Status anxiety

Sorry, Rayhan Uddin, but your comprehensive didn’t teach you how to think

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

31 August 2013

9:00 AM

An acquaintance of mine called Daisy Christodoulou has just published a book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a merciless demolition of the received wisdom of the educational establishment, such as the view that there’s no point in asking children to memorise anything, because they can look it up on Google. I’m a huge fan, not least because she combines a conservative attitude towards education with a socially progressive outlook. As I’ve often argued, those two positions are complementary rather than incompatible.

One of the myths she touches upon is the idea that the progressive education endorsed by the left teaches children how to think for themselves, whereas the knowledge-based education favoured by nasty Mr Gove produces mindless conformists who do not challenge the status quo. Opponents of the coalition’s education reforms often claim that this is the secret motive of the Education Secretary, the idea being that unthinking automatons are more likely to vote Conservative.

There was a good example of this nonsense in the Guardian last week. Rayhan Uddin, a 19-year-old student at the LSE, did his GCSEs at a comprehensive and then A-levels at a grammar school. He wrote a piece attacking grammar schools for favouring ‘rote learning’ and praising comprehensives for teaching children how ‘to think outside the box’. He blamed this state of affairs on the lack of ‘socio-economic diversity’ at grammar schools, something that was brought home to him when discussing unemployment benefits in his politics A-level class. ‘I was suddenly propelled into the role of standalone lefty,’ he wrote. He concluded grammars only teach children how to do well in exams, whereas comprehensives teach them to think on their feet and ‘engage with people from different backgrounds’.


Now, the obvious question is: if his comprehensive was so marvellous, why did he choose to go on to a grammar school? Presumably, this was an act of unthinking conformism, which is weird considering his comp had taught him ‘to think outside the box’. Weirder still, he only seems to have picked up this skill — what lefties call ‘critical’ or ‘higher order’ thinking — since going to the grammar school. Hence his laser-like ability to see through Tory propaganda about benefit scroungers.

But the broader point is that he hasn’t, in fact, learnt to think critically at all. When it comes to the prevailing orthodoxies of the Blob (Gove’s word for the educational establishment), Uddin has accepted them all without a murmur of dissent. You might even say he’s learnt them by rote. He criticises grammars for teaching children how to regurgitate facts, yet in making this very point he is regurgitating left-wing dogma. What Uddin and others mean by ‘learning to think’ is its exact opposite. Like hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren up and down the country, he has been programmed to vote Labour. He is the automaton, not the brave souls at his grammar who dare to voice their scepticism about the culture of welfare dependency.

On the face of it, this is a paradox. People like Uddin claim they’ve been taught critical thinking skills, and yet they all think the same way. The explanation is that their teachers have been extremely selective about what they’ve encouraged them to think critically about. For instance, they’ll be experts at ‘deconstructing’ the case being made by David Cameron and others for military intervention in Syria, but all at sea if asked to criticise the policy of appeasing genocidal dictators.

In general, any opinion regarded as vaguely right-wing is subjected to forensic scrutiny, whereas left-wing ideas go completely unexamined. If challenged about this, defenders of ‘critical thinking’ will explain that conservatives base their ideas on a false picture of the world (we’re ‘lacking immensely in some sort of societal context or perspective’, according to Uddin), while lefties are in touch with reality. Consequently, there’s no contradiction between being an ‘independent’ thinker and regurgitating what your left-wing teachers tell you.

Unadulterated balls, obviously, but a myth that goes unchallenged in most comps. I’m all for teaching children ‘to think outside the box’, though if they use that phrase you can be certain you’re not succeeding. But as Daisy Christodoulou points out, you can’t begin to think analytically about the world until you’ve acquired some basic knowledge of it. The facts Uddin was forced to learn by rote at his grammar school haven’t impaired his ability to think; but the ‘critical thinking’ skills he learned at his comprehensive have turned him into a left-wing drone.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • Michael Fordham

    A development of this critique would be to argue that learning to ‘think’ happens within the boundaries of a subject domain – one does not learn to think, but learns to think ‘scientifically’, ‘historically’ or ‘musically’. Of course, learning to think historically (for example) depends on knowing lots about history – one cannot explain the causes of the English Civil War without knowing lots about what happened in Britain in the first half of the 17th century. In pretty much every history lesson I’ve seen those two things (knowing stuff and thinking about it historically) happen iteratively – learn a bit, structure it in some way, add more information, modify the structure, find out more, write an essay, etc. I don’t think Gove wants fact-regurgitating automatons – that, presumably, is why there is so much reference to domain-specific thinking in his new National Curriculum!

  • Barry Naylor

    Having read this article I would comment that it is good that education is not delivered by journalists rather than teachers.

    As you say, Daisy C is an acquiantance and this perhaps explains the fact that your evaluation of the book was almost hysterical in it’s misguided support. Indeed, the first comment here is from M Fordham who provided a more sensible and balanced evaluation of Daisy C’s book.

    I read Mr Uddin’s article and I thought it was preety reasonable given his age and experience.

    “Like hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren up and down the country, he
    has been programmed to vote Labour. He is the automaton, not the brave
    souls at his grammar who dare to voice their scepticism about the
    culture of welfare dependency.”

    This again sounds a little hysterical, conflasting a number of issues and showing little reflection or indeed ability to think critically.

    You show a lack of understanding of the science of learning, and even Dan Willingham admits that critical thinking can be taught although it is very difficult and probably often not possible unless on a domain specific manner. He also says that teachers of critical thinking are often misguided about how this might be achieved.

    “But as Daisy Christodoulou points out, you can’t begin to think
    analytically about the world until you’ve acquired some basic knowledge
    of it.”

    There ya go. A blindingly obvious reflection to anybody and everybody…..what you mean that people can’t think about cats unless they know what a cat is. Wow I would never have thought of that.

    “The facts Uddin was forced to learn by rote at his grammar school
    haven’t impaired his ability to think; but the ‘critical thinking’
    skills he learned at his comprehensive have turned him into a left-wing
    drone.”

    You are correct. But the fact that he was forced to learn facts by rote did indeed mean that time that should have been spent practising some critical thinking skills was spent on more and more facts. So the facts haven’t impaired his ability to think per se but emphasising facts at the expense of thinking skills has.

    And a little secret I have to let you in on. Not everyone who feels that fewer facts and more critical thinking is a left wing drone.

    I suggest you spend less time twittering with your Echo Chambers pals (acquaintences) about these things and focus on issues that are less important. An Alf Garnett approach to education is probbaly not what is needed.

  • kungfuhobbit

    “How to think, not what to think”

    Some people are careful to note that critical thinking isn’t anything negative or mean and that there is no predisposition to finding flaws. This is nonsense.

    A strong part of it is subjecting ideas to focused and savage criticism.
    Criticism gets a bad press. Criticism is constructive; nothing ever improves or evolves without criticism.

    The Ten Commandments of Good Thinking:

    1. Always be able to change your mind.

    On anything.

    2. Seek out criticism and counterarguments to your views.

    Subject your beliefs to vicious and relentless attack.

    Be curious how you might be wrong – there may be something you haven’t thought of.

    3. Strength of opinion should be proportional to your investigation and understanding of its criticisms, counterarguments and alternatives.

    Mild unless you consider yourself an expert.

    Especially beware certainty.

    4. Doubt everything. Challenge. Criticise.

    Question what you are told. Ask ‘why?’ Demand evidence.

    5. Go to the primary source.

    To avoid second-hand distortions. Use language precisely.

    6. Beware being emotionally infused with and attached to an idea.

    For meaning, purpose, identity, pride, self-worth or in-group belonging.

    Cultism and attachment make it harder to change your mind in the face of reason.

    7. Beware knee-jerk reactions and opinion formations.

    Be thorough, hesitant and deliberative.

    Analyse soberly with thought and reason over gut feeling.

    8. Beware logical fallacies.

    Particularly the trinity of appeal to tradition, authority and popularity.

    9. Beware cognitive biases.

    Particularly reasoning under uncertainty, groupthink and in-group/out-group tribalism.

    The hardest test is resistance to conformity with the prevailing opinion in one’s own in-group.

    10. Details matter.

    Appreciate context, complexity and nuance.
    from http://www.kungfuhobbit.com/2012/06/good-thinking.html

    • msmischief

      if they are the universally commanded rules — try applying them to the rules themselves.

  • Jeremy Fletcher

    Oh heavens he’s only 19. Everybody’s allowed to think and talk twaddle at that age – he’ll grow out of it

    • msmischief

      When it is presented as a contribution to the public discourse, that is how it gets judged. 19-year-olds who want to be judged as not-fully-developed writers stick to contexts where they will be so judged.

      • Jeremy Fletcher

        Ah but they have the judgement of 19 year-olds and so know not how they should be judged.

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