Chronicle of the Month – May 2007

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Respect, Reason and Critical Thinking for the Modern Classroom
By Gordon Vanstone

Gordon Vanstone

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
(Paulo Freire)

We exist in a ‘Global Village’ and that village is getting smaller and smaller each and everyday as technology, politics and economy reduce the space between us and increase the interconnectedness of divergent lands all across the globe. Does the teaching of the Three R’s (reading, ’riting (writing), and ’rithmetic (arithmetic)), long the basic elements of school curriculums; adequately prepare students for active and productive participation in this ‘Global Village’? While I don’t want to belittle or minimize the importance of these basic skills in education, perhaps an alternative set of another 3 R’s such as respect, reason, and critical thinking are just as important, and need to be at the forefront of skills to be prized and fostered in today’s modern classroom. Today’s classroom should be one where students are encouraged to share opinions and others are encouraged to critique or expand upon those views. Where knowledge is not something concrete to be ingested but is fluid something to be tossed around and molded in a democratic environment that prizes reason, respect, and the pursuit of justice.

In the traditional classroom students were seen as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge by the teacher. The students were not active participants in the creation of knowledge, yet were expected to passively accept the information passed down to them by their teachers. While this method may be useful in giving students a vast amount of information that they are able to regurgitate when asked such as names, dates, and formulas, the question to ask is; how will this knowledge benefit the individual and society at large? It won’t unless critical thinking is fostered alongside the acquisition of knowledge. In the fostering of reason and critical thought the traditional student teacher relationship where the teacher imparts knowledge on the student does not work, what we need instead is an environment where the teacher works with the students in the mutual creation of knowledge. In such a classroom knowledge is something to be played with, questioned, individualized, and applied to initiate positive change. The teacher is not above the student but is as much a learner as the student and the student as much a teacher as the teacher.

Teaching adult ESL classes has allowed me to see how valuable a democratic classroom model is. Students from various countries bring into the educational environment unique perspectives, experiences, and beliefs. When asked to share an opinion or experience some students who were educated in a more traditional environment are a bit reticent they are surprised and confused that their individualized point of view is of importance, they expect the teacher to tell them what their view is. Yet usually after some students model the process of espousing their own opinion, the more reticent give it a try and one sees a sense of empowerment arise as the student understands that their beliefs are prized and of great use to the collective effort of building greater understanding. From here what we see is a mixture of respect and intrigue as students encounter views and experiences which divert or conflict with their own experience, individual stances are challenged and shifted as we all proceed as equal partners on the journey of knowledge. And as a teacher in such a learning environment I feel I have come out of many a class having learned more than my students.

Some may argue, ‘this may works for adults, but children must be told what to think.’ In teaching at an international Kindergarten for two years I saw some wonderful examples of children involved in the democratic construction of knowledge. I would watch my students of 5 and 6 years old create rules to the games they made up by exchanging view points and working together to discover those which would allow the game to function properly while ensuring the fairest treatment to all participants. These observations, which happened almost daily, gave me the understanding that democratic creation of knowledge, social justice and reason are innate aspects of our being and that it is the structures of society (education/schools) that can operate to oppress these innate dispositions. A child’s play is able to teach us so much of what we have lost through our years and of what remains of the utmost importance today.
In dealing with the complex interconnectedness of today’s modern world, developing global citizens who are able to manipulate and apply knowledge for the greater good and positive change is of the utmost importance. This cannot be done by a teacher filling students with a set of knowledge. Instead our classrooms need to concentrate on encouraging our natural dispositions toward individualized thought, the critical processing of knowledge, and application of knowledge with humanitarian aims, to flourish. Students should be provided with environments where their understandings and experiences are valued and used as the meat of our classroom experiences.

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