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Educating a Thinking Generation

Posted on the 3rd June 2015

A Citizenry that can Think

“A literate citizenry is just a citizenry that can read… not a citizenry that can think.”  Dr. Yigal Joseph

The documentary The Language of the Mind shares the remarkable story how visual tools have changed how students in the New Rochelle School District (New York, USA) are thinking and contributing to the overall classroom discourse, regardless of English proficiency.

Language of the Mind

Around the globe the ideal of a literate citizenry has changed dramatically in the past few decades toward explicitly engaging all children, no matter the circumstance, in becoming independent and collaborative thinkers.  All children need to think through the overwhelming glut of information as even the definition of a full-fledged “citizen” in most countries has changed to include all people no matter of race, religion, or gender.  In many countries, though, being a girl or of a certain socio-economic class, or racial group or sexual identity means that even though you may become literate… you are not challenged and coached to think for yourself and improve your natural abilities for unlimited growth in thinking.  Let’s be clear: improving a girl’s test scores does not mean that equity has been attained.   How do girls and women speak their minds?  Cognitive-neuroscience research now shows that the plasticity of the brain calls out for continuous development of the mind of every child—through to our later years.  Every child along the pathway to adulthood needs to be an adaptive thinker and learner no matter what jobs they have within their family, learning in college or career, or in multiple countries they may live in over their lifetime.  And, the global citizen needs to be adaptive because of chaotic nature of economic globalization, new communication tools and physical mobility.  Many adults and their children are displaced within or pushed out of their own society by economic distress, environmental disasters or by political storms.  Adults and children, caught in these crosscurrents of change, need to be adaptive thinkers, able to survive and to thrive.

Minds of Mississippi

Of course, countries around the world have also recognized the economic tipping point: the accelerated growth in “knowledge workers.”  Google President Eric Schmidt predicts that every adult will have a handheld device within 20 years—just one generation of school children away.  Libraries, once temples for the chosen few, are now open to all who have access to the web.  Yet with this openness comes the need for every learner to have developed the capacities to think through information, media, propaganda, marketing, and scientific knowledge presented as “reliable.”  Citizens young and old are targeted by messages not meant as instructional, but to influence beliefs, behaviors and actions.  Old and sometimes ancient societal structures frame the reality of schooling everywhere, so education in this century will be about youth engaging, understanding and sometimes challenging societal norms. How? Children must have the practical tools for learning while filtering and critically reflecting on “messaging” from around the world.  They need to be resilient and thoughtful.  They need to think… but more importantly:  think about HOW they and others are thinking about critical, hot-button, polarized issues.  They must break through stale polarized positions in dialogue to new understandings… and action in the world.

Quality education—now often described and evaluated by tests such as PISA as based upon “higher order thinking” for all–is recognized as an absolute necessity for countries in a globalized, technological, dynamic marketplace for ideas and competing ideologies—and competition for labor.  Whole countries (such as Malaysia and Ethiopia where Thinking Schools International has been working) recognize the necessity: they must produce a “thinking” citizenry or the next generation will become low level workers for “knowledge based” countries seeking “cheap” labor.  So education for the masses is not simply a matter of replicating old school classrooms “for all” where functional literacy was the outcome—where students sit in rows, learn to read, and test well.  Those students are pliable citizens, docile workers.  Education must focus on developing thinking abilities directly applied to literacy development, content learning and knowledge creation.  For example, explicitly and systematically taught cognitive processes (such as sequencing, cause and effect, comparing and contrasting, reasoning by analogy, creating categories and taxonomies) are fundamental to cross discipline reading comprehension. Habits of mind such as persistence, clarity, creativity, resilience, and empathy are keys to problem-solving and thus have a direct impact on daily life for every child.  This process creates better learners, but it also nurtures more democratic principles and processes, based on the capacities of citizens to think for themselves.


Importantly, cognitive/neuroscience science research has shown for decades that “traditional” content learning is also improved with the development of cognitive “processing” skills, generative thinking, habits of mind, and critical inquiry and reflection.  The essence of the Thinking Schools International approach is the direct training of students in thinking models for becoming adaptive and empowered individuals who can think for themselves and with others.  We guide students in any environment to become empathic thinkers, able to be entrepreneurial in the workplace, and most importantly to be able to think in the midst crisis, scarcity and uncertainty.  We believe that this is also the basis for the evolution toward a more democratic world: a global citizenry that can think.  

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