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IN THE CANDID CORNER – Thinking teachers

Matthew Farley

IN THE CANDID CORNER – Thinking teachers

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Any subject – be it physics, art, or auto repair – can promote critical thinking as long as teachers teach in intellectually challenging ways.” – Nel Noddings
Every year during October, teachers across Barbados meet to focus on themselves as professionals.
Indeed, every profession needs time for reflection, time for introspection, time for renewal and time to re-engage and refurbish their mental fibres. For essentially, teaching and learning are the flip sides of the same cognitive experience.
The critical task and function of the teacher revolve around teaching their students to think.
But the question that is often asked is this: isn’t thinking an innate cognitive skill with which we are born? Isn’t there a sense in which our mental faculties are in perpetual engagement from birth until death?
Much of the literature speaks about critical thinking defined as the sort of mental activity that uses facts to plan, order and work toward an end; seeks meaning or an explanation; is self-reflective and uses reason to question claims and make judgments.
It is said that any subject – be it physics, algebra or auto repair – can promote critical thinking as long as teachers teach the subject matter in intellectually challenging ways. – Educational Leadership, February 2008, Volume 65, No 5.
The vast majority of students will go to work in the service world, where high-level thinking is increasingly required. Teachers can motivate students as thinkers through inquiry learning and by modelling for students their own thinking processes. Rather than focus on covering large amounts of material that students will soon forget, schools should help students acquire intellectual habits of the mind associated with thinking, thereby creating lifelong learners.
Implicit in this thesis therefore is the need to discipline the mind to think in particular ways. Veronica Boix Mancilla and Howard Garner of Multiple Intelligences fame speak about students needing more than a large information base to understand their ever-changing world. I strongly concur with their view that what students need is not large bales of information but the ability to master disciplinary thinking. In sharp contrast with teaching subject matter, an alternative perspective emphasizes teaching disciplines and disciplinary thinking.
Given our preoccupation with learning by rote and regurgitating for certification, I join the researchers’ call for a fundamental shift in the way in which the curriculum is conceived. They conclude that preparing students to understand the world in which they live today and to brace themselves for the future entails a necessary transformation.
It is in this sense that the teacher himself cannot teach his students to think if he himself is a non-thinker. While I laud the competence and skill of many teachers with whom I have interfaced, there is a sense that many of our students fail to emerge as thinkers because some teachers seem lacking in the capacity to think themselves.
In addition to this, they have a warped understanding of their role in the classroom. If I were a student in today’s classrooms, with all the access to the myriads avenues of information, I would respectfully challenge such teachers to think.
When I was a student of Erdiston Teachers’ College, one of my tutors in education used to say: “If the students have not learnt, the teacher has not taught.”
Mark Hill, who spoke to staff at the Garrison Secondary School, charged among other things that schools should not produce students but should produce scientists, inventors.
My concern is that if as teachers our mental fibres are clogged up, how can we meaningfully engage our students to be thinkers of the kind of which he spoke?
I heard him ask: “How can we teach students to specialize in thinking when we ourselves fail to sweat our mental capacities?”
The classroom should be nothing short of a laboratory of cognition in which both teachers and students are constantly confronting thinking in diverse ways, from many different perspectives.
Schools should be alive with the clash of ideas as students challenge the status quo of thought and explore new ways of perceiving the world and solving its problems.
Arthur Costa’s notion of the thought-filled curriculum is worth considering. As he sees it, the curriculum should encourage deep skilful thought, learning to think, thinking to learn, thinking together, thinking about our own cognition and thinking big. – The Thought-Filled Curriculum by Arthur L. Costa.
As he puts it, “teachers need to continually examine and evaluate their curricular choices to be certain they are giving students practice in thinking with depth; engaging students in authentic, relevant activities that will stimulate deep thinking about content; showing students how to study their own thinking; guiding learners in thinking within groups; and promoting ‘thinking big’ in terms of applying deep, creative thinking to world situations and problems”.
In conclusion, today’s teachers have little option, if they are to produce the scientists and inventors who can impact the world.
The bottom line is that they themselves must be thinking teachers who think about thinking themselves and that it could be taught. That is the challenge to which we as teachers must rise valiantly. 
Matthew D. Farley is a secondary school principal, chairman on the National Forum On Education, and social commentator. Email [email protected]