Learning to Think

There is no shortage of critics bemoaning the mediocre performance to the US education system, offering a variety of structural reforms to curb the problem (see here, here, and here). These reforms take many forms such as improving incentives for teachers, charter schools, ending the age segregation of students, modifying grading systems, and reevaluating the underlying philosophy of teaching. As someone who believes that education (and the development of young people in general) is one of the fundamental elements to building a strong society, I fully support ideas like these. That said, I am also skeptical of the ability to create structural change of large, complex, and entrenched systems like the one in the United States.

Now for a quick story. Not long after I completed my post-secondary education I spent some time reflecting on the whole process and what I had learned. What smacked me in the face was not in regards to what I learned...but instead, what I didn’t. I learned a lot about what to think, but never how to think. I never had to take a class on philosophy, memory techniques, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, or logic. Maybe even worse I never learned how to defend myself against bad ideas and contagious thoughts. Where were the classes on cognitive biases, rhetoric, technology’s influence on the brain, and the subversion of our minds through advertising?

WHAT THE HELL!? How was I never told any of this? How was none of this considered relevant or important to my education? This insight served as a spring board for my own self-education that has carried on for years now. I been absorbing all the books, videos, podcasts, and techniques that can find. I’d like to imagine that I am a better thinker as a result and yet still a far cry from where I want to be.

Circling back to where this musing started...barring a systemic change in our education system (which may take years or decades) I think we need to focus on the more salient goal of making changes to our current curriculum. Namely we need to be teaching students how to think. Or maybe if that sounds a bit Orwellian, teaching them how to learn. This shouldn’t require wholesale reform legislation or demolition of teacher unions or a restructuring of public funding, merely a change in curriculum.

Giving students the tools they need to learn, rather than the thoughts they need to think seems to be an achievable goal that everyone can agree on. Maybe implementing such a change will allow the next generation to be better positioned to figure out how to reform the system overall.