I’d like to teach the world to think…

The introduction of ‘thinking skills’ in British schools treats educational thought as a learned behaviour. But children are not dogs to be trained.

David Perks

Topics Politics

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From September 2008, pupils starting secondary school in England are going to be taught to think. This begs the question, what have schools been doing up until now? Nevertheless, from now on young people are to be explicitly taught thinking skills. It is tempting to believe that this will result in the opening up of a new world of intellectual possibilities for young minds… but paradoxically, it is more likely to convince teachers and pupils alike that thinking is a conditioned reflex that just needs to be trained.

The promotion of the teaching of thinking skills is not new to education. The UK government has been encouraging the uptake of these ideas in secondary schools, as part of its attempt to drive up standards, for the past five years (1). But now the skills-based approach to learning has taken centre stage with the launch of the new national curriculum for 11- to 14-year-olds. The UK Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) published a ‘framework of personal, learning and thinking skills’. As the QCA says, this will give young people the skills ‘to enter work and adult life as confident and capable individuals’. According to the framework, pupils are to be encouraged to become ‘reflective learners’, ‘creative thinkers’, ‘team workers’, ‘self-managers’, ‘independent enquirers’ and ‘effective participators’. This is the language of management training, not education. Deriving from the government’s obsession with making education relevant to the perceived needs of business and society, the introduction of the explicit teaching of ‘thinking skills’ is a political project.

The new national curriculum presents school education as a series of outcomes (2). Each outcome is explicitly a vision of the type of young people the QCA thinks society needs and wants. The actual subject matter of education only comes as an afterthought, hidden as a set of abbreviations in a minor strap line under ‘statutory expectations’. Clearly, according to the QCA, education is not about the transmission of knowledge. In fact, knowledge either gets in the way of learning transferable skills, or subjects are included only because they allow skills to be developed.

But surely introducing the teaching of thinking skills in the curriculum will improve pupils’ chances of a good education? I beg to differ – for two reasons. First, the attempt to train pupils to think is based on a cognitive model of the human being as a biological machine. The attempt to teach thinking skills implies that thought is a learned behaviour, like a dog learning a trick. Once the trick is learned, apparently it happens automatically and, by definition, needs no further thought. The promotion of thinking skills is an attack on intellectual life, on thought itself.

Secondly, the promise of thinking skills is a hollow one. Even in its own terms, the development of thinking skills is about conditioning individual behaviour. It reduces the scope for creativity, the very thing it aspires to promote. We can’t conjure up good ideas just by sitting down for half an hour and thinking about creating new ideas. The best that the thinking-skills approach has to offer is the illusion that good ideas are already there, just waiting for us to find them. This traps thought in our own heads. Creativity, like thought, is the result of an active engagement with society and with ideas themselves, not the action of a single mind trained inside a classroom environment.

During a recent training day for schoolteachers, I was asked to take part in an exercise based on (3) the approach to problem-solving developed in the book Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono, a well-known British physician, author, inventor and consultant. For this exercise we were given a problem and a card with one of the six hats explained on it. Each hat involves taking a different perspective (not necessarily your own) when discussing the problem at hand. The perspectives ranged from emotional, critical, objective, positive, creative to organisational. By discussing a problem from all these different perspectives, we are meant to arrive at ‘the answer’, if it exists, in a faster, more systematic fashion.

The exercise was trivial, but what struck me was the introduction of de Bono into the classroom. Again, this is explicitly the language of management training rather than education. From this management perspective, knowledge is not considered to be very important. After all, business and management decisions are not made in the pursuit of knowledge – rather they are made in order to develop a position that can be defended and acted on. In the business world, once a decision is taken it must be transparent and accountable. Above all, decisions must be taken positively and leave no room for criticism. That is fine for management circles – but it is the very antithesis of the intellectual pursuit of knowledge, which must be more open-ended, more falsifiable, more open to continuing debate and development. De Bono made his name in the field of management consultancy – and what does that have to do with education?

De Bono himself is explicit about his suspicion of intellectualism. He says: ‘A true intellectual has as deep a fear of simplicity as a farmer has of droughts.’ (4) His approach is the solution of problems in simple terms in the here and now. His approach is completely divorced from the intellectual tradition of human thought. In fact, argument and criticism – the tools of philosophers and thinkers in any serious field of knowledge – are to be dispensed with in the de Bono outlook, since they apparently lead to a ‘dangerous arrogance’. Instead, de Bono wants us to focus on positive, creative thinking and, as he calls it, ‘operacy’. By ‘operacy’, he means ‘the skills of doing’. He warns us: ‘On a personal level, youngsters who do not acquire the skills of operacy will need to remain in an academic setting.’

It is no surprise, then, that de Bono is a fervent critic of school-based education. His books on education stress that his methods and not formal academic education are the real key to success. As he says in Teach Your Child How To Think, ‘Do not wait for school to do it. Where is “thinking” in the curriculum?’ (5) He will be pleased to see that thinking is now included in the new national curriculum, and it’s the kind of thinking he will approve of – a pared-down, simplistic view of thinking as a means to solving problems and ‘being creative’. In other words: anti-intellectual thinking.

Why are explicitly anti-intellectual thinkers like de Bono being included in school-training exercises and the development of the new curriculum? Why is thinking being taught as a skill separate and distinct from the pursuit of knowledge and education more broadly? These are worrying developments indeed, which are likely further to corrode excellence and ambition in British schools, and churn out children who are ‘skilled’ but not very thoughtful or truly reflective. The paradox is that now, when we have all become obsessed with education, formal education is being torn down brick by brick. Learning about the intellectual tradition from which this society emerged is the best way to give young people a sense of where and who they are. This in turn will give them the basis upon which to struggle for a better society. No amount of empty-headed ‘brainstorming’ sessions is going to bring about those kinds of ideas.

David Perks is head of physics, Graveney School. He is the co-author of What is Science Education For?. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

David Perks attacked the funding cuts to the physical sciences and asserted that there is more to scientific endeavour than meeting confused government targets. In his review of The Corruption of the Curriculum, Dolan Cummings said New Labour’s education policy is all about intrusion. Dennis Hayes asked if students wanted relish with that A-Level. spiked asked key thinkers in science, technology and medicine ‘what inspired you to take up science?’ Or read more at spiked issue Science and technology.

(1) Key Stage 3 National Strategy Key messages about teaching thinking, DfES 2003

(2) A big picture of the curriculum, QCA, 2007

(3) Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono, Penguin Books, 2000

(4) Teach your child how to think, Edward de Bono, Penguin books, 1993

(5) Teach your child how to think, Edward de Bono, Penguin books, 1993

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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