Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Training of Mind

Every time I start reading John Dewey, I am reminded of how fresh and convincing his ideas about education are even a century later and how clearly and gracefully he is able to organize his thoughts and present them on paper. As part of my preparation for the workshops I made reference to in yesterday's post, I was googling references to critical thinking and came across this excerpt from his book How We Think (in the public domain and available for free online in a number of locations, and in a free Kindle version here.)

In Chapter Three, for example, he asserts that there are "certain subprocesses...involved in every reflective operation. These are (a) a state of perplexity, hesitation, doubt; and (b) an act of search or investigation directed toward bringing to light further facts which serve to corroborate or nullify the suggested belief. He illustrates how this works by several analogies, one of which is this one (written, it might be worth noting, ten years before Robert Frost wrote his own famous analogical rendering of a very similar situation):

A man traveling in an unfamiliar region comes to a branching of the roads. Having no sure knowledge to fall back upon, he is brought to a standstill of hesitation and suspense. Which road is right? And how shall perplexity be resolved? There are but two alternatives: he must either blindly and arbitrarily take his course, trusting to luck for the outcome, or he must discover grounds for the conclusion that a given road is right. Any attempt to decide the matter by thinking will involve inquiry into other facts, whether brought out by memory or by further observation, or by both. The perplexed wayfarer must carefully scrutinize what is before him and he must cudgel his memory. He looks for evidence that will support belief in favor of either of the roads -for evidence that will weight down one suggestion. He may climb a tree; he may go first in this direction, then in that, looking, in either case, for signs, clues, indications. He wants something in the nature of a signboard or a map, and his reflection is aimed at the discovery of facts that will serve this purpose.

The above illustration may be generalized. Thinking begins in what may fairly enough be called a forked-road situation, a situation which is ambiguous, which presents a dilemma, which proposes alternatives. As long as our activity glides smoothly along from one thing to another, or as long as we permit our imagination to entertain fancies at pleasure, there is no call for reflection. Difficulty or obstruction in the way of reaching a belief brings us, however, to a pause. In the suspense of uncertainty, we metaphorically climb a tree; we try to find some standpoint from which we may survey additional facts and, getting a more commanding view of the situation, may decide how the facts stand related to one another.

Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection. Where there is no question of a problem to be solved or a difficulty to be surmounted, the course of suggestions flows on at random; we have the first type of thought described. If the stream of suggestions is controlled simply by their emotional congruity, their fitting agreeably into a single picture or story, we have the second type. But a question to be answered, an ambiguity to be resolved, sets up an end and holds the current of ideas to a definite channel. Every suggested conclusion is tested by its reference to this regulating end, by its pertinence to the problem in band. This need of straightening out a perplexity also controls the kind of inquiry undertaken. A traveler whose end is the most beautiful path will look for other considerations and will test suggestions occurring to him on another principle than if he wishes to discover the way to a given city. The problem fixes the end of thought and the end controls the process of thinking.

Summarizing later, he says

Given a genuine difficulty and a reasonable amount of analogous experience to draw upon, the difference, par excellence, between good and bad thinking is found at this point. The easiest way is to accept any suggestion that seems plausible and thereby bring to an end the condition of mental uneasiness. Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. As we shall see later, the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.

What are the implications of these ideas for the classroom teacher? Dewey says:

Education has accordingly not only to safeguard an individual against the besetting erroneous tendencies of his own mind—its rashness, presumption, and preference of what chimes with self-interest to objective evidence—but also to undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages. When social life in general has become more reasonable, more imbued with rational conviction, and less moved by stiff authority and blind passion, educational agencies may be more positive and constructive than at present, for they will work in harmony with the educative influence exercised willy-nilly by other social surroundings upon an individual’s habits of thought and belief. At present, the work of teaching must not only transform natural tendencies into trained habits of thought, but must also fortify the mind against irrational tendencies current in the social environment, and help displace erroneous habits already produced. 

To which I would add that if it is true that all reflective thinking is in response to the "demand for the solution of a perplexity," then it would seem to follow that the teacher's role must be to help students first of all articulate the perplexities and wonderments that they may already have—in other words, to give them practice in asking essential questions (or in their absence, to provide them with experiences which are likely to perplex them to just the right degree: sufficient to raise questions but not so intimidatingly complex as to make students despair of every being able to work out the answers.). Then teachers need to provide students with the time and encouragement to engage in exploratory investigation of the answers, and finally to help them identify ways of weighing and assessing the relative strength of the various plausible answers they are able identify. 

Of this last imperative, Dewey has this to say:

While it is not the business of education to prove every statement made, any more than to teach every possible item of information, it is its business to cultivate deep-seated and effective habits of discriminating tested beliefs from mere assertions, guesses, and opinions; to develop a lively, sincere, and open-minded preference for conclusions that are properly grounded, and to ingrain into the individual’s working habits methods of inquiry and reasoning appropriate to the various problems that present themselves. No matter how much an individual knows as a matter of hearsay and information, if he has not attitudes and habits of this sort, he is not intellectually educated. He lacks the rudiments of mental discipline. And since these habits are not a gift of nature (no matter how strong the aptitude for acquiring them); since, moreover, the casual circumstances of the natural and social environment are not enough to compel their acquisition, the main office of education is to supply conditions that make for their cultivation. The formation of these habits is the Training of Mind.

Students are not going to get better at thinking by being told how/what to think. They are only going to get better at thinking by consistent thoughtful practice. That's our job, to "supply the conditions" that make it possible for students to develop the habits of mind they will need to be able to think well throughout their lives. Can I teach a student to think well? No. Neither can you. Can we create conditions in which students can learn how to think better? That we can do.
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Postscript: A passage from Roger Shank's brilliantly provocative book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools (2011):

There is no better way to make people think than by annoying them in a way that makes them defend their point of view, especially when their point of view may not have been well thought out. It is important... to make students question their beliefs. No one is a better teacher than a teacher who makes a student wonder whether he has been wrong about something.


Kenneth Ronkowitz said...

How wonderful that someone approaching teacher retirement is still reading Dewey!

When I started teaching (38 years ago) I thought that Dewey, Piaget et al would be the gods of education. It took me a few years to realize that it was more likely Karl Marx. Economics rules. Most decisions - good and bad - are made for reasons of money.

Fork in the forest road -
Today I walk one straight through.
Next time, the other way.

Bruce Schauble said...

Sigh. It's true that money is the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. Monetary interests drive our national educational policies and national testing apparatus and local decisions on facilities and textbooks acquisition and hiring and so on. But I'm still naive enough, after all these years, to believe that once all the decisions get made about how the classroom is going to be provided, what happens next comes down to the people in that classroom, and it's possible, at least some of the time, to break into the clear for a while.

I like the poem, and the "yes and" orientation it implies.

Signed up for that art course you recommended, but then was travelling and didn't keep up. Now it's almost over. Maybe once I'm over the wall...