Guy Claxton makes a plea for ANDs not ORs in our current educational debates
If you think about thinking you’ll soon see there are two sorts, which I’ll call true thinking (TT) and pseudo-thinking (PT). PT is a skilful attempt to justify held positions. You decide what is right, and then you deploy all the rhetorical wiles at your disposal to justify it. It is usually binary: having decided what is Right (or Intelligent or Good), you thereby define what is Wrong (or Stupid or Evil) and do whatever you can to rebut and rubbish that. It’s Us vs. Them. It is the kind of thinking that lawyers, politicians and columnists are expert at. Virtually all contributions to the EU referendum debate are of this sort: role models of more or less unscrupulous sophistry and oversimplification. Never mind the battle for the US presidency. Any kind of distortions, misrepresentations and playground abuse are legitimate in PT because the goal is to win the argument. Pseudo-thinking is the servant of opinion. It hardly deserves the name of ‘thinking’ at all. It is dangerous because it leads to injustice, hatred and self-righteousness.
The goal of TT, on the other hand, is to get closer to the truth of the matter. It is usually hard, slow and complicated. It required patience, open-mindedness, honesty, humility and care. You have to go where the facts lead, recognise inconvenient nuances and inconsistencies, and respect the evidence and the reasoning of people who disagree with you. You want to get into their minds so you can see what they have understood and so discover where the flaws and glitches in your understanding are. If you don’t know or are unsure, you say so. Some of the best thinking is done in the most successful scientific labs in the world, where colleagues working on different projects constantly critique each other’s work – not (mostly) because they are egotistical or destructive by nature, but because everyone wants the work of the lab to be the most rigorous and innovative it can be. The best ideas usually take months or years of painstaking drafting and re-drafting before they become as good as they are. True Thinking contributes to peace, progress and understanding.
This applies to education in two ways. First, the development of True Thinking should be one of the main objectives of schooling. I want to grow old in a world where young people think more carefully and honestly, and are less afraid of making mistakes and being half-baked, than I was. I want them to be able to learn, grow and change their minds – not to become anxious, dishonest or expedient test-takers. I want their teachers to be models of True Thinking and Powerful Learning, so that children see what thinking and learning really are and why they matter, and discover for themselves what comedian Ricky Gervais has called ‘the joy of the struggle’. This doesn’t mean ignoring Knowledge; it means gradually learning to be a Knowledge-Critic and Knowledge-Maker and not just a Knowledge-Consumer.
And second, we really have to improve the quality of public thinking about education. We need more True Thinking and less Pseudo-Thinking; less posturing, rubbishing and cheap point-scoring. Away with the gladiatorial combats. Away with Traditional vs. Progressive, Knowledge vs. Skills, Rigour vs. Creativity. I want rote learning and free discussion, both in their place. I want hard subjects that drive rigorous thinking and drama and yoga and imaginative play. It’s time to see if we can rid ourselves of the compulsion to keep sticking the OR in, and go looking for a more complicated, more satisfying set of ANDs.
Guy Claxton is speaking at the Wellington Festival of Education on 23 June at 2.30pm.