Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking -- Part 3: No Right or Wrong Way of Teaching

Some Suggestions for Teaching Critical Thinking

Since this series is intended for teachers, I'd like to discuss a number of suggestions for those who might want to teach their courses more critically. You simply begin without fanfare by quietly working up a few lessons, which gradually become a small repertoire, which ultimately becomes the only way you know how to teach.

There will be successes and failures, and there will also be some question marks about how it all went, which is very normal when you're breaking new ground. The important thing is a willingness to try, and if you make a mistake, to make it gracefully, and just carry on.

What's even more important is the ability to forgive yourself if things don't have their desired effect. It's all part of the process of learning one's craft and wanting to grow as a teacher. We're all works-in-progress, still growing, still learning, and still making mistakes, which is as it should be.

The secret is, as with everything else in life, being comfortable with yourself as a person. You should naturally be well-read in your subject and adventurous enough to identify with all points of view. Work out the arguments and counterarguments, the strengths and weaknesses of the idea or theory, and be able to argue both for and against it.

If you find you have a bias toward the idea you're presenting, never reveal it even by your manner lest you destroy the very thing you're trying to do - encouraging students to think for themselves. There's more to it, naturally, but once you begin, everything falls into place, and you'll never view teaching the same way again.

What some teachers don't realize is that it's not only their subjects they're teaching, but also themselves: what kind of person they are; whether they're in love with their subject; whether they want the best for their students and will help them if needed; and whether they're fair.

If, on the other hand, students see them as being afraid of presenting more than one viewpoint; beng closed to every idea except their own, and teach with a bunker mentality - this is the lesson students will learn, and they will have lost the class forever.

It's also important to realize that there is no right or wrong way to teach critical thinking, or anything else for that matter. Every teacher has his or her own style, which reflects his or her own personality. It's the right way for you if it reflects who you are, and your students are learning. All that matters is that you know your subject thoroughly, and can convey it in ways that will interest your students. Everything else is unimportant.

Since there are many right ways of teaching a course, what I'll be suggesting is only the way that worked for me. These suggestions may not work for everyone, but if you do find something you might want to try, I would urge you to do so and see if it works for you.

English Teachers

How does this play out in English and the social sciences? English teachers are usually very flexible in teaching literature to begin with and rarely have a "one-truth" theory about anything. They listen to students and accept all points of view, being conversant with several interpretations that make the work come alive for students, who tend to read existentially, hoping for an author who will speak to them personally. They are imaginative and brimming with insights, which teachers encourage, even when they reflect contradictory readings of a text, as befits our ambiguous and dissonant times.

A teacher fosters the individualism, independence, and personal vision of students (see here, here, here, and here), the DNA of the young as they search for their own meaning and purpose. Teachers also understand that authors may sometimes be the last persons who can interpret their works in a way that will make sense to students and which helps them to grow. So they'll work within each student's understanding, so that the student can make that novel his or her own. It's this accepting attitude that makes all the difference in the world to students. Teachers are validators, helping students to believe in themselves and to trust their own judgment.

Teachers also want to promote class discussions that stimulate thinking at its most creative and critical by having students listen to other meanings about the story; about what may be going on within the characters and what they may be saying outright or between the lines; whether they're using language to reveal or conceal their true thoughts and feelings, wanting acceptance or courting rejection; and whether students agree or disagree with what's being said or insinuated.

Do students think that the author is gently mocking the narrator's perception of what's going on, and expects the reader to pick up on what may be the shallow, naïve, or wrongheaded viewpoint of this narrator, who may be misunderstanding, misrepresenting, or rationalizing what is happening?

Is the story more about this unreliable narrator than the story itself? And, dare I say it, about those readers who might be uncritically accepting at face value this skewed point of view? And, if so, what a delightful way of acquiring the art of worldly wisdom in learning to "read" people and their self-serving obfuscations about what they are doing on this great stage of life!

Teachers are connoisseurs of subjectivity, encouraging students not to be literal-minded, but open to a wealth of meanings, so that they can identify with all kinds of characters, motivations, and perceptions of what is happening and of what it all means, not to judge but to understand them and to savor the protean nature of that profoundest of mysteries, the human heart.

Others might want to judge the work as too severe or too lenient, too judgmental or too forgiving of what is happening, or why it is happening, or wish to take exception with the author's understanding of the characters, or how these characters might have told their own story, which their creator garbled, and how, given their freedom, they would have made their own fate.

There are also students who form relationships with various characters and, far from judging these characters, have them judge them, the readers, asking them, the characters, for insight and counsel. As they get to know these characters better, they might even reciprocate, venturing suggestions and insights that might have helped these characters to have coped with their circumstances.

These are but some of the ways of relating to literature, where these fictional worlds can become more stirring, real, and alive than other fictions that pass for "reality" in a workaday world that proves "stale, flat, and unprofitable." There are different ways of finding salvation in this world, and the art of reading literature creatively is only one such way that may enable some to breathe more amply within their story and find inspiration.

Social Science Teachers

Veteran teachers in the social sciences marinate for years in an ocean of theories that make up their field. This is only natural for those who have given their lives to teaching, have advanced degrees, and continually read. Younger teachers are at various stages of their professional growth, taking graduate courses, completing their master's, or progressing with their reading as they warm to their subject and the art of teaching.

All of them constantly mull over their courses in devising ways of teaching more interestingly. Teaching history, for instance, is not just teaching history, but teaching teenagers history, and therein lies a distinction of transcendent importance, as well as the challenge of presenting the past in ways that students will want to learn it.

If the study of history were but a matter of teaching the who-what-when-and-where questions, it would be very easy - and very boring. What makes it interesting, however, are the how-and-why-questions, or judgment calls like "who was right and who was wrong?" or "did the good guys or the bad guys win?" Or who beat Napoleon at Waterloo - the British under Wellington or the Prussians under von Blücher? It requires little imagination to guess what answer you'll get in Berlin or London. Or why did Rome fall? There are dozens of theories. How about the Mexican-American War? Why did it really happen, or which side was right? Was it Manifest Destiny or land grabbing? Or the American Civil War, did the good guys . . . . No, I better not go there.

But is history, then, nothing but national or regional propaganda? "Of course not! Propaganda's what they do; what we do is truth!" That's one theory. Another is, "Let's look at the evidence and see what we find." Then there's, "We don't have time for this nonsense. Just teach them what they taught us in the good old days, and have done with it!" And so it goes.

This is why history's so boring to students - they're taught only one theory! Not to mention that if you teach only one view or one side of a question, you're brainwashing students, "but never mind that because whether you're coming at them from the Left, Right, or Center, it's all propaganda!" That's another theory.

This is why many social science teachers prefer "teaching the controversy," or presenting all sides of the question, fairly, without taking sides, but having the students decide for themselves. Teachers like this approach because it gets students thinking and wondering which theory's right. It also creates excitement because drama brings ideas to life, and all sides get a fair hearing, which is what students love - not censoring anyone, but letting everyone come to the mic.

Some people call this "democracy." Others call it "getting an education" by having to listen to ideas you may not agree with, that take you out of your comfort zone, and challenge you to be open-minded enough not to agree with the other side, but at least to give it the right to be heard, unless you're so unsure of yourself that you're frightened to do so! It's being tolerant not about the things that don't really matter, but about the important things you'd die for! Now, that's a class act! "Teaching the controversy" and letting the chips fall where they may.

Teachers also like this approach because it prepares students for college by getting them used to dealing with controversies and not losing their cool. In too many high schools students who lack this training in critical thinking are so overwhelmed by having to do it in college that they're in shock and leave, or spend precious time (and money) in remedial courses learning what should have been learned in high school.

If, on the other hand, all sides of the questions were taught in every high school, teaching the social sciences would revolutionize America! Can you imagine what would happen in this country if high schools were really allowed to teach critical thinking to their students? Now that would be real educational reform with a vengeance. But, alas, I do but dream. To see why much of this is today not allowed, as well as the remedies that would allow it if there were a public outcry, see here, here, and here.