Teach Them to Think for Themselves

MP900398745How many times have I heard a student ask the question: “So why do I need to study all of this literature? What good is it going to do me?”

Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, it’s important to answer  with something other than “You want to be well-rounded, don’t you?” Or “Everyone should know about Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bronte… .” The list is endless, isn’t it?. I juggled all sorts of answers before coming to one satisfying me as well as most of the students.

I read a story once about Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who was searching for a school for her son, and she asked the advice of a lady who was quite known for a “sort of banality” when it came to advice. The lady told her to “send him somewhere where they will teach him to think for himself.” Mary Shelley retorted, “Oh, my God, teach him rather to think like other people!”

And, you know what? It’s quite beneficial to know what others think. Knowledge of great minds is critical in any setting and should certainly be part of education. However, when you combine that to methods of encouraging students to come to their own conclusions, a major step is taken to accelerate the students ability to develop critical thinking skills beyond simple recall.

In the literature classroom, educators should lead the students in the art of critical thinking. Yes, critical thinking is an art, a process that doesn’t come about haphazardly.

Critical thinking is:

  • the expression of more than ordinary significance
  • a skilled performance of workmanship
  • a craft of studied action

Critical thinking skills are:

  • comprehension (understanding of facts /knowledge)
  • application (transfer of learning)
  • synthesis (assembling, combining and integrating relevant information/manipulation)
  • evaluation (the student’s plausible and significant explanation of integrated knowledge)
  • analysis (recognition of emerging patterns in different aspects of literature)

Getting started:

  • choose literature appropriate for student level
  • assign reading
  • discussion (be as informal as you dare, even sitting on the floor in a circle facing each other; with your guidance, let the students lead in a well-orchestrated fashion: let them hear what other students are thinking while you continually question  why and how they reason as they do; make them prove their reasoning with supporting evidence from the text)
  • follow up (additional material/thoughts not covered)

To me, the key is to allow students to freely express their ideas. Eventually, through the educator’s guidance, students will learn that they can’t be willy-nilly in their discussion. Eventually, all students will learn to value not only their own ideas, but also those of others. They’ll realize that why can’t just be because I think so… .