Teaching students how to think, not just what to think

As you know, at university, and at A level too, we set out to assess students not just on how much they know, but more importantly on how well they have developed and can use their higher cognitive abilities. These are the abilities to analyse concepts and arguments, to play devil’s advocate and synthesise ideas and evidence from different sources to create new ways of looking at a problem, to construct consistent arguments, and to discuss and critically evaluate ideas and arguments.

But to use and develop these abilities we must have the opportunity to think and for this we must suspend our judgement: things must be up for grabs. As Paul Tillich once said, ‘The passion for truth is silenced by answers which have the weight of undisputed authority.’ Once we accept something as true, there is nothing more to think about, nothing more to discuss. Therefore, there is no opportunity to use and develop our higher cognitive abilities to analyse, synthesise and evaluate.

Having Opinions

Understandably, when we reach the age of adolescence we search for certainties, instant opinions about complex things that give us an anchorage from which we can negotiate with the world and conduct our relationships. Unfortunately, as a result we begin to close down our higher cognitive abilities at the very time when they should be the most exciting preoccupation in our intellectual world.

As soon as you assume that you must have opinions – that you must make up your mind – you are faced by the much less challenging task of simply defending your point of view. You no longer suspend your judgement. In effect, someone who has opinions has stopped thinking: she has come to a decision, she has concluded, the process of thinking has come to an end. All that is left is to defend the conclusion, not explore it, analyse it, challenge it, subject it to difficult examples that seem to conflict with your opinion and to evidence that appears to support a different opinion.

From that point on we set out just to win the argument: suppressing evidence that might weaken our argument, ignoring arguments that conflict with our own and refusing to play devil’s advocate. Rather than discover the truth by using the full range of our conceptual and creative abilities, we close down discussion, avoid arguments and evidence that might damage our own point of view, and resort to the techniques of debate to throw doubt on those who hold different views. The bold, ambitious pursuit of truth, with the courage to propose new ideas and insights that many might find inconceivable, is swept aside for a negative, safely contained defence of opinion.

The value of philosophy

In contrast, the priceless gift of philosophy lies in teaching people to have the courage to accept uncertainty and think for themselves. Bertrand Russell once said: ‘To teach how to live without certainty and yet without being paralysed by hesitation is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can do for those who study it.’ This is philosophy’s greatest value. It teaches us to think the unthinkable. It gives us the courage to conceive the inconceivable, to challenge those convictions that appear to be beyond all question.

I was one of the first to teach the philosophy A level when it was introduced in 1985. Since then I have taught in universities and colleges in Europe, Australia, the UK and at the University of Maryland. In all that time the one thing that lit up my teaching career was the passion for ideas I was able to ignite; the obsession for generating and developing insights that lit up my students’ world and filled them with the courage and confidence to take on the world and all those who were unable to suspend their judgement and think beyond their narrow certainties.

The simple fact that I have been able to give students this sustains me in a way that is beyond explanation. I regularly get letters from students who thank me for the priceless gift I was able to give them: the ability and courage to think. So, if you are able to, give your students the same gift. Teaching philosophy would teach them to suspend their judgements and build immunity against careless judgement and unentitled certitude.

Bryan Greetham, PhD


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