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Cornelius: The hard work of critical thinking
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Today's technologies, from Facebook to Twitter to Skype and the rest, dominate much of the public talk about improving education in our networked society ("Lecture presents ideas for educators, Oct. 26).

This includes ideas about teaching young people to think critically, which some educators mistakenly see as a new thing necessitated by today's economy and society. Teaching critical thinking has always been at the heart of sound education, not just in math and science, but in the humanities. In the humanities, it has been taught by using the human race's most powerful communications technology: language, the spoken and written word; more specifically, discussion and debate, reading and the process of serious writing itself.

In our rush to new technology, we need to remember that the hard work of critical thinking remains largely what it was more than 2,000 years ago, and that some of the world's most sophisticated critical thinking was produced back then, Aristotle's "Politics" and Plato's "Republic" among thousands of other works.

If we don't remember this means and ends will become confused.

Computers and the related technology are of immense help with of the work surrounding critical thinking. They extend our powers in gathering and sorting information, in analyzing it, in the physical acts of reading and writing and rewriting. But these technologies cannot do the hard work at the core of critical thinking: serious reading; the thinking, creativity and judgment behind serious writing and editing, debate and dialogue.

The hard work is also in the study that provides the knowledge that is a foundation for such critical thought in the first place, and in people being creative enough to ask the right questions.

In our schools, a great deal of the hard work is done by inspired teachers and mentors: motivating students to write and think; playing the devil's advocate, pointing out unspoken assumptions, stirring up informed debate. And wherever teachers are working with young people this way, the students are improving their ability to think critically.

Consider this effort at Chestatee High School. For several years students in an honors class have written short essays, letters to the editor, and submitted them to The Times for publication. This year it was students in Ernest Davis's honor's class in Government and Economics.

These young people chose their topics, usually local ones, as Mr. Davis suggested. They did their research, and read blogs to get a grasp of various arguments; they discussed their ideas with Mr. Davis, and wrote their essays. Mr. Davis offered critiques, some revised their essays in light of his suggestions.

These young people are discovering that writing itself - serious writing - is a powerful teaching and learning tool.

This advanced exercise illustrates this power for improving critical thinking: Ask college seniors in a class on the American founding to write an informed essay on whether they would prefer to live in a society whose guiding principle is equality or one whose guiding principle is liberty. The two societies would look and work much differently.

To write an informed essay, a student would sample what a few noted thinkers have said about liberty and equality, summations of thinkers such as John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison or a current thinker like John Rawls. Some might also read a work or two by such writers - essays, letters, or books.

While reading they take notes, jot down points they agree or disagree with, and ideas for their essay. Then the writing begins. In goes well for awhile. Then they run into a sticking point and go back to an earlier reading for more information or to clear up a point. They write more. They cut, they add, they polish words and ideas; and when they find holes in their information or argument, they fill them.

All this is a part of critical thinking.

Finally, they read over their essay and make this discovery: They know a lot more about liberty and equality than before they started assignment. They are thinking much more clearly about liberty and equality; they can discuss them in a more informed way.

Their laptops helped a great deal, from writing itself, to word searches to find passages in a long work. Online they've been able to find and review material not available anywhere nearby. They might have used texting, Skype or other technologies to get counsel from a friend or a professor.

But they themselves did the hard work of critical thinking, the necessary intellectual work: reading, writing, thinking, revising.

As new technologies and software are introduced in such teaching, we need to be clear about what electronic technology can do, what it cannot do: the hard work better left to motivated people aspiring to learn.

Otherwise, supposed improvements will become yet more obstacles to teaching and learning.

Tack Cornelius is a Gainesville resident and occasional columnist who served as was an editorial writer and Washington correspondent and later wrote speeches for Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins, and for two CEOs of Bellsouth, John Clendenin and Duane Ackerman.

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