Little children do not need to be ‘critical thinkers’

I read this really interesting article this morning and it got me thinking about primary schools in the UK. You know that I have written before about feeling like I’ve landed in an alien world (when I enrolled on that SCITT course a few years ago); I still feel the same way sometimes and quite often my face is like this whenever someone mentions ‘creativity’ and ‘critical thinking’:

confused pirate

The article I link to repeats the great wisdom that in order to be a critical thinker you need to know a lot about that particular subject (likewise with creativity). Of course I agree, but in contrast to many educators, I think even the earliest years of education need to be about transmission of subject specific knowledge and vocabulary. I’m going to be bold and say that I think we actually need to be encouraging our youngest children to be ‘uncritical’ thinkers (ie, mostly in ‘receive’ mode) and for teachers to really know what they’re talking about.

Oh my God! She’s trying say that little children shouldn’t be allowed to think for themselves!

No, I didn’t say that, but I do think it’s a bit weird that you’re trying to treat my own offspring like they’re little professors – you can get them to be curious all you like, but they’re not going to magically come up with the theory of relativity all by themselves.

In the staff room, for example, I reckon I could venture a few critical thoughts about the sustainability of final salary pension schemes, but that’s because I know a lot about pensions including the rules, regulations, taxation (personal and corporate), investment, administration and the process of winding up (almost inevitable, unless underwritten by the State). Over the years, I have collected various jigsaw pieces of knowledge about a variety of subjects, but that’s just because I am older and a bit more experienced; I’m nothing special though. However, what seems to be different about the adults in the school staffroom compared to the average office is how educators with no knowledge whatsoever about a subject seem to think they can talk about it like they are an expert even though they are talking complete bollox (‘Yeah, well maybe if the bankers didn’t get paid squillions, we’d have more money for pensions’), so my face ends up looking like this:


It could just be a unique experience to me, although there have been a number of occasions which has led me to think this is a ‘pattern’ and it’s hard not to take it personally because these situations are incredibly insulting, but I sometimes wonder whether this is symptomatic of a general attitude in education that you don’t need to be an expert in a subject in order to be a ‘critical thinker’ and have an opinion on everything because, according to many educators, ‘critical thinking’ can be taught and tiny little children can be ‘critical thinkers’ too, even when both child and adult in the situation know hardly anything about that subject. So, I get told by supremely confident people all sorts of wrong stuff about all sorts of subjects, and then when I come back with, say, some actual science (for example, no, there aren’t only 3 states of matter), I just get a ‘Well that’s what you think. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion’. I worry that this attitude where even if you don’t know the salient facts about a subject, you can still go ahead and think ‘critically’ about it, could transfer into the classroom with the following results:

a) children copy the same kind of behaviour – perhaps feeling entitled to rudely interrupt in order to spout opinion and ongoing commentary about anything and everything

b) children think they don’t need to know about a subject because they’ve been given tacit permission to comment or ‘think critically’ without having done the hard graft of background research (or been taught much about it), so they don’t try as hard to learn the facts or take that much of an interest in that subject

c) children are taught misconceptions, stereotypes or outright wrong’uns by teachers who are convinced of their own expertise, despite their not having learned enough enough about that subject themselves (the worst examples I have seen are in maths and science lessons, but music, history and RE can throw up a few clangers and I can’t be the only person who has winced at the ‘modelling’ of poor French pronunciation)

d) children grow up thinking that they do not need to listen to or respect experts/elders

But all that’s OK isn’t it? So long as they’re curious and asking lots of questions, that’s all that matters, right?

If I’m honest, this whole situation, especially the last point above because it potentially turns children against their own parents, makes me very sad. Perhaps this is the root cause of how our youngest generation arrived at the collective decision that we’re all, allegedly, now living in a ‘post-truth’ world – the reality is that no one knows very much and instead of finding out more, perhaps from those who do know about that particular subject or via going to the library and reading an actual book, they just make stuff up. This means that in the West we’ve potentially managed the unique feat of completely closing the minds of our youngest generation to any and all wisdom and expertise. This is in stark contrast to the almost universal commandment in the Far East that young people have a duty to listen to, learn from and respect their elders and their collective wisdom.

I think this process of ‘closing of minds’ starts in EYFS school reception year (where they are immersed in themselves as it were) and continues all the way to the end of year 6.

By the time the children arrive at year 7, they have had many years of ‘What would you like to find out about the Tudors?’ and ‘What do you think causes earthquakes?’ Even if teachers then go on to properly teach any particular subject complete with all the juicy facts, the children are still introduced to every lesson and lesson sequence with questions like this, causing them to think they they can go ahead and make up any old crud in their heads while believing that they’re being incredibly insightful, with the most disadvantaged children being disadvantaged even further by their limited background knowledge and experience (‘I’d like to find out if the children in the Tudor times played football or had video games!’). Many primary educators would read this and feel offended by these accusations, but believe me when I say that many, many parents up and down this country have had to correct misconceptions, stereotypes and untruths that their children have been taught at school:

  • Kind Henry VIII was some kind of mad, fat, woman-hating tyrant (actually, it is notable that as a young man he taught himself to dance, read and write music, speak many languages, understand the structure and military capabilities of all the surrounding countries, write poetry and worked hard to become excellent at sport – the guy was tall, fit, clearly incredibly intelligent, had charisma)
  • All children in Africa live in mud huts, wear masks and hunt with spears (actually, no, Africa is a continent and most of it is really quite developed)
  • The Victorians hated children and beat them constantly (actually, no, they were deeply concerned about the welfare and education of children – by the end of Victoria’s reign, the welfare of children had improved and almost all children were in school till the age of 12)
  • Grid method is how you do multiplication (actually, no, let me show you this whizzy method called long multiplication that takes a fraction of the time and is also way easier)
  • Butter is bad for you (actually, no, real butter helps you to absorb the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K and you can’t really get everything you need just from vegetables and fruits)
  • If you believe, you can achieve (actually, no, you need to have a goal and consistently work hard towards it)

Does the profession not find this embarrassing? Do educators assume that every parent is an idiot who will glibly accept whatever the child has been ‘taught’ at school when in fact most parents have some kind of relative expertise somewhere – whether it be general knowledge (because parents are typically older and more worldly experienced that the average primary teacher), knowledge honed through progressing through academia or having a specialist interest as a hobby, knowledge gleaned from reading lots of books and newspapers, or knowledge honed via the workplace (IT or financial services, working in foreign countries and having a better understanding of different cultures, knowing that only hard work and not ‘luck’ leads to rewards).

So, there we have it: children who are being encouraged to think critically even though they don’t know enough (because the teachers don’t know enough) when in fact younger children need to be encouraged to think uncritically (ie, just listen and learn) and be taught by experts.

What’s the answer?

Thankfully, the tied is turning and many primary schools are getting on board with the whole knowledge thing, working together to ensure that the children are receiving a great immersion in fascinating, linked-up facts in all their lessons. Knowledge organisers are being shared, experts are helping teachers with their resources, planning and teaching, and children are being given those wonderful opportunities to feel successful and like they’re really learning whenever they are tested. Although this isn’t the reason why knowledge is at the forefront of curriculum planning in many schools, children will experience a subtle shift in their mindset such that they will understand that the main job of a teacher is to teach and that their task is to listen and to learn. I think this is a good thing because little children need to be uncritical thinkers until they are old enough and wise enough (ie have learned lots about that subject).

There is much more that can be done though: textbooks written by experts and with ‘background information’ for teachers to bone up on, national/state tests of knowledge (start with science in year 6, please) for each year group; this will also cause parents to take an interest and to want their children to do well. Larger schools and academy trusts have the advantage that human resources can be pooled in order to provide expert-led lessons for children. The people at the DfE are talking about knowledge and the ‘substance’ of what is taught, but much of what they say is directed at secondary schools when we (those of us who have read our ED Hirsch) know that attention needs to be paid to what goes on behind the closed doors of the primary school down the road.

Perhaps many primary teachers need to accept that the joy of having a truly intellectual conversation with a young person that spurs them onto further interest in a subject is a joy reserved for the secondary teacher, and that in order for that conversation to take place someday in the future (when the child has long forgotten our names and faces), it is our job to lay the foundations of knowledge and vocabulary to enable it otherwise that conversation many never take place. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had conversations with children about how much dark matter there is in the universe, but at the back of my mind I’m thinking about making sure they are damn good at maths, can write a decent report and have the basic science knowledge so that one day they can tell the world about dark matter, but it will be their physics teacher and the subject itself that they will cite as being their inspiration and that is absolutely the right thing.

But what if these little ‘uncritical’ thinkers are taught a lie and just accept it?

They shouldn’t be taught lies though, should they? As adults, it’s our job to make sure that we know enough and are teaching them the facts. Further, is it appropriate to be treating little children like they’re mini-professors, constantly asking them to think critically about a subject they know little about, just as we try to get them to pretend to be expert scientists by doing lots of experiments, hoping that by pretending to be experts they will, de facto, become experts?

So, let’s expect the little children to be uncritical thinkers and let’s make sure we’re giving them lots of knowledge.

Who’s with me?


9 thoughts on “Little children do not need to be ‘critical thinkers’

  1. Yesterday’s Telegraph featured an article by a university lecturer that confirms all of your worst fears about a generation of pupils raised on a steady diet of ‘creativity’ and ‘critical thinking skills’–young people who’ve been led to believe that their own feelings are the sole benchmark for what they are entitled to think:

    I hope you’ll pardon me for banging the same old drum about annual tests. The current issue of the TES has four articles about teaching Maths, and the only mention of number bonds was to imply that the test proposed by Nick Gibb is one of the sources of ‘Maths Anxiety’. The only sensible argument proposed in any of these articles was the obvious fact that many teachers are so ill-prepared to teach maths that their own anxiety is readily transferred to their pupils.

    Nowhere was there the slightest recognition that mastery of basic skills frees the working memory for higher-order tasks and problem-solving; rather, we were treated to the old ed-school chestnut that it’s fine when pupils make mistakes, as this presents teacher and pupil with a learning opportunity. Out in the real world, mistakes have consequences: no brickie or roofer wants to work on scaffolding that has been erected with anything less than perfection, and no soldier wants to go out on the range with another one who hasn’t mastered weapon-handling drills thoroughly.

    It is not difficult to design Computer Adaptive Tests (CATs) which take very little time to administer and no time whatever to mark. With a sufficiently large question bank, it becomes impossible to teach the test without teaching the skill. They can also serve to define a body of essential knowledge which will eventually be needed to excel on post-16 tests.

    Obviously, it this is not real politics now, but there is nothing to stop schools from designing their own machine-scored tests (which needn’t be CATs) that would be weighted heavily to declarative knowledge and provide a reality check for teachers who think that higher-order skills can be taught in its absence. Let us hope that Michaela proves a beacon in this respect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great comments, thanks Tom! Yes, hopefully tests will be developed and what I’m hoping for in particular are some primary level computerised MCTs for the various subjects taught in each year group. Science is first on my list!


      • Quirky–why not post any test items you write and encourage other teachers to do the same? I’m no fan of collaborative learning and very lukewarm on collaborative teaching, but we really need someone to start a grassroots effort, especially in primary schools.

        Think about it–vast amounts of what is taught is forgotten (even if it was learnt in the first instance) because people like Warwick Mansell have convinced teachers that tests are horrible, nasty, stress-inducing things that narrow the curriculum. In other words, they force teachers to actually teach what they’re paid to teach. When testing is an integral part of teaching and learning, very little is forgotten. In other words, regular quizzes and tests can improve the efficiency of our schools by a massive factor. And as Katherine is proving at Michaela, the kids love it.


  2. I can’t be with you or the other opponents of critical thinking here. Perhaps it has become a term bandied about, lumped in with other vague 21st century skills and the completely unrelated and misleading ‘creative thinking’, but what you describe is its opposite. Critical thinking isn’t a free-for-all-anybody’s-opinion-is-as-valid-as-anyone-else’s and a good deal of it amounts to recognising that subject knowledge is crucial and knowing about the set of processes which are likely to lead to more reliable evidence as opposed to myth and hearsay. Perhaps there is some pseudo ‘critical thinking’ meme which has been hijacked by those who have the least understanding. Anyone who thinks it’s about their own ‘view’ and their entitlement to their opinion, clearly hasn’t a clue.


    • I think Quirky was understating the case against attempts to teach ‘critical thinking’ skills in school. As you say, subject knowledge is crucial, but this side of post-graduate studies very few students have anywhere near enough of it to make informed judgments. On top of this, humanity–teachers included–are governed more by biases than a reasoned evaluation of evidence. Efforts to teach children how to think end up teaching them what to think.

      I took my son out of school at the age of 8 largely because of his teachers’ biases. Even with the best will in the world, some bias inevitably creeps into the classroom, but these days woe betide a child who queries the liberal consensus on a whole range of issues (such as Brexit). In theory, schools should be neutral on political issues, but even back in my day they were a conduit for environmental propaganda. It’s never easy deciding what is ‘politicat’, but a safe rule of thumb is that most anything that appears in the Guardian or the Mail is political. In days gone by, this wasn’t a problem: Tories and socialists alike supported a strong academic curriculum. Sadly, those days are long gone.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great blog post. I agree, novices(most students) should not be required to think or act like experts. Schooling should be framed around providing enough knowledge that the student then has some ability to think critically. It is ludicrous that the skills-based curriculums – such as the one we have in Aust. – is more focused on what students can do then what they know.

    It is very heartening to hear that more and more schools in England are incorporating knowledge content again. I can only dream that this will happen in Aust. one day. Unlike England or the US we have no school choice beyond State/private who use the Aust. curriculum or very progressive schools such as Montessori or Steiner. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum would be a godsend here.


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