“Clearly, the only appropriate response to North Korean aggression is nuclear destruction.”
I rubbed my temples as the fifth student suggested nuclear holocaust as the best response to the latest North Korean action. This was several years ago in my ninth grade world history classroom. We were holding an impromptu pop-up debate on the week's article. Our debate prompt was, “How should the world respond to the North Korea crisis?”
Needless to say, this was not the depth of thinking that I'm after in pop-up debates. I stood up and brought the debate to a close, thanking students for their participation thus far and saying that I'd give more articles in the future to help us understand the crisis at a deeper level.
“Mr. Stuart, is it something we said?” a student asked.
“Well, yes,” I said. “Many of you just recommended a course of action that would end the lives of millions of people whose only crime was being born north of the DMZ and south of the Yalu River.”
I moved the lesson on into different work.
In the weeks that followed, I simply gave my students three more articles — 1 per week — on the same issue. For one or two warm-ups during those weeks, I played short explainer videos about North Korea and had my students freewrite in response. My core curriculum didn't shift during this time — I didn't teach lessons on North Korea or anything like that — but I was glad to answer any questions my students had on the matter, before or after class.
In short, I created simple, efficient knowlege-building opportunities around the complex issues involved in the North Korean situation.
About four weeks after that initial, aborted pop-up debate, I had my students debate the same question: How should the world respond to the North Korean crisis?
This time, even my shyest students participated in the debate before I could call on them, and not a single student suggested that the United States conduct a nuclear strike on the peninsula. There was a clear sense in the room that North Korea is a place where people live, and that the matter is unsolved today precisely because of the complex historical and geopolitical factors. No one in the room was a master on the topic — myself included — but everyone could respect the topic's difficulty and speak intelligently to that effect.
So what happened here? In These 6 Things, I argue that the answer is knowledge-building. As I demonstrate in the book, critical thinking is less a transferrable skill — as we commonly think of it — than it is a fruit of adequate knowledge-building. But this is still very poorly understood by my colleagues around the world. We get stuck on the false notion that critical thinking is a transferrable skill.
For example, let's say you ask me to think critically about the most pressing political issue in Kazakhstan. Today, you would find me a poor critical thinker on the matter; I simply lack the knowledge. After all, off the top of my head right now, I could barely guess at what their most pressing issue is. But if you give me a month to research it, you will find me a markedly improved critical thinker when next we meet. I'll be at least 500% better after a month's research than I would be today.
If critical thinking were primarily a transferrable skill, then this marked improvement wouldn't make sense. After all, I'm 35 years old; surely my capacity for the transferrable thinking skills can't improve 500% in a mere month any more than LeBron James can his basketball skills by 500% in a month.
Critical thinking is not primarily a transferrable skill. It's much more accurate to think of it as a byproduct of knowledge.
Who is the better one to ask a tough question about teaching: first-year Dave or tenth-year Dave? Definitely tenth-year Dave — not because his IQ has improved, but because his capacity for deep, clear, discerning, critical thought within the domain of teaching has improved. Why? Because ten years of engagement with teaching has yielded thousands of hours of additional study. First-year Dave has no chance against tenth-year Dave.
But let's say you get to ask the same two Daves a question about astrophysics. Who's the better one to ask? There I'd say you might as well flip a coin. The tenth-year guy is going to get just as far as the first-year.
I share these things to help us break away from the illogical, unsupported notion that critical thinking is something detachable from robust knowledge-building. We must stop thinking of knowledge-building as a rote and boring thing, and instead start to think of it as an integral part of learning anything.
And the good news is that tomorrow in class, we can teach from this sharpened perspective, seeking to give our students as many opportunities as possible to build knowledge about things in and around our curricula.
Knowledge-building is one of the “six things” that I treat extensively and practically in These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most. To learn more about the book and to purchase your copy, click here.