How to teach critical thinking

My grandparents on my father’s side were communists. My granddad was a bricklayer and a chain-maker and they admired the Soviet Union and thought that Western criticisms of Stalin were plain propaganda. They were staunch republicans and they had a point; why should power be passed down through a family? How can that be right?

My grandparents on my mother’s side were Tories. My grandfather owned a small joinery business and identified with the aspirations associated with The Conservative Party. Interestingly, both of my grandfathers had played football together as boys, years before my parents met. In addition to having the highest ratio of butchers shops to people in the known world, The Black Country has always been a ferment of ideas; a feisty, raucous mix of a street-fights, Methodism, the Labour party and temperance. The one thing that all of my grandparents had in common was that they were joyously disputatious. Arguments were welcome.

I think that both of my parents voted for Thatcher in 1979. My mum was and always will be loyal to a party that she was raised to support; a party with which her values align. My dad is more of a floating voter. He had lived through the economic malaise and blackouts of the 1970s and he had witnessed the worst of the union movement at close hand. So he resolved that something must be done. Yet he never reconciled to the Tories selling off the family silver on the cheap.

So I could have gone in any direction, really. Certainly, the household that I was born into was right-of-centre and at a time when the Conservative Party could command the support of many lower middle-class families like mine. We had a car and a telephone and were thinking about buying a video recorder. And this was in an era of Star Wars optimism where the future looked like Sinclair Spectrum computers and monorails.

Culture has a hold. The culture that you are raised in has a powerful, nostalgic draw. You catch yourself thinking things and not knowing why you think them. Ideas and attitudes are transmitted like viruses or absorbed as if by osmosis from the content of TV shows and conversations. We had a new shopping centre – The Merry Hill Centre. Where once ten thousand men laboured at a steel works, we now had a legion of part-time teenagers selling paisley shirts and Nike trainers.

It was at school where I worked out what I thought. I took history GCSE and was taught by Mrs Pullen. I had missed out on a history of kings and queens in the younger years. The view of history teaching back then was woolly – we had to flit about from period to period answering supposedly engaging questions rather than learning something of the chronology of Britain.

But the history GCSE that I took was a little more traditional. Not in one sense; it was largely social history rather than personality-driven political history. It was traditional in the sense that we had to write vast amounts. In order to do this we had to develop a clarity and robustness of ideas and we had to know our facts.

We studied the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The facts of these two periods hit me hard. The injustice of enclosures ensured that I would hold a lifelong suspicion of the benevolence of the wealthy and of market-based solutions. The poor were simply dispossessed in the name of profit and reform. Similarly, the industrial revolution exploited people as a resource. It is a shame that we never looked in detail at political movements of the time such as the chartists because I was ready for that.

When you have knowledge, you have something to measure things against. When someone stands on a soap-box and vomits out three word slogans, you know if it’s been done before and how it turned out. You can take a view on whether it seems plausible. You can judge for yourself whether a claim is pseudo-scientific.

When middle-class intellectuals pontificate on the wrongs of trying to teach world knowledge and suggest, instead, that children should discover it for themselves or should focus on the local and parochial then I find it imperative to say that without Mrs Pullen and the agricultural revolution then I wouldn’t be quite who I am today.

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2 Comments on “How to teach critical thinking”

  1. I’m completely on-board with what you say here, Greg. I’m also in support of what Michael Rosen said in his latest letter. I think think that, really, the two of you are more aligned than you realise. Have a good weekend!


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