Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reflection 2

Why is it important to cultivate thinking skills? For a start, if we examine MOE’s desired outcomes of education, it is quite clear that they cannot really be achieved if our pupils do not think well:

A product of our system is meant to be

" A confident person who has a strong sense of right and wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, thianks independently and critically, and communicates effectively;

A self-directed learner who takes responsibility for his own learning, who questions, reflects and perseveres in the pursuit of learning;

an active contributor who is able to work effectively in teams, exercises initiative, takes calculated risks, is innovative and strives for excellence; and,

a concerned citizen who is rooted to Singapore, has a strong civic consciousness, is informed, and takes an active role in bettering the lives of others around him."

A ‘confident person’ with a sound critical faculty cannot be lacking in thinking skills. And an effective communicator is typically able to generate and incarnate clear, logical and coherently arranged thought.

A ‘self-directed learner’ is a reflecting and self-regulated learner, one who plans, monitors, reflects and self-modify. In other words, the self-directed learner exercises decision making skills, metacognitive skills, evaluative skills and strategic planning skills—all arguably thinking skills. The self-directed learner should also possess good inquiry skills, with the ability to frame hypotheses and research questions, evaluate sources, infer conclusions from data, design investigations and so on.

An ‘active contributor’ and citizen needs to be a creative thinker. He needs to be ‘innovative’. On the highest level, the greatest benefactors of humanity are typically creative geniuses who have birthed new paradigms, art forms, philosophies and spiritualities. On less revolutionary levels, we always need new and better mousetraps by creative tinkerers.

And we would expect ‘concerned citizens’ to grapple with inherently controversial topics like morals, religion, politics and social relations. Indeed, J.S. Mill has pointed out in On Liberty that “three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion [in these fields] consist in dispelling the appearances which favor some opinion different from it”. And thus,

“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” (On Liberty)

Hence, students need to acquire the critical capacity to throw “themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and consider what such persons may have to say” before they are capable of forming truly justified opinions on the ambiguous issues of life.

Furthermore, for students to be ‘concerned’ at all, they would need a well-developed moral conscience. If this conscience is not to be blindly shaped by tradition, social custom or indoctrination, then some level of ethical thinking and reflection is required. This is a major topic that deserves a whole reflection (eventually).
In short, to achieve MOE’s desired outcomes, students need to master Cohen’s classic ‘complex thinking processes’: critical thinking, decision making, creative thinking and problem thinking. They also need to have helpful intellectual dispositions. Different gurus have different formulations of these dispositions. Robert Ennis, for instance, believed in 14 different critical thinking dispositions, that good thinkers are disposed to seek more information, to investigate grounds for their claims, to examine things from different perspectives and so on. Richard Paul, on the other hand, emphasized intellectual humility, perseverance, courage, empathy and fair-mindedness. Then there are of course Costa and Kallick’s 16 Habits of Minds.

Indeed, as we delve into the literature on thinking skills, and as taxonomies, models and lists multiply, one increasingly realises how much needs to be done, and how little has actually been done to help pupils cultivate the ‘philosophical heart, and a philosophical mind’ necessary for attaining the desired outcomes.

I would think that MOE framed these desired outcomes to prepare our folks for the challenges of the new century (‘social efficiency’ ideology) and also to improve the quality of our citizens and thus our society (‘social reconstruction’ ideology). On the matter of social reconstruction: it is clear that a society with more self-directed, confident, active and concerned citizens would indeed be a more wonderful society. However, I would personally prefer more eccentricity and creative insanity, more (metaphorical and literal) star gazing and tree hugging as well.

Put less flippantly, I think education must not exclude the spiritual dimension—the world of bright dawns, dark nights, arduous quests and guiding love. We move beyond the rational here. Reason, like Dante’s Virgil, is a great guide to the gates of heaven, yet greater and surer Powers are needed beyond. Unfortunately, in a world where different cults and creeds are generally quite intent on tearing each other apart (even if such murderous activities are sublimated into intellectual warfare or suppressed through law’s strong arm), a ‘spiritual education’ promoted by a centralised state system typically means little more than the imposition of a state creed, or a superficial, pale and uncommitted ‘equal consideration’ of all creeds. These things are hardly ‘spiritual’. At the very minimum, a spiritual education would require enough educators who are themselves spiritual, teachers who have consecrated themselves utterly to some higher Truth, and who have transformed themselves in the image of that Truth. Such an ideal would be met with incredulity in most parts of the education world today—and I suppose this is a sign of how far we are from truly spiritual education. Perhaps the fire of the Spirit is for the education of another age.

Moving beyond MOE’s desired outcomes, and looking at our original question from another perspective: thinking well is simply the actualisation of one of humanity’s greatest gifts: our rational faculty. To think well is to actualise our humanity. If education is about some kind of self-actualisation, then it must cultivate thinking.

Moving away from the ultimate purposes of education, it is my regular experience that teachers who promote thinking promote engagement. For instance, in Republic Polytechnique, I have interviewed former NT and NA students who love the PBL system there because they like to find new things out and apply them to solve problems. They like, in other words, to think. They do not miss the sleep- inducing lessons they used to have. Feedback from my own students have also indicated that they like ‘intellectual stimulating lessons’. They like to understand new things, and they like to exercise their minds.

Finally, but most importantly, we live in a century where thoughtlessness is lethal. In Accident: A Day’s News, a novel about the Chernobyl catastrophe, an East German character notes the sleepwalking qualities of most of her fellow citizens, how ‘their desire for a comfortable life, their tendency to believe the speakers on raised platforms and the men in white coats, the addiction to harmony and the fear of contradiction of the many seemed to correspond to the arrogance and hunger for power, the dedication to profit, unscrupulous inquisitiveness, and self-infatuation of the few’.

Can the citizens of the 21st century afford to be unreflecting sleepwakers who blindly accept the status quo? In April 2000, Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, published an article called ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’. The article argued convincingly that advancing nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and robotics technologies will increasingly make possible the spectre of ‘knowledge-enabled mass destruction’ (KMD). KMD is mass murder made cheap and democratized, with knowledge being the main and sufficient ingredient. Building nuclear weaponry requires massive and expensive investments impossible for many nations. 21st century technologies may eventually allow a neurotic teen to wipe out a city with a homemade virus. And KMD weapons easily self-replicate. We don’t expect nuclear missiles to build themselves and fire off; but pathogens and killer nanobots readily multiply and fill the earth.

This is a problem for the world, of course, not merely for Singapore. As humanity’s power increases, our thought and ethics and spirituality must grow correspondingly. We already have a nuclear arsenal fully adequate to incinerate our civilisation and make the rubble bounce. With the eventual advent of KMD, sleepwalking cannot be an option. We need a thinking citizenry at the very least; and most optimally, a civilisation of the Spirit. To preserve our civilisation, we must be able to challenge madness and thanatos.

In the 21st century, humanity may well have to choose between ‘love or suicide’. Education may determine which.

Given the importance of thinking, the natural question then is how we could promote it. It is time to focus on Socrates, and discuss concrete applications in my role as a teacher and staff developer. This would be the focus of my next reflection.