Peter Gray once said: “ To think critically, people must feel motivated and free to voice their own ideas and raise their own questions. But in school students learn that their own ideas and questions don’t count. What counts are the abilities to provide the “correct” answers to questions that they did not ask and that do not interest them. And “correct” means the answers that the teachers or the test producers are looking for, not necessarily answers that the students really understands or cares about, or really believes are correct, or finds useful in daily life.”
What it means to me
During my elementary-school days, I never remember hearing the term, critical thinking and at the time, I couldn’t say for sure if I was a critical thinker or not. I do know, I was always thinking: thinking about how to make school fun; thinking about how to make someone laugh; thinking about what games I could create for my brothers and I to play. But I’m not sure if it was critical thinking.
In high school, it was the same thing, but I was thinking about how I could get through the day without embarrassing myself, and how I could make someone laugh (probably because I didn’t know the material and I wanted no part of being asked a school question). In college, I was just trying to graduate. I would find any shortcut possible to find the “correct” answer — just to get good grades, and hopefully graduate. During this time, I knew I wasn’t thinking in a critical manner, I was just trying to get out of school as fast as I possibly could.
It wasn’t until I began my second year of teaching that I stumbled upon the term, critical thinking, and I did so, because I was researching ways to help young readers comprehend a text. That’s when I realized, I had been a critical thinker, but only when the topic motivated me or sparked an interest in me. Additionally, it only seemed to occur when there was no fear involved: alone and in thought, with my siblings, or with close friends. Those were the times I could sit with an idea or problem or game, and critical think until I came to an answer I — or siblings or friends — thought was best.
To me, this quote means schools, and the way they operate, have a tendency to take critical thinking away from students. Meanwhile, teachers are trying everything they can to get their students to answer higher-level questions, without even realizing they may be part of the problem by pushing the “right answer” into their brains.
Why I chose this quote
This quote is important to me, because I want my current students — and future students — to think critically. This world seems to be changing at a faster rate each day, and it’s challenging to keep up. But critical thinking seems to be a core value for many jobs in our society, and I want my students to have the ability to analyze and evaluate, instead of just thinking of the one answer to a question.
Like I said before, I did not understand critical thinking until my second year of teaching. The school district I work in is doing very well with mathematics. However, reading is low across every grade-level. The topic has come up constantly: in data meetings, faculty meetings, grade-level meetings—it even comes up in casual conversations. It was getting tiresome. That’s when I began looking for solutions, and that’s when I found critical thinking.
After reading about critical thinking, I began to wonder if it was the missing puzzle piece when it came to comprehension. I mean, let’s face it, the passages students read can be boring and repetitive, and the tasks they have to complete can be even worse: Read this; answer that. No, do it again, but take your time. Well, one can take all the time in the world and still not care about what they’re reading. Yet, at the same time, if students are interested in the reading, they are much more likely to critical think, at least that’s what I’ve observed.
It has been one year of attempts to bring critical thinking into the classroom (specifically for reading), while at the same time, abiding by the curriculum rules at the school. And so far, what I found in my small experiments and observations, seems to relate to a lot of what Gray talks about in this quote. Students who seem to be motivated tend to show more critical thinking; students who are not pressured tend to show more critical thinking; students who feel valued and appreciated tend to show more critical thinking. If this is true, then how do we promote critical thinking in schools, without veering too far away from the curriculum and guidelines set by the school that employed you?
I am continuing to try different strategies to do just that. And this quote (from the book “Free to Learn”) has given me some more ideas to try. Critical thinking is an important tool to have, and my goal is to teach the value of critical thinking to my students.