A system-wide overhaul of the current educational system in the United States, especially when discussing the public school system, is paramount should we be committed to the survival of our society. In other words, if we want our children to have a future, we must change our shoulds into musts in areas where we see the need for changes. Education is one such area.
As an educator and former social worker, I feel I have a unique perspective on some of the lack in the young adults that I have had the pleasure of helping or instructing. While the fault for the state of our current educational system does not lie entirely with educators, parents, students or the government, we all bear some of the responsibility for what I see as a decline in our ability as human beings to critically examine issues and find creative solutions to problems.
During my 20 plus years working in the social work field, I came across many people in dire life circumstances. It is worth mentioning that approximately ten percent of those individuals were illiterate and yet they had graduated high school. For me, that seems to be a significant percentage considering I have worked with thousands of adults ranging from 18 to 80. While I could go on a soapbox about the pressure on schools to test high and all of the problems that may result from a pressured situation such as the resulting illiteracy that I saw during my career, my focus remains on the need for a wider scope of knowledge, increased practice in critical thinking skills, and allowing for creative problem solving.
I would be remiss if I didn’t address what seems to be a rising level of ignorance due to lack of knowledge in our society. According to Oxford Dictionaries (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/knowledge), knowledge includes facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. The online dictionary defines ignorance as lacking knowledge or awareness in general; uneducated or unsophisticated. Thus, less knowledge results in increased ignorance, an ever-increasing phenomenon that is damaging our society.
Several years ago, I began teaching in the college classroom part-time between two prestigious colleges. Both colleges provided quality education to students, but teachers were and are always at the mercy of the level of ignorance of the students attending classes. This claim of ignorance is not one that is specific to students and may vary according to the school/school district attended prior to college. Everyone is ignorant of something – after all, there is no way to learn everything about everything during this lifetime. There are, however, certain key local and global issues that should be taught long before students engage in the college. While an appealing concept, human beings do not live in a self-contained bubble – instead, they are responsible for not only pursuing their own interests, but they are also responsible for fulfilling the duties of being a good citizen of this great country as well as fulfilling the duties of being a good citizen of the world. The lack of knowledge that inevitably results in widespread ignorance across many areas of life is a barrier to both responsibilities.
Much like Nature Deficit Disorder where the lack of contact with nature causes a host of negative outcomes in human beings, I call what I see in the educational institutions Knowledge Deficit Disorder (KDD). I believe that KDD is a direct result of misplaced faith in a standardized educational system that teaches for the primary purpose of passing a test. Ignorance of local and global issues has become a generational norm as our society has become dependent on a substandard school system as a means of free childcare and what parents believe to be sufficient education for their children to experience personal success and to increase their ability to significantly contribute to society.
Critical Thinking Skills
To continue a discussion on ignorance and the degree to which it has and will affect our development and progress as a nation, I must add critical thinking skills to the mix. In my time as an instructor, I describe this to students as the question everything skill. As a part of my course curriculum, critical thinking exercises are done involving critical analysis which “…is a systematic analysis of an idea, text, or piece of literature that discusses its validity and evaluates its worth(www.webster.edu/academic-resource-center/writingcenter/writing-tips/analysis.html).” More times than not, during the critical examination exercises, I realize the extent to which students have a significant deficit in critical thinking and analysis.
Among the examples that I can give, one recent classroom activity comes to mind. The students in the classroom were asked to bring a recent news article to class or they could opt for sending me links to news stories before class began. As with most of my classes, we began with a mini-lecture on a topic (Critical thinking and analysis in this case) followed by a hands-on activity. One student had taken the video option and had emailed me two links. One of the links was from a popular conservative news source and the other was from a well known liberal news source. At the end of the second video, a student yelled out fake news. I was curious as to why the student felt so passionate about this particular news source and asked questions about how often he viewed the source and why he felt the way he did. His evidence was lacking as he admitted, he’d seen it a couple of times, but his parents watched the other channel quite frequently. Ultimately, the student had made a judgment without investigation which showed a significant lack in the ability or lack of willingness (which is worse in my mind) to critically examine both news sources.
While the student’s comment prompted a lengthy discussion on fact-checking, taking care not to assimilate someone else’s opinion without investigation, and ultimately led to the classroom concluding that both news sources were slightly biased (leaning to one direction rather than communicating the subject fairly) and neither provided sufficient evidence to support all points made, it reminded me that students are in desperate need of acquiring worldly knowledge and of developing critical thinking skills. Since that time, I have concluded that this same critical thinking illness runs rampant across many different types of people. This profound realization that KDD is taking over and our school systems are aiding in the production of an automaton citizenry, it has become my fervent hope that educators help students learn to use critical thinking skills early in life to help equip them for discerning between truth, falsehoods, and everything in between.
This leads me to my thoughts on stifled creativity. I, like Sir Ken Robinson, believe that the lack of creative thinking in schools is producing citizens without the ability to innovate. Creativity may lead to innovation which may lead to progress and is, in my opinion, a necessary element of our long-term survival. After all, without imagination, the light bulb would not exist, we would still be riding horses (or perhaps walking), we would not know how to build a shelter for a storm, and using the internet to post this blog would be an impossibility.
If we are not equipped with knowledge and lack the ability to critically examine issues/problems, there can be no creative thought toward solutions/innovation. That is my claim, and I am sticking to it. Let’s return to the fake news comment that I discussed earlier in this post. During the exercise, students were divided into groups of 3-4 students. A select few were able to answer the critical thinking questions and began to creatively address the issue of eliminating bias in the news media while the other students sat nearly mute. During a reflective journal at the end of class, over 3/4 of the students wrote that the exercise was too difficult. They made comments like I thought the activity was too difficult, I’m not good with solutions, and/or I didn’t agree that [name a newscast] is biased. With the critical thinking questions laid out in front of them, completion of a full discussion on biases and how to critically examine the videos, and some examples from other activities on solutions to problems, students still had great difficulty critically examining and developing a solution to address the bias in news. Unfortunately, this phenomenon was not limited to the aforementioned activity. In that case, it would not be worth mentioning. The problem of students being unable to employ critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills during similar class activities has been a prevalent issue across the board. I believe this is a clear and unfortunate reflection of the greater whole – at the very least the issue should be a growing concern in the United States, but I suspect based on the state of the world that the problem spreads much further.
Admittedly, my understanding of the world is limited to what I have learned (from others/ self-study), but the trajectory of our world seems to be going in a direction to which I do not want my own children to follow. I firmly believe that our knowledge deficit, decreased creativity, and decreased the ability to critically think can be seen in the lack of new innovation in businesses in this country. Since the primary source of our knowledge and skills (critical thinking and otherwise) appear to be those we gain from school, does it then make sense to begin a reformation of our educational system that will encourage acquisition of knowledge far outside that of the testing materials? Again, I do not claim that the school systems are entirely at fault, but they are a good starting point for change. The next question is where do we find a wealth of individuals who are not products of what I believe to be a broken system? We are in dire need of educators who have an ability to think outside the box, those who are able to critically examine the current state of education, and those who can engage in a creative process to heal a broken system so that our children can go on to learn and live extraordinary lives.