Is "thinking" the opposite of "rote memorization"?
Educrats wield the word "rote" as a weapon. It has the dictionary meaning, "A memorizing process using routine or repetition, often without full attention or comprehension." But does that describe the kind of education that anyone wants for their children? (Indeed, it's hard to think of any situation in which it is the goal to memorize "without full attention or comprehension.")
Nonetheless, the word "rote" is regularly invoked by educators who want to impugn the value of learning factual content.
The difference may be in how educators think that the goal of "thinking" can be achieved. Most theorists in the education industry today think that if we get kids to form opinions out of thin air, without having to know anything a priori, then we are teaching them to "think critically". But many suspect that what that really produces (and we see it all the time in society) is people who have lots of groundless opinions, who can tell you what they think about any issue without even a glimmer of a notion that they might wish to know something it before they open their yammers. Here is what one university professor observes about that:
"What seems to have disappeared in just a generation or so is the willingness we used to have to defer judgment until we had enough experience and breadth of knowledge to make a judgment. The students, more socially ambitious than intellectually curious, feel put upon and won't abide what they believe to be the absurd and arbitrary demands of their instructors. The instructors have devised a way to pander to this classroom anarchy by incorporating it into their peculiar hermeneutic theories of literature -- or else they have abandoned faith in the very idea of objective worth. They don't have the nerve to stand there at the front of the classroom and announce what is painfully obvious: 'You're young, you're dumb, and you're wrong.'"As Prof. E.D. Hirsch, founder of Core Knowledge, put it, to "think critically" requires a direct object: think critically about what? Prof. Hirsch also says,
"The evidence regarding critical thinking is not reassuring. ... Usually, it isn't the logical structure of people's inferences that chiefly causes uncritical thinking but rather the uninformed or misinformed faultiness of their premises."Albert Shanker, the late highly-respected president of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed:
"The problem with many youngsters today is not that they don't have opinions but that they don't have the facts on which to base their opinions."So, in Prof. Hirsch's view, what is "critical thinking"? Here is his discussion on that:
"Critical-thinking skills": A phrase that implies an ability to analyze ideas and solve problems while taking a sufficiently independent, "critical" stance toward authority to think things out for one's self. It is an admirable educational goal for citizens of a democracy, and one that has been advocated in the United States since Jefferson. The ability to think critically is a goal that is likely to be accepted by all American educational theorists. But it is a goal that can easily be oversimplified and sloganized. In the progressive tradition that currently dominates our schools, "critical thinking" has come to imply a counterpoise to the teaching of "mere facts," in which, according to the dominant caricature, sheep-like students passively absorb facts from textbooks or lecture-style classrooms. Critical thinking, by contrast, is associated with active, discovery learning and with the autonomous, independent cast of mind that is desirable for the citizens of a democracy. Conceived in this progressive tradition, critical thinking belongs to the formalistic tool conception of education, which assumes that a critical habit of thought, coupled with an ability to read for the main idea and an ability to look things up, is the chief component of critical-thinking skills. This tool conception, however, is an incorrect model of real-world critical thinking. Independent-mindedness is always predicated on relevant knowledge: one cannot think critically unless one has a lot of relevant knowledge about the issue at hand. Critical thinking is not merely giving one's opinion. To oppose "critical thinking" and "mere facts" is a profound empirical mistake. Common sense and cognitive psychology alike support the Jeffersonian view that critical thinking always depends upon factual knowledge.Grade school is the place where kids should learn the framework and fabric of history, science, art, geography, civics, music. In the process, as their knowledge builds, they will learn to form opinions based on the inherent puzzles and paradoxes within what they've learned.
ArticlesHere are more sources of information about what the term "critical thinking" implies in modern education:
Quotes on Critical Thinking
"The problem with many youngsters today is not that they don't have opinions but that they don't have the facts on which to base their opinions."
-- Albert Shanker, late former president of the American Federation of Teachers, ("Debating the Standards", New York Times, Jan. 29, 1995)
"The early decades of this century forged the central educational fallacy of our
time: that one can think without having anything to think about."
"The evidence regarding critical thinking is not reassuring. ...
Usually, it isn't the logical structure of people's inferences
that chiefly causes uncritical thinking but rather the
uninformed or misinformed faultiness of their premises."
"We must abandon the prevalent belief in the superior wisdom of the ignorant."
"There are really no such things as 'critical thinking' or 'problem solving'
skills that operate independently of factual knowledge. A broad, integrated 'data
base' of knowledge is the intellectual scaffolding -- the "mental Velcro"-- that
enables us to make sense of new information, by relating it to what we already
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."
"Contrary to popular belief, everyone is not entitled to their own opinion ...
If you don't know the facts, your opinion doesn't count."
"Critical thinking is a lot harder than people think,
because it requires knowledge."
"I was gratified to be able to answer promptly. I said I didn't know."
"Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please."
"Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought."
"Good fortune often happens when opportunity meets with preparation."
"In America, the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves
the full benefit of their inexperience."
"The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people are. ...
these young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and
then the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion
you didn't know existed."
"The less you know, the more you think you know,
because you don't know you don't know."
"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory,
or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between
what you do know and what you don't."
"You can't think or communicate outside of the box if you don't know what's in the box."
"Whenever I hear people say that they 'think outside the box' I cringe, because ...
I hear these people saying ... that one need not know what is well-accepted.
As a teacher, I want my students to know what is inside the box. ...
It is because knowing what is inside the box is the only way to get outside the box in a useful way
once the basics are mastered.
Psychologists who study prodigious accomplishments, in science, music, or art, speak about the 10,000-hour rule,
meaning that in order to do something notable in some field, one must devote 10,000+ hours to
mastering the discipline in question. Practice, practice, and practice, ...
and appreciate that much of this practice needs to be done inside the box.
If you never venture outside the box, you will probably not be creative.
But if you never get inside the box, you will certainly be stupid."
"... when a child has a problem, to urge him to think when he has no prior experiences involving some of the same conditions, is wholly futile."
"It is a profoundly erroneous truism repeated by all copybooks, and by eminent
people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of
thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization
advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without
thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in battle --
they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be
made at decisive moments."
"If you lack background knowledge about the topic,
ample evidence from the last 40 years indicates you will not
comprehend the author’s claims in the first place."
"We hear and apprehend only what we already half know."
"Only when we know a little do we know anything; doubt grows with knowledge."
"'...we of this age have discovered a shorter and more prudent
method to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of
reading or of thinking.'"
"There are in fact four very significant stumblingblocks in the way of grasping
the truth, which hinder every man however learned, and scarcely allow anyone to
win a clear title to wisdom, namely, the example of weak and unworthy authority,
longstanding custom, the feeling of the ignorant crowd, and the hiding of our own
ignorance while making a display of our apparent knowledge."
"...we should not necessarily conclude that higher-level strategic skills
are somehow the critical issue. It is exactly these processes that are most
vulnerable to specific knowledge failures. We think these processes are
important, but we suspect that they develop ordinarily in tandem with the
gradual accumulation of knowledge..."
"When children enter our public schools, they are encouraged not to learn what
other people thought about things, but rather to 'think for themselves' -- which is
crucial, but also fruitless without insights from beyond one's own mind or beyond
the minds of one's similarly underdeveloped peers."
"In 1998 a study ... reported the most
common discussion model among students was stating what they were certain they
already believed, not learning what they did not or exploring the views of those
with whom they disagreed."
"We hear a great deal these days about the pedagogical benefits of discussion. But
the assumptions we uncovered -- such as the belief that advocacy is the purpose of
discussion -- illustrate why this method is often not as effective as we'd hope."
"The displacement of the idea that facts and evidence matter by the idea
that everything boils down to subjective interests and perspectives is --
second only to American political campaigns -- the most prominent and
pernicious manifestation of anti-intellectualism in our time."
"Men occasionally stumble over the truth,
but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as
if nothing had happened."
"To know what you prefer, instead of humbly saying Amen to what
the world tells you you ought to prefer,
is to have kept your soul alive."
"I refuse to engage myself in a battle of wits with a man who is unarmed."
"It is easy to spot an informed man -- his opinions are just like your own."
"Learning without thought is labor lost.
Thought without learning is perilous."
"He who has imagination without learning has wings and no feet."
"Criticism comes easier than craftsmanship."
"To the intelligent man or woman, life appears infinitely mysterious.
But the stupid have an answer for every question."
"I prefer tongue-tied knowledge to ignorant loquacity."
"The empty vessel makes the greatest sound"
"Do not speak unless your words improve upon the silence."
"You're talking a lot, but you're not saying anything.
"The knowledge of the ignorant is unexamined talk."
"He who trusts in his own mind is a fool;
but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered."
"A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion."
"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?"
"An erudite fool is a greater fool than an ignorant fool."
"Blessed is the man who, having nothing to say, abstains from giving in words evidence of the fact."
"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."
"A credulous mind ... finds most delight in believing strange things,
and the stranger they are the easier they pass with him;
but never regards those that are plain and feasible, for every man can
"[I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge:
it is those who know little, and not those who know much,
who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."
"To know and yet think we do not know is the highest attainment.
Not to know and yet think we do is a disease."
"Insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient
guarantee of truth."
"Not to know is bad, not to wish to know is worse."
"To realize that you do not understand is a virtue;
Not to realize that you do not understand is a defect."
"Never ignore a gut feeling, but never believe that it's enough."
"Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."
"Students come to us having sat around for twelve years expressing
attitudes toward things rather than analyzing. ...
They are always ready to tell you how they feel about an issue,
but they have never learned how to construct a rational argument
to defend their opinions."
"Professors complain about students who arrive at college with
strong convictions but not enough knowledge to argue persuasively
for their beliefs. ... Having opinions without knowledge is not
of much value; not knowing the difference between them is a
positive indicator of ignorance."
Excerpt from Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat:
When I asked Bill Gates about the supposed American education advantage -- an education that stresses creativity, not rote learning -- he was utterly dismissive. In his view, those who think that the more rote learning systems of China and Japan can't turn out innovators who can compete with Americans are sadly mistaken. Said Gates, "I have never met the guy who doesn't know how to multiply who created software ... Who has the most creative video games in the world? Japan! I never met these 'rote people' ... Some of my best software developers are Japanese. You need to understand things in order to invent beyond them."
"Frequently our students come into the university domain thinking
that all opinions are equally valid. This view has threatened the
intellectual development of students since the time of Socrates
because it allows students to think that incomplete, illogical,
and nonsystematic thought is 'good enough.' Unfortunately, it never is."
"Eventu rerum stolidi didicere magistro."
"Insufficient facts always invite danger."
"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.
Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories,
instead of theories to suit facts."
"The difficulty is to detach the framework of fact -- of absolute
undeniable fact -- from the embellishments of theorists and reports.
Then, having established ourselves upon this sound basis, it is our
duty to see what inferences may be drawn and what are the special
points upon which the whole mystery turns."
"Then, with your permission, we will leave it at that, Mr. Mac.
The temptation to form premature theories upon insufficient data
is the bane of our profession."
"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the
evidence. It biases the judgment."
"It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts."
"'Data! Data! Data!' he cried impatiently. 'I can't make bricks without clay.'"
"People used to say, "'Ignorance is no excuse.' Today, ignorance
is no problem. Our schools promote so much self-esteem that people
confidently spout off about all sorts of things that they know nothing about."
"Someone once said that the most important knowledge is knowledge of our own ignorance.
Our schools are depriving millions of students of that kind of
knowledge by promoting 'self-esteem' and encouraging them to have opinions
on things of which they are grossly ignorant, if not misinformed."
"The trouble with modern education is you never know how ignorant people
are. ... These young people have such an intelligent, knowledgeable surface, and then
the crust suddenly breaks and you look down into depths of confusion you didn't
"Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts."
"Every man has a right to his opinion, but no man has a
right to be wrong in his facts."
"To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to
imagine your facts is another."
"Nothing is more tragic than ignorance in action."
"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."
"You are young, my son, and, as the years go by, time will change and even
reverse many of your present opinions. Refrain therefore awhile from setting
yourself up as a judge of the highest matters."
"The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no
evidence that it is not utterly absurd."
"Stay at home in your mind. Don't recite other people's
opinions. I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."
"I respect your right to have an opinion. But it's awfully hard to respect your
opinion when it is so woefully misinformed, so laden with nonsensical conspiracies,
so sadly influenced by newage (that's New Age, but it rhymes with sewage),
and so utterly devoid of reason."
"The young specialist in English Lit ... lectured me severely on the
fact that in every century people have thought they understood the
Universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong.
It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern 'knowledge'
is that it is wrong. ... My answer to him was, '... when people thought
the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth
was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the
Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat,
then your view is wronger than both of them put together.'"
"Unlike in the past, ignorance is no longer tempered with humility.
Rather, after years of psychotherapy disguised as pedagogy, ignorance
is now buoyed by self-esteem -- which, in turn, makes students more
resistant to remediation since they don't believe there's a problem. ...
For the last two decades, I've taught freshman courses at CUNY and
SUNY colleges in the city; the majority of my students have been
products of the city's public schools.
I am saddened, therefore, to report that more and more of them
are arriving in my classes with the impression that their opinions,
regardless of their acquaintance with a particular subject,
are instantly valid -- indeed, as valid as anyone's.
Pertinent knowledge, to them, is not required to render judgment."
"Research in thinking skills has found one thing that
separates experts in a field from very good but
less-than-expert practitioners: experts are so skilled at the basics they can quickly move to
more advanced and creative problem solving. ...
For all the well-intentioned talk of 'higher-order thinking skills,' too many students don't have
enough of a grasp on basic skills and knowledge to adequately function at 'higher' levels."
"I hear more and more from our faculty members that students
simply do not turn in assignments, do not attend class with any
regularity, do not respect others in their demeanor or behaviors,
and do not see any value in learning as a process. These students,
they tell me, are convinced that the final product is the goal,
whether that is a grade, a certificate, or a degree. All of this,
they say, is in much greater frequency now than in the past.
I hear it so often now, from so many disciplines and demographics,
that I believe it is the most important barrier to good learning in
our classrooms, both for these students and for those who are more responsible."