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Critical Thinking Is More Critical Than Ever

By Rick Lawrence
Executive Director

I remember when my now college-age daughter was in middle school she was worried about us meeting her social studies teacher during back-to-school night. We assumed it was because this teacher was mediocre, and she thought we’d be obviously underwhelmed by him. But the opposite was true…

It turns out my daughter was nervous because this teacher was quirky and, well, what you might call “over-passionate” about teaching middle schoolers. He was obsessed with helping kids learn how to think critically. He made his students nervous, because the environment in his classroom maximized thinking and doubting and exploring and pursuing. For most kids this seemed intimidating at the start. But the more this teacher described his learning strategies, the better I liked him.

Two weeks into the semester this teacher had to abruptly resign because of a sudden medical condition, and my daughter came home crushed. She had already experienced the vibrant, engaging, joyous feeling of learning to think more critically, and was deeply sad she would have to settle for “normal” again…

Critical thinking is really the key to so many doors in life—and the lack of it can wreak destruction in homes, churches, and the culture at large. We have Exhibit A right in our rearview mirror, as we look back on a year full of extraordinary lapses in critical thinking. In ministry, critical thinking is our “spiritual act of worship”—it is loving God with all our heart/soul/MIND/strength. Even so, critical thinking is typically not the means or the end in the strategy many ministries use to engage young people and adults with Scriptural truth.

Our conventional models for faith-formation training—often some version of an “information download”—are fatally flawed. I heard this fatal flaw threaded through an investigative report on why fewer than half of all students in my state (Colorado) score at grade level in science. Most lose interest in it by 4th grade. Replace “science” with “biblical truth” in public radio reporter Jenny Brundin’s report, and the impact could be prophetic in your ministry…

Brundin: When you explore the gargantuan question of why so many kids are failing in science, you find some of the answers just by talking to high school junior Elizabeth Ramsey…

Ramsey: A lot of us did not enjoy science class during middle school, and it kind of carried through with us here. Either they just talked at us and we didn’t really do anything—or we took the occasional note and listened. Others didn’t do a really good job at explaining. We couldn’t understand what they were saying and they couldn’t explain themselves very well.

Brundin: So what’s going on in classrooms? Lots of talk about facts and procedures. And students mostly just listen. They don’t get their hands on things, or they’re often not required to figure things out on their own—that’s according to a National Research Council study of high school science classrooms. [The key is] getting kids to think critically and invent, using real-world examples. Dissecting a frog or mixing chemicals in a beaker isn’t enough. Research shows those lab exercises are more like following a recipe than discovering scientific principles. Here’s Barry Cartright, former science specialist with the state Department of Education…

Cartright: Recent research has found that the method of delivery isn’t as important as making sure the kids are really engaged in the material and having to do some deep thinking about it.

Brundin: That means “minds-on” instead of just “hands on.” They have to be mentally engaged. And that means asking questions, debating ideas, and gathering evidence to refine those ideas. The teacher guides the discussion and discovery. She asks challenging and reflective questions. Students who discover the answers will remember them much better than if a teacher told them in a lecture. Here’s teacher Trish Loeblein’s advice…

Loeblein: Try to figure out how to get the teacher out of the center stage and how to get the students realizing that they’re the learners and that they need to be the doers.

Our goal is for young people and adults to discover truths, not merely hear us talk about them. So let’s find more ways to ask questions, not make pronouncements, and more ways for our people to experience truth, not merely look at it behind glass (or on the page).

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily.

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