You Can Lead Students To Knowledge, But How Do You Make Them Think?

Thoughtful young man
Like many new professors, perhaps, I initially thought that my primary responsibility in the classroom was to present course content to my students in a manner they would find interesting and informative. I was sharing the knowledge that formed the core of the course that I was teaching. Sharing knowledge is important, but I now believe that it comes second in terms of what universities should be delivering to their students.

More important is teaching students how to work with knowledge: how to think critically and creatively, form considered opinions, voice those opinions in a clear and efficient manner in either written or spoken form, and modify those opinions in light of new information. Teaching students how to think well and to communicate their thoughts clearly helps them in virtually all life’s contexts, from board rooms to operating tables. Moreover, given the existence of the internet and ever more efficient search engines, acquiring knowledge is relatively easy; using it in novel and relevant ways is more challenging.

Unfortunately, teaching students how to think is difficult not only on account of logistic issues (i.e., the time and resources involved) but also because of challenges in terms of the psychological defences students have that get in the way of learning critical thought. Recent internet-based resources are providing new ways of surmounting the logistic barriers to open-ended assignments (e.g. www.peerScholar.com), which means that professors now have the means of including open-ended assignments in virtually any course context, thereby providing the students with the practice they need to hone their skills. But to maximize the effectiveness of this practice it is important that the psychological barriers to thought be understood. What are these barriers and how can they be surmounted?

The goal state
When attempting to solve a problem it makes sense to first define the goal state. The goal of effective thought is captured well by William James, the Jimi Hendrix of thought. James spent a great deal of time thinking about issues and communicating his thoughts clearly. Thus, his view on thought, as presented below, represents the perspective of an expert.

The process here is always the same. The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as his can for in this matter we are extreme conservatives. (William James, 1907)

James’s last sentence is a massive understatement. What is represented in this quote is the sort of process we want our students to engage in, but this process, I argue, does not represent the manner in which most students come to opinions. It is a process that incoming university students have little experience with. Moreover, every student has defences in place that work against this sort of rational re-arrangement of opinions.

Ubiquitous indoctrination
We are not born with the capacity to reason. In fact, the sort of deep reasoning skills thought to underlie such phenomena as moral decision making often do not develop until the teenage years or later. However, from birth each of us is surrounded by a world filled with others who hold opinions. As Skinner put it, “Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless.” We are surrounded by those who believe certain perspectives are correct and, through processes of indoctrination and modelling, we come to accept these perspectives ourselves in the absence of rational thought. These indoctrination processes are especially powerful if the perspective under consideration is ubiquitous or if espoused by people for whom we have respect or admiration.

Thus, students who enter our classrooms do indeed come in with a “stock of old opinions”, but many, if not most, of these opinions were not born of rational thought. Rather, they are opinions adopted from one’s family, culture, and other relevant aspects of one’s pre-university context (e.g., the media). These opinions may include views that do not fit together but, absent critical thought, these incongruities may remain undetected, a claim highlighted by example later in this article.

What is an educator to do? How does one effectively introduce their students to rational thought, if such thought is not natural to them? To some extent, this challenge contains aspects of teaching any new skill; for example, teaching the processes involved in playing a musical instrument. Any skill is developed by repeated exposure to effective practice. For practice to be effective, students have to see the value of the practice and need to be given the right practice experience. However, when it comes to critical thought, they also need to understand that critical thought is not only a skill that needs practice to develop but also that, troublingly, attempts to practice it are often directly opposed by psychological defences.

Confirmation bias
If one re-reads the James quote, he provides an answer for how best to teach critical thought: merely expose students to some contradiction in the views they hold or present them with some new information that conflicts with the views they hold. In either case, that should kick start an investigation and reformation of one’s opinions so that they fit together, or fit with new information.

However, psychological research shows that when it comes to changing opinions, simply

exposing one to contradictory information does not suffice. If people of either a liberal or a conservative political perspective are exposed to information supportive of either a liberal or a conservative perspective, conservatives remember the conservative information, and liberals remember the liberal information. Humans in general seek out information that fits with their current views while not attending deeply to information that does not, a phenomenon called confirmation bias.
 

Thus, the process described by James reflects how an “open mind” works, but a truly open mind is something the majority of us do not possess. Instead, we hold opinions formed on the basis of modeling and indoctrination and keep those opinions in place thanks to processes like confirmation bias. The first step to teaching critical thought, then, is to open students’ minds by opening their eyes to confirmation bias.

Given this, it should not be surprising that research suggests one of the best ways to foster critical thought is to expose students to the literature showing both its importance and how difficult it is to teach. From my experience, two examples from the real world, one past and one present, serve these goals in different ways. The example from the past shows the challenges and importance in a “safe”, detached manner. The example from the present emphasizes the extent of the psychological defences to critical thought, especially when such thought implies profound changes in behaviour. This present-day example transforms the issue from the abstract
to something the students can truly feel.

Examples, past and present
Slavery has existed for centuries in virtually every culture known to humanity. For most students the slavery that comes to mind is pre-Civil War American slavery. During this time, slavery in the southern U.S. states was everywhere. No white person in the South could not come into direct contact with the practice of one human owning another.

I ask my student to imagine being a white person in that context: being raised (indoctrinated) in a place where it was viewed as normal for white people to own African slaves, where white people could literally do what they wanted with “their property”, and where slaves who defied the situation were viewed as being justifiably subject to punishment. I challenge them to put themselves in a family where parents, siblings, relations, neighbours, co-workers, friends, and respected community leaders find this situation reasonable. Would they also find it reasonable? Would they grow up to purchase slaves themselves? Do they really think they would resist the indoctrination, think about slavery rationally, and challenge what had become a deeply ingrained social norm that was defended by many respected leaders who were at the time considered rational? History suggests that many Americans of that time accepted slavery without much thought. But, some Americans did engage in a Jamesian thought process and came to the following ideological inconsistency. When the American colonies were promoting their independence from the British Empire, they rested their case primarily on the arguments contained in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration states that “all men are created equal” and that all people have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. For those with open minds, it was obvious that one cannot reconcile the practice of slavery with these principles.

Abolitionists promoted this ideological inconsistency widely. Did others then engage in their own Jamesian thought process and alter their opinions accordingly? Many did not, especially those for whom abolishing slavery would have resulted in a major life change. In fact, early abolitionists frequently met with violence including, in some cases, being lynched. It took a civil war to bring about the complete abolition of slavery, in 1865.

Why did non-abolitionists need so much convincing? There was an economic issue to consider. Many slave owners produced merchandise in a manner the depended on the relatively cheap labour force (i.e., the slaves). But consider as well that they—along with that majority of Southeners who did not own slaves—had grown up in a context where most people they associated with accepted slavery as a given. Fate casts its die, and people end up playing certain roles. A world without slavery would likely seem naïve and unrealisable. To these people, it wasn’t inconsistent to back simultaneously the Declaration of Independence and the institution of slavery.

For many students, these last statements leave them feeling incredulous. How could one not see the horrors of slavery for what they were? How could one put economic benefit, or tradition, ahead of the dignity of every human being proclaimed by the Declaration? This is where I find it most useful to turn the tables and put my students in the position of those in the southern U.S. states, albeit with respect to a different issue.

Sometimes trickery has its place in education. A sleight of hand can capture attention—and thought—in ways a straightforward presentation might not. With this in mind, I introduce the following quote implying it might be a quote from one who had deeply considered the juxtaposition of slavery and the Declaration and emerged as a born-again abolitionist:

I seem to move around perfectly easy among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupifying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad!

But then the quote continues:

Yet everyday I see the evidence. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Fragments of corpses they have bought for money. (J. M. Coetzee)

The issue that Coetzee is highlighting is the argument by many that humans should stop exploiting animals for food and other purposes (e.g., clothes, research). This issue is similar to the slavery issue, at least in the sense that it involves subjugating others for its own end. It is no longer about one race dominating another but about one species dominating others; otherwise the arguments are the same.

What makes this example powerful is that, unlike the slavery example, the majority of students eat meat. That is, they, as well as most of you reading this article, are on the pro-slavery analogue of this issue, making it possible for an educator to directly challenge the basis of this opinion. Is it an opinion formed by indoctrination and modeling? Or have we come to our position via a rational thought process? If the former, then what happens when we are confronted with other opinions we hold that contradict the view that eating meat is OK? The beauty of this examples comes from this confrontation; not only does it directly engage students in a Jamesian thought process of their own, but it also does so in a way that makes the psychological defences palpable. Students feel the defences to thought. Shall we try? First, what is the rationale for eating meat? Meat tastes good. Yes, there was a time when meat also provided an important and efficient source of protein and other nutrients that were very difficult to come by any other way. But those days are gone. There are many forms of non-meat protein available now; we do not “need” to eat meat, as so many healthy and long-lived vegetarians demonstrate. Given this, the question becomes whether eating meat is in accord, or not, with other opinions a person might hold: this question is the very heart of the Jamesian thought process.

Are you worried about the environment, and do you hold the opinion that humans should be doing everything possible to reduce emissions? If so, do you know that a 2006 United Nations report documented that emissions from meat production are greater than the emissions from all forms of transportation combined? If you think this cannot be true or you would have heard about this before, consider the role played by the media in terms of indoctrination. How many stories have you heard about hybrid cars? If you stopped eating meat, or even reduced your consumption, you would have a greater impact than if you chose to drive a hybrid.

Are you one who believes it is good to reduce pain and suffering in the world? If so, do you know that the majority of meat you eat is produced in “factory farms”, which are not farms but rather are enclosed spaces in which each animal has a space approximately the size of its body. Animals are not allowed to move freely, are sometimes continually restrained, and invariably suffer insanity before the time when they are finally killed. They live lives of pain and suffering, both physically and mentally.

Do you believe that health is a positive thing and that we should do all we can to promote it? If so, you should not eat meat. The two primary causes of premature human deaths now are heart disease and cancer, both of which are linked to eating meat. Yes, our bodies evolved as meat eating machines, but in prehistoric times, those machines died of other causes well before our arteries could clog and before cancer played much of a role. We live longer now, and our body-machines are healthier when meat is eliminated or reduced to a minimum.

These three arguments, and there are more, all illustrate how the opinion “it is good to eat meat” clashes with three other opinions most of us hold dear: “we need to care for our environment”, “reducing pain and suffering is good”, and “being healthy is good”. These four opinions should not reside in the same mind. We should forget the environment, become pro pain, and strive to be unhealthy, or we should stop eating meat.

If you are at all like my students, you feel uncomfortable now. You feel the psychological defence mechanisms at work. You now have two choices. One is to simply assume that I have somehow tricked you, that there must be a good reason to eat meat given that so many people do it, and then think about this no more. That is, accept indoctrination over rationality. The other choice is to think about meat eating, read about it, and learn more. Resist the defence, open your mind to the arguments, and see where they lead you. Don’t be surprised if they lead you, slowly but surely, to a vegetarian restaurant.

Conclusion
Teaching students the importance of critical thought, and the defences that impede it, should be viewed as one of, if not the , central role of universities in society. For students to really appreciate the importance of critical thought they need to see how it can change the world, as it did when slavery was abolished. For students to understand truly the psychological defences to thought, they need to experience them directly, preferably in a palpable manner. The meat eating example provides just such an experience. It is an uncomfortable example because it leads one to reflect seriously on their behaviour and the impact it has, but that is exactly the point.
 
Steve Joordens is a professor of psychology at ­­ the University of Toronto Scarborough.