Education; Critical Thinking vs Rote Memory in American Education

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." Albert Einstein

We have an American educational system that languishes under the premise that if a student repeats something many times he will learn it. He may not understand it, but he will learn how to repeat it so he sounds knowledgeable. Our primary classroom teaching methods use Rote Learning, defined as, “…a learning technique which avoids understanding of a subject and instead focuses on memorization. The major practice involved in rote learning is learning by repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it.” Wikipedia

This is how teachers continue to process your children in grades K–12 and our students in colleges and universities throughout America in the 2011 Global Knowledge Economy, which is driven by information and technology. This is a time and age when students have to be able to deal with changes quickly and effectively. This new economy places increasing demands on flexible intellectual skills, and the ability to analyze information and integrate diverse sources of knowledge in solving problems. NO ONE will advance in this new information age with rote memory skills. Those are the skills of mindless workers who put this gidget with that gadget for eight hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for 30 years. That age is over in America. It left for China and India more than10 years ago.

Why do our teachers and educators continue to use a mode of education that consigns our children to a life of irrelevancy? Why do they resist change, flexibility, and new thinking techniques?

I believe it is because it threatens their lifelong Rote learning habits. Technology threatens them; teachers are artifacts from a time where they were taught they had to know all the answers. They believe in authoritarianism in an age when large groups are sharing information every day in a world without Ethernet boundaries; this is how teachers were taught to teach. They see technology as a threat rather than a challenge. Their students know more than they do in this Knowledge Economy and so they avoid the embarrassment of having to admit they are fallible by demanding safe Rote answers to safe standardized  test questions.

Educators have forgotten that one of the most exciting teaching moments is when the student teaches the teacher. Information exchange between teachers and students allows everyone to participate in the exciting adventure of Critical and Creative thinking. The teacher becomes the guide who helps channel student energy, creativity, intellect, and critical thinking into new solutions that awaken enormous possibilities for all. Teachers do not have to have all the answers; they need to ask the right questions! Their students will find the answers.

There is a serious relationship between Critical thinking and Creative thinking. They are like a hand in a glove. Creative solutions to problems involve not just having new ideas. New creative ideas must also be useful and relevant to the task at hand. Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating new ideas, selecting the best ones, and modifying them if necessary.

Now what is Critical Thinking? The list of core critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, and explanation. There is a reasonable level of consensus among experts that an individual or group engaged in strong critical thinking gives due consideration to:

•    Evidence through observation
•    Context of judgment
•    Relevant criteria for making the judgment well
•    Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
•    Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand

Critical thinking employs not only logic, but also broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness. A teacher or student disposed toward critical thinking includes a courageous desire to follow reason and evidence wherever it may lead. They are open-minded, display attention to the possible consequences of choices, have a systematic approach to problem solving, inquisitiveness, fair-mindedness and maturity of judgment, and a confidence in reasoning.

To be fair, the real question is, do our educators possess this kind of thinking? Are they able to develop critical thinking in their teaching methods so their students have a future in the fast moving, ever changing world of the Global Knowledge Economy? If our educators cannot make this transition between Rote Memory and Critical Thinking then our student population is doomed to languishing in Industrial Age thinking while the rest of the world, i.e., China, India, and others leap forward, above, through, and beyond them.

It is NOT about money. Socrates taught under a tree.

It is about questioning old assumptions, creating group think in classrooms, exciting students and challenging them to question everything they are told, and requiring them to develop their own solutions to problems, which may or may not agree with ours. It is about trust and belief in our ability to learn along with our students as they learn along with us.

Finally, the student must be taught not how to know the answer, but how to ask the question. Teachers and students must first embrace what they do not know and Critical thinking is a primary tool in approaching this. Spend some time with any 3, 4, 5 or 6 year old and count how many times they ask you, “Why?” Watch them play and watch how they solve problems and disputes. They have it! Then we turn them over to government schools that Drill and Kill it out of them.


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  1. January 29, 2011 at 2:54 am

    I totally agree with this post…not American…but still agree. It all boils down to something I call the Academic Panic, and it’s sweeping the western world – well the middle-class educated bits, anyway. Parents are seemingly so caught up in academics…after school activities, teaching their children to read before they get to kindergarten, panicing if they don’t have the ‘best’ teacher or the best results, that sort of thing – that they have forgotten play time. Children learn all those lovely critical thinking skills you speak about through playing – for hours and hours and hours, with next to no equipment and certainly no electronics. Push the starting age of any formal education to six and a half or even seven, like Finland – make every subject including drama, sport, handcraft and art compulsory until the end of high-school and see a radical change in society. My two cents worth, anyway.

    • January 29, 2011 at 7:44 am

      BRAVO! Now let’s start a revolution in parenting and education. It is a daunting task to influence and change long established beliefs and practices. You are correct; children learn critical and lateral thinking in their early years as they have to figure out how to get what they want. They come up with the most amazing creative solutions! Thank you for your $0.02!

    • March 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm

      I agree with you only as far as elementary school goes. The schools in Finland and the rest of Europe do focus on academics in the upper grades and the school day is a long one, such as here in America.

  2. February 4, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I am wondering how I could be notified whenever a new post has been made.

  3. March 15, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Actually, I’m going to disagree with you. There is a place for rote memorization in our education (ask our friends in China and India). At the moment, I believe there is far too much emphasis in our American classrooms on “group” work (we ALL know the problems with that) and touchy-feely exercises. And NOT enough on rote memorization. I *get* that our children should understand the process behind multiplication, rather than simply memorizing the times table; however, there is a place for the memorization of the times table. It is the foundation for more complex math…the math that stretches the imagination and takes creative thinking to solve. But if a student hasn’t mastered his/her times table, completing more complex math will be much more difficult. Similarly, there is much to be said for the memorization of parts of speech and word definitions. Do we really want our future world leaders to be dependent upon the suggestions that Microsoft Word makes for them? What kind of world will this be? I can tell you that it won’t be one led by American thinkers….they’ll be from countries who place value on education and hard work….something quite lacking in our society.

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