The great thing about my friend Paul is that he’s opinionated; we don’t always agree with each other but he always requires me to justify my opinions and think for myself. Take the jazz concert we attended the other night; on the way to the bar, his face told me that he thought the music we’d just heard wasn’t to his taste: “It’s all middle with no beginning and end…they’re all playing solos on top of each other…the drummer’s in a world of his own…” I thought it was pretty good and for the next twenty minutes I tried to persuade him so whilst he maintained his well-tuned critique. We both gave a bit of ground, agreed – as we often do – to differ and listened with an open-mind to the second set.
Given that we all live in an information rich age where we can glean anything instantly on our smart phones, surely it behoves us as parents and educators to make sure that our students acquire the ability to exercise healthy skepticism and to think with the kinds of discernment and discrimination characterised by Paul. The problem is, how do we routinely exercise these habits so that they become engrained in the 21st century mind?
It’s clear that we won’t develop these habits in the young by merely challenging them to have your own opinions; we need to do things with them that make these habits second nature.
So what could we do as a matter of course within our lessons and at home to build these habits of mind?
Encourage possibility-thinking or a could-be frame of mind
I have found de Bono’s little book – Po: beyond Yes and No – an invaluable source of ideas for stretching the mind. He advocates that in our age of uncertainty, we need to train ourselves to look for lateral possibilities instead of easy certainties. His possibility doodles – aka Poodles – are particularly impactful. What could this possibly be? Generate 20 possibilities in a minute.
Use True or False activities
From early years until post-16, use increasingly sophisticated statements that require learners to determine whether something is true or not. Be aware that this is not simply binary but that there are three possibilities – True, False and Maybe. These statements can be used to gauge understanding and the security of prior knowledge but they should also be used to enable learners to think about the unexpected – outside the box.
For example, you might start a lesson on Macbeth with the following:
- Without the witches Macbeth would have been a loyal thane
- We are all capable of evil actions to serve our own ends
- Macbeth could be set in the 21st century
- Revenge is sweeter than justice
- One day, Scotland will become independent of the United Kingdom
Routinise I think this because… Where could I go to find out more?…What
questions am I asking myself?
Get young people into the habit of using these simple thinking routine to justify their opinions, delve more deeply and establish an enquiry-based frame of mind. Gradually, have them follow these investigations with a further thinking routine: And my evidence is…
Design a set of cards with random objects or statements on them – shuffle and turn them over in pairs and ask learners to make as many connections as they can, think on their feet, justify the links and respond to challenges from others.
Issue learners with 5cm square cardboard viewing frames along with a visually stimulating picture. Ask them in pairs to frame a picture within the picture that might sum up a certain word like Danger, Peace, Happiness, Hope etc. Now get them to describe their picture out loud for others to gauge exactly where it can be found. This not only stretches their capacities to distil information and listen actively, it also enables them to exercise discernment when accommodating new information.
All of the above are designed to build resourceful learners who are able to capitalise on the plethora of information and experiences available to them and to avoid taking things at face value.
As I read recently in A.C. Grayling’s stimulating little book – The meaning of things:
‘Above all, education involves refining capacities for judgment and evaluation; Heraclitus remarked that learning is only a means to an end, which is understanding – and understanding is the ultimate value in education.’