If we want thinking children, we need thinking teachers. This is the premise of my book ‘The Thinking Teacher’, in this series of posts I am sharing some of the key ideas from the book and the thinking behind them.
This extract frames the reasons for sharing contentious ideas, and why considering those that you may not agree with can be important.
“… there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
A problem will challenge with questions and, as with subversion, these words often have negative connotations. This is particularly the case when questions are applied to established institutions, such as schools, which have an inherent authority and respect, and which it can be seen as wrong to question.
The value of all things comes from interpretation, so what you value will therefore depend on your point of view and the context. Hamlet is referring to the moral dimensions of our actions – it is down to the individual or group to decide whether a certain action is morally just or unjust, good or bad. The same can be true of ideas and concepts; there are no inherently good or bad ideas, simply those that are useful or those that are not, and this generally depends on the way you think about them.
‘Good’ ideas – that is to say, those that you agree with or appear to be descriptive of how your world works – clearly have value. They can illuminate your understanding of how something works, and then take that understanding to the next level. Good ideas often give us the feeling that they are common sense, that they speak to the way we perceive and understand the world. After having accepted a good idea, it is often very difficult to remember how we perceived things before we encountered them. Good ideas are usually the easiest to take on and understand. Sometimes they may jar with previous things we thought we knew, sometimes making them seem wrong or no longer of value. It can be hard to throw old ideas away or rethink them, but sometimes an excellent idea comes along that seems to be so true, so good, that we are willing to do this. Indeed, if the idea is that good, it is almost impossible not to let go of some of what we previously believed about the way things are.
However, there is also a value in ‘bad’ ideas, the kind of ideas that we disagree with, that do not fit with our experience and knowledge, and grate in a way that seems unhelpful. These ideas are useful, even if only because thinking about how and why we feel this way can temper and strengthen the ideas that we do hold to be true and allow to influence us. The ideas we ultimately choose to disagree with and discard provide a counterpoint to the ideas that are ‘good’ and easier to accept.
The illusionist and entertainer Derren Brown puts this well in his book Tricks of the Mind. In explaining his background and his work, he systematically debunks practices such as hypnotism, neuro-linguistic programming and even religion, yet he goes on to describe why all these practices are useful, indeed pivotal, to his ability to create the illusion of ‘controlling’ people. What matters is not whether he thinks these ideas are correct or not, but what light their existence sheds on how people conceptualise human behaviour and how he can take advantage of this.
Consider the idea of learning styles – that there are three types of learning: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) – and that people have a preference for one of these styles. This theory has been discredited by all manner of people, from teachers who have found it does not fit with their own experiences, to learning theorists and neuroscientists. Despite being a ‘bad’ idea, which has a questionable scientific basis, the theory has been highly influential and resulted in a range of different practices in schools. This is in no small part down to the fact that, on the surface, it appears to fit with common sense and is therefore an easy idea to swallow. Everyone has experiences of learning in these different ways and many people have certain preferences; they like it when teachers use visuals to explain things or when they are set up to learn by doing. Learning styles have therefore become quite widely accepted. The problem is that there is no clear link between what you like and how successfully you learn. Learning styles theory confuses personal preference with impact.
Even though the idea might be fundamentally a bad one, different results have transpired from teachers taking learning styles on board and attempting to use them in the classroom. On one hand, teachers have subjected the young people they work with to tests to find their preferred ‘style’, thereby labelling them as a particular type of learner and potentially limiting the effectiveness of their learning. Those labelled auditory learners might succeed when trying to learn some concepts that are best suited to this medium, but struggle with others. Try learning to play golf, or any other physical skill, by having someone talk you through it on the telephone and without actually using the clubs.
On the other hand, the assimilation of learning styles by some teachers has resulted in them thinking about how certain learning is presented visually, aurally or through firsthand experience, and where practicable to set up their lessons to include a variety of these approaches, thus resulting in a range of media and activities in their classroom. At the very least, this approach maintains interest and attention; at best, it can result in ideas being communicated in forms which are most appropriate to their content, therefore accelerating the development of understanding by learners. Despite both approaches being based on a ‘bad’ idea, one clearly contains detrimental elements whilst the other has more positive outcomes.
What is important, therefore, is not leaving such things to chance. Novel theories can prompt practice in the classroom that is both good and bad, so considering any ideas we come across deeply is the only way to make certain that what happens in your classroom is constructive. It is either that or leave our impact on learners to luck.
There are no inherently good ideas or bad ideas, but thinking makes them so. What you do with them, and how thinking about them influences your actions, is what is important. Sometimes the ideas that seemed bad at first are merely challenging but otherwise good. Sometimes those that seemed good on the surface are actually bad. This book contains many ideas; some may seem good to you and others bad. The important thing for the thinking teacher is that all ideas encourage us to think, and as a result can influence what is really important – what we do with them.