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Knowledge vs Critical Thinking

Like a chef teaching students how to cook, a chef may instruct their students to first add ingredients with specific measurements to achieve a balance that produces a satisfying taste; another chef may instruct students to add certain ingredients "to taste" to develop one's own sense of balance and understanding of the ingredients in each recipe being explored. This metaphor aligns to the comparison in a long-standing conversation in education today - how much should educators focus on rote learning versus critical thinking.

The message in the introduction of "The Core Knowledge Series" (1991) highlights the two sides of this decades-long conversation about education in our country - rote learning versus critical thinking. This series challenges the approach of focusing on "learning to learn" in lieu of a "cruel and joyless mode of schooling" that shuns rote learning. Yet, somehow the final paragraph in this introduction argues for a balance of the two:

"Many parents and teachers have come to the conclusion that elementary education must strike a better balance between the duty of the school to ensure that all children master a core of information that is necessary to their competence as learners in later grades. A great majority of parents and at least half the teachers I have spoken to have reached this conclusion through their own firsthand observations. But they cannot act on their convictions without access to an agreed-upon core sequence or concrete materials. Our main motivation in producing this series has been to give parents and teachers something concrete to work with."

The nuance in addressing the need for balance is a difficult focus for people with a strong opinion toward one side or the other. It is easy to imagine false-cause arguments from both sides using "this then that" style comparisons e.g. "critical thinking improves knowledge" versus "knowledge improves critical thinking". Which focus is more important than the other when setting expectations for a child's education? Where do the two find balance in a single approach?

This conversation continues through the upbringing of children in systems that highlight one of the two distinct sides. Today, public, private, and charter schools offer ranges of balance of one side and the other. The challenge is knowing when an appropriate balance has been met - there is no tool that accurately measures such a balance.

My book 'Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning' (December 2019) continues this conversation offering a means for balance of knowledge and critical thinking. Although Standards-Based Learning was only getting started at the time 'The Core Knowledge Series' was published, threading academics with Social-Emotional Learning was happening as early as the 1960's. What standards-based learning offers teachers, parents, and students is a set of common expectations for expected core knowledge across grade levels. Just as is argued in 'The Core Knowledge Series', why not teach critical thinking while also systematically impart knowledge at the same time? While this series offers a 1991 set of knowledge expectations by grade level, the knowledge of which skills support a developmentally appropriate level of critical thinking is not detailed. The focus of the series is to ensure a common base of core knowledge is available to teachers, parents, and students at the elementary grade levels.

I've had conversations about this balance of rote learning versus critical thinking with teachers that taught during the time this series was published. One major trend in their responses was an allusion to an intuition that allowed them the freedom to teach what they felt children needed to learn and how to behave as students in their classroom (based not on any formal set of expectations but more personal intuition and preference). It is the latter that I feel is the critical fulcrum for finding the balance between knowledge and critical thinking today - how children are to behave as students is the critical point in finding that balance. It is this above all else that allows educators to recognize a line of average development and adjust for the wide range of development seen in students across grade levels.

This conversation was addressed recently in a TED Radio Hour episode, ‘Teaching for Better Humans’ ( The focus is on the very alluded behaviors mentioned by many of the teachers I spoke with – “how to be a student” has become a major focus in today’s education conversation. The phrase social-emotional learning is being addressed with more intention that it has in the past. The intentional identifying and classifying of the very skills addressed in classrooms of the past are being taken as seriously as the knowledge being identified and classified in “The Core Knowledge Series”. With so much evolution in the academic side of the conversation, it may not come as much surprise that the other side of the conversation is now evolving to balance that equation.

For my part, it is the use of cognitive and psychosocial development that allows me to connect a standards-based academic approach to this evolution of social-emotional learning. This developmental mindset is what ties together the overlapping efforts on both sides of the conversation and it is this I seek to add to the conversation. I am excited to be part of the conversation alongside today's educators, administrators, parents, and public policy writers as we seek to improve and maintain equitable evolution of public and private education systems.

Greg Mullen

Founder, Exploring the Core LLC

Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social-Emotional Learning Book Link (Available December 2019)-

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