a sailor. Want to know how to question things in a rigorous method? That’s your teacher: your lover of wisdom (your sophist).

Fast forward to the Renaissance where we have polymaths springing up like baby rabbits in spring. As long as you had the fire for thought, all disciplines were open to you. Even as recently as the 1980s, education was much more about how to formulate ideas, how to argue concepts, how to dissect information than it is now. Currently, there is very little of this sort of teaching. It has been replaced with an objective to know certain, specific things in a certain way.

The second yes is a little trickier.

Ask someone who was at university in the 1980s whether it is better to learn in the current fashion (hyper focused on developing skills and knowledge) or the old way (more general thinking and understanding) and they may say the latter. But, ask someone from the 1680s whether it is better to learn the 20th century way (more general thinking and understanding) or the 17th century way (completely open-minded thinking understanding) and they may also commit to the ideals of their own era.

My examples were not chosen at random. Whilst moving from the Ancient Greeks to the 17th century to the 1980s to now represents non-linear intervals of time, it represents a linear order of accumulative knowledge. The difference in availability of information we have about the universe in each of these four times can only be understood in orders of magnitude. And each style of teaching and learning suits the time it inhabits.

In the 1980s, for a bright, ambitious person it was essential to be able to know how to ‘think for themselves’ (this phrase is used with reluctance). Information was tricky to acquire, so you had to be able to contemplate logically and soundly on your own two feet. The game, however, has changed.

First the internet, and then Google, has revolutionised how people access information. For the first time in history, knowing something about the world is not that hard. So what is there to teach? Is it important to teach a child how to do long division if they have a calculator on their phone? It is important to teach a student to think about the English language when they have a dictionary at the touch of a button?

Not only has the information explosion changed how easy it is to know something, it has also grossly enlarged what we know. In five minutes I can read about the evidence for a supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, or how the inner workings of mitochondria suggest it may have been an independent organism, or how a new propulsion system relies on matter constantly blinking in an out of existence.

It used to be preferable to know a little bit of everything, or even better, to know how to think about any given subject. But now there is just too much to know. If you can think well enough to be able to draw some interesting conclusions about birds and dinosaurs, a 10 year old with an iPhone can know more than you in 30 seconds.

So, what is the pedagogical reaction? If the aim of the education system has been about giving learners the tools to know the most they can about the universe, what impact can a school or university have against Google? Intelligent readers at this point may say “well there you are! If a school is no longer for teaching facts, surely all the remains is to teach how to think. Dispense with mark schemes and keywords and let’s concentrate purely on the process – education for education’s sake”.

That would be the ideal. We would have people leave school or university with the how supplied by the school and the what supplied by the internet. The problem, for me, arrives when they start their jobs and they find that actually having an open and rounded mind is terrible for modern researching. You need to be able to dig deep into a subject and bring back as much information as possible to give to your boss, board, or client.

Like ‘Mad Men’ style advertising has given way to room of nerdy graduates discussing CPC budget, so has the chaos of the Wall Street trading floor been replaced by flash-trading conducted, not by investment bankers, but by computer programmers. Gone are the days of a savvy general leading the troops – probabilistic algorithms determine army movements, and everyone knows who won between Deep Blue and Kasparov. Information is the new black.

Schools have the responsibility to provide people with the skills they need to succeed in adult life. In the 80s this meant a probing, thought based curriculum; now it means a skills-based, focused curriculum. Both were right in their time.

It is tempting to lament the fall of the ‘ideas man’ and the brand of rounded, searching education of 30 years ago. But the cold truth, easier for those of this generation to accept than the previous, is that it’s just not relevant anymore. If you don’t need the ability to know how to think, why have it? Is not knowing how to think inherently, necessarily a bad thing or is it only bad in its own context? Yes, the ability to think as an end in itself may be lost, but what might be gained? The ability to access any and all information the world has to offer in the blink of an eye? It is certainly a choice worth considering. 

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