Viewpoint: Do Schools Teach Our Children to Think?

WhatDoesSchoolTeachBy Resa Steindel Brown

An unexamined paradigm, mind or belief embedded in our culture, pilule is that school teaches us to think. But does it really?

We assume that when we see our children buried in an overwhelming avalanche of textbooks, medical study notes, homework, and tests, some thinking is going on. We watch as our children run the gauntlet of multiple choice questions and commit to memory tedious disconnected pieces of information, most of which they can’t wait to forget.

We try to be helpful.  We drill, throw questions at, and cheer them on so they can come up with the right word or phrase on the test.  And like the cheerleading team, we never let them down.  We reinforce, by our actions, the concept that regurgitating information has value.  We reward this behavior both emotionally through our approval and socially through grades. Then we measure their ‘academic excellence’ by their numerical score on a standardized test.

While there is still something to be said for being familiar with a breadth of general information, mastering math facts and spelling, does any of this prove that any real thinking is going on?  Where’s the beef?

Thinking involves the process of inquiry and creative problem-solving which is different than memorizing or restating answers copied from the book. True cognition encompasses the skills of analyzing, synthesizing, prioritizing and using information to identify and solve problems… preferably real world challenges. These are the skills they will need. These are the skills that are largely absent from our curriculum. These are the skills they do not practice often enough and the attributes they are missing.

We focus instead on concrete facts and skills which involve more recall than thinking.  We teach these because we can objectively test, quantify, qualify and grade the answers. The answers are easier to test because they do not involve opinion…and opinion is an original thought.

The bright child is often penalized on a multiple choice test, because this thinking child has opinions on and can reason why more than one answer, under certain circumstances, might be true.  Even the new federally-backed State Common Core Standards, where multiple choice tests are rewritten to include ‘all true,’ ‘none true” “two of the four true” and so on, do not support the thinking child.  In its promise to address collaborative group learning, the new standards avoid the fact that ‘group-think’ does not guarantee individual problem-solving and independent analytical thinking. In fact, Common Core and its testing process will ask for opinion and allow for multiple possibilities.  However, if the child does not come up with one of the prescribed outcomes or get to an answer via a pre-determined acceptable route, the answer is still graded incorrect. True opinion and the reasoning behind individual thinking are not subject to any form of testing, objective or otherwise.  When we create educational processes and curriculum to match standardized tests, it is like throwing away the nutritional meat of the apple and eating the dried-up core.

We live in an age that requires us to be all that we are…the whole apple.  Life is not structured around concrete facts sitting in a static environment, unlike most of our classrooms. Our children will have to deal with the complexities of a rapidly changing world.  They already face technological, environmental, economic and global-dependency changes.  Our children need to know how to question the question. They need to know that if you change the question, you come up with a different set of answers and solutions. They will need to process information from multiple sources, not just textbooks.  Information will come to them simultaneously from different sources, from fellow colleagues, the internet, phone conferences, and even conflicting reports all in the same day and sometimes the same hour. Our children need to be able to integrate, manage, and prioritize massive amounts of new and ongoing information.  They will have to do so at a rate far faster than reading a text and answering the multiple-choice answers at the back of the chapter.  They will need to be able to think quickly, clearly, and on their feet.

New challenges call for creative solutions.  If children are taught to “color within the lines” and “stay within the box,” how will they rise to face the challenges of the future?  How will they truly learn to think critically?  Imagine the child in a classroom who raises her hand and says, “I am not sure that is the right question.  Perhaps a better question might be, “why did we…?”

Teachers are inundated with curriculum they must deliver, testing benchmarks they are required by law to reach, too many students, too little time, too many mandates that all detract from the discussions, creativity and thinking-building processes—the lively debate they had in mind when they became teachers.  As parents, grandparents, tutors, friends, we can partner with them.  We can ask the questions that help our children question the question.  We can take dinner time, driving time, any time we can find, to engage in lively discussion and provocative pondering, to explore new thoughts and possibilities with our children.  Even as overworked, under-supported teachers, we can incorporate this process into our classrooms, twenty minutes a day or five minutes a class period.  Whatever we can do is more than we did before.  We are all in this together.  We can partner to build the world of today and the possibilities of tomorrow.  We can all help move this process forward.

Critical thinking is a practiced skill, not an abstract concept.  It is structured by the learner, makes sense to the learner and is individual and unique to each.  Like a muscle, the more our children actually use their intellect by questioning, evaluating and problem-solving, the more adept they become at the process we call thinking.  And as a society, we will need them to think if they are to address the challenges of our time and the opportunities of the future.

Resa Steindel Brown, B.A., M.F.A.,  is author of the award-winning book, The Call to Brilliance, an Best Seller in Parenting & Family, builds educational processes and environments and is credentialed by the State of California through the University of California at Los Angeles. See




3 Responses to Viewpoint: Do Schools Teach Our Children to Think?

  1. Resa Steindel Brown August 20, 2013 at 4:33 pm

    Hi Stefan,

    The book is a true story about kids whose educational focus was on finding their innate gifts and talents, and igniting the passion that lead to their individual forms of brilliance . These kids were not processed through an industrialised, one-size-fits all education, where the focus was on finding the ‘one right’ answer to someone else’s question. Their education was about connecting to their own expressions of creativity and bringing it out into the real world long before they ‘graduated high school.’

    The book contrasts a span of 60 years of public education with the education these kids had right here in a factory in Moorpark. It will redefine what ‘doing well’ and “learning” means, and show you how we reached these objectives. There is more information about the book at The process in this book has given rise to Passion Oriented Education(TM), which can be found at

    Please stay in touch,
    Warmest regards,

    • admin August 20, 2013 at 4:45 pm

      Thanks, Ms. Brown. Links now added to your article.

  2. Stefan Djordjevic August 16, 2013 at 12:06 am

    I agree, but hopefully in your book, you give specific examples of what you’re talking about. How do you integrate what you’re saying into a specific class and how does it change the outcome of the learning experience? Thanks.

    When I was in school, the popular kids were not even remotely intellectual, but they did well in school and virtually every one of them has done well in life as adults.

    They were not ponderers at all. They were doers. They did math and science, and humanities, and they became, doctors, lawyers, engineers, business executives, and entrepreneurs. These are people I could not have a conversation with for 5 minutes back then, because they were so shallow.

    But I don’t know that we had any great teaching methods or curriculum. So I’m starting to think that if you have good genes and/or discipline, you will succeed even with crappy curriculum and teaching and even if you have not a single intellectual thought. As long as you can do something practical.

    Better yet, just learn Spanish, study a certain mid east religion, go to the DMV a lot to get prepared for the doctor’s office, and you will be ready for the American future.


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