I’m retired now, but in the last years of teaching I was told to teach “critical thinking” and “higher order thinking” to students from K to 5. While this is a necessary and important part of education, I found it was inappropriate at some ages, and many students needed to be taught the discipline of thinking. In order to use critical thinking you need a base of knowledge with which to use; you need stuff to think about.
When I was a social studies cluster teacher I was asked by a 4th grade class that thought of itself as “bright” why they had to learn about the American Revolution and other “boring” things about dead people and distant events. I put aside my lesson for the day (thank goodness I didn’t have an administrator walk in on me for one of those “informal” observations) and we had a conversation. What did they want to learn about, I asked? Some didn’t care, some had no idea; a few were interested in parts of history they vaguely knew about, especially slavery and WWII Germany. Because we taught so little of social studies, or kept it as part of reading via biographies, students have no overarching understanding of civics, government, and how systems work in society and how it affects their own lives. They have little concept of who their presidents were; they were amazed when I told them Barack Obama was the first and only black president and how historic it was. They were even more incredulous when I told them that other countries had woman leaders, but our country never did. We discussed the importance of learning about the American Revolution and the Constitution, and how this ties in with our right and responsibility to vote, and why it is so vital to make use of this right. And this was in 2014, before our current election cycle. I can only wonder what they are thinking now.
I remember a 5th grader asking (remember, this was 2014) that if a Republican became president will his family be deported. Now that is critical thinking.
I remember the good old days when we taught grammar. And spelling. I know that dates me, but learning the parts of a sentence gives students a deeper understanding of language and how to use it, and enhances their ability to read and write. Learning spelling, even by (and especially by) writing the word a few times made the words more accessible to the students; we called it word study. We taught syllabication and affixes directly, not tangentially, and once they understood and identified the patterns, it increased their ability to parse meaning: it gave them tools to work with to increase their vocabulary, which exponentially helped reading and writing. And let’s not forget penmanship, a lost art- and skill. I was never much good at it myself, but when I taught it to 3rd graders they soaked it up like sponges. It has been documented that writing promotes eye-hand coordination and brain-kinesthetic coordination (How Handwriting Trains the Brain ). Everyone wanted to know how to sign their names in script, and the more artistically inclined naturally segued into calligraphy and graffiti-esque writing. And they wanted to write! Maybe it’s too slow for our fast-paced world, but maybe it’s just what today’s younger students need: something slow and repetitive that doesn’t require higher order thinking for a minute.
Children, especially in elementary school, need to have time to be creative, to use their imaginations and let their minds and bodies soar. We should be teaching them what it means to be good citizens, aware of their own bodies, appreciative of nature and the world around them, capable of observing phenomena and drawing their own conclusions, discerning fact from fiction and being able to appreciate both. Instead of teaching them to write essays to prove what they have learned, we should teach them to tell their own stories. Learning is work and requires discipline. Let’s give them the skills and background they need to navigate from where they are, while feeding their imaginations and giving them the space to run with it.