Critical Thinking

in Public Schools and

the Potential Dangers of

Worldview Education

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

      This page is Part 2 in a three-part series about worldviews-and-religion in public education — 1) Worldviews-Balance in Education explains why absence does not produce balance;  2) Potential Dangers of Worldview Education (this page);  3) Origins Education in Public Schools examines methods for teaching evolution, design, and creation — which in turn is part of broader explorations in Religion in Public Education and Worldview Education.

      Does absence produce balance?  As explained in Part 1, a common educational policy of "teaching only science" (or only history, or...) — with no mention of religion except perhaps in a condescending claim to fully "explain" it in terms of psychology and sociology, as a human construction — does not accomplish its stated goal of achieving a balanced treatment of religion.  On the other hand, "Do theists want theistic concepts to be explained by a teacher who might distort these ideas due to a lack of knowledge and skill, or by a skeptical nontheist who might try to persuade students against theistic beliefs?" {quoted from Part 1, re: Worldviews-Balance in Education}


      Accurate Understanding and Respectful Attitudes

      Students in my high school learned valuable lessons about understanding and attitudes from one of our favorite teachers, who sometimes held debates in his civics class.  On Monday he convinced us that "his side of the issue" was correct, but on Tuesday he made the other side look just as good.  After awhile we learned that, in order to get an accurate understanding, we should get the best information and arguments that all sides of an issue can claim as support.  We also learned respect, because we realized that even though we may have valid reasons for preferring one position, people on other sides of an issue may also have good reasons, both intellectual and ethical, for believing as they do.  {details of "understanding and attitudes" in my high school experience}

      Logical Evaluation: Is it a worthy goal for education?

      Most educators, including me, agree that two central goals of education are conceptual understanding and thinking skills, and a very important thinking skill is logical evaluation.  In addition to helping students understand concepts, a teacher should help students learn the skills and attitudes required for logical evaluation, for deciding whether a theory should be accepted, rejected, or viewed with an intermediate level of confidence.   { Usually this process of using logic is called critical thinking, but maybe we should change the name to evaluative thinking. }

      Will critical thinking lead to postmodern relativism?

      When teaching about religion in a public school, all of us should agree that "reaching a conclusion" is not an acceptable goal.  But we should distinguish between goals for a class and for an individual student.  If a teacher claims that "since you cannot know for certain, you should avoid a conclusion," it would encourage a relativistic agnosticism in students.  But perhaps this can be avoided if a teacher explains that "since this is a public school I'm trying to be neutral, but each of you as an individual, outside school, can reach your own conclusion."
      As emphasized by advocates of teaching about religion in public schools, such as Charles Haynes and Warren Nord, appropriate training of teachers is essential, so they can learn effective strategies for remaining reasonably neutral, with a logically appropriate humility, while avoiding a mushy (or pushy) postmodern relativism.

      a clarification:  The intention of our civics teacher, and the conclusion of his students (including me), was not a postmodern relativism.  And this website is not postmodern.  It is dedicated to the rationality (and compatibility) of logic and faith.
      resources:  What is postmodernism?  If you're wondering, check Knowledge of Worldviews.  My views are summarized above and in three pages: Is there proof for the existence and actions of God? and Basic Concepts of Reality, Truth, and Theory and Should Philosophy of Science be Eks-Rated?

      Critical Thinking in Worldview Education

      As mentioned above, helping students improve their thinking skills is a worthy goal.  But when critical thinking is used in worldview education, is it always beneficial?
      At its best, when people and ideas are treated with respect, and views are expressed accurately, an interactive discussion of controversial issues usually produces high motivation, and helps students learn about important issues while developing their skills in critical thinking.  I still remember, with gratitude, the way a high school teacher changed my understanding and attitudes and the way I think.
      At its worst, however, interactive discussion can be an effective way for a teacher to persuade, to impose personal opinions on students.  In fact, open discussion, with critical thinking guided by the teacher, is often used as an instructional strategy in the conceptual change method that has become influential in science education during the past two decades.
      For example, imagine my civics teacher using his expert debating skills to specialize in "Monday arguments" without ever presenting Tuesday's counter-arguments.  But it would be even worse (for seekers of the truth) if he constructed a weak, distorted "strawman" of the Tuesday position, for the purpose of knocking it down and declaring a victory of Monday over Tuesday.  This would be very effective for persuasion, even though it would be intentionally misleading (and therefore intellectually dishonest) because the strong Tuesday — the real one, not the fake made of straw — was never involved in the debate.

      In this situation a few students — those who already have the knowledge, confidence, and ability required to skillfully analyze complex issues — would survive and might even thrive.  But most students — being young, inexperienced, impressionable, and intellectually timid — would lack the ability to mentally defend themselves against a well-prepared adult who, as teacher, occupies a position of authority and has earned the respect of students.
      Of course, another danger is a "direct teaching" of worldviews — which can be implicit or explicit, subtle or obvious — to students who are not able or willing to engage in critical thinking about what they are learning.  ( In fact, they may not even be aware of their "worldview learning." )
      Because most young students are vulnerable, teachers are expected to seek a balance between conflicting demands:  a teacher should provide strong intellectual guidance, but should not exert "too much influence" on students.  Finding an appropriate balance is not easy, especially in the climate of controversy that is common in worldviews education, because no matter what a teacher does it will be impossible to please everyone.

      In education about worldviews, as in other areas of the curriculum, effective teaching depends on the integrity and skill of teachers who think carefully, with wisdom and courage, about desirable goals, who build a solid foundation by adequate preparation and planning, and who carry out their plans with sensitivity and respect.


      Critical Thinking = Evaluative Thinking

      The homepage for Critical Thinking explains why "critical thinking is not necessarily being critical and negative. ...  Rigorous critical thinking can produce a glowing recommendation ... so it would be more accurate to call it evaluative thinking.

      Teaching for Conceptual Change

      According to Demastes, et al, "Many science educators interested in understanding the process of learning use the model of conceptual change.  Within this broad framework, a learner is thought to possess a network of related conceptions, a conceptual framework, through which he or she understands a topic.  Learning is characterized as a series of cognitive restructurings in which a learner's conceptual framework undergoes structural modifications or revisions based upon new experiences, information, or concepts the learner encounters.  Thus, learning is seen as a change in a preexisting conceptual framework."
      As a science educator, I think teaching for conceptual change (described above and in a summary of Conceptual Change Teaching) is generally a very good idea, and is not a sinister plot.  The main proponents of this approach have good motivations, and have worked hard to develop it into an effective way to teach.  But any powerful educational method, including conceptual change teaching, can be used for either good or evil.  Belief in a God who is theistically active in nature could be considered an "alternative conception" if some experts in science and education don't believe it.  In fact, in the mid-1990s this claim was made by a prominent educator invited to lecture at UW-Madison.  If some teachers agree, and they define a belief in divine action as an "alternative explanation" that is unscientific and is thus undesirable in science education, then a statement (from the summary page) that "the challenge of teaching science is to ensure that students do not leave classrooms with their alternative explanations intact" is a cause for concern.

      Hidden Arguments and Open Discussions

      Here are excerpts (with omissions indicated by ...) from a section about Hidden Arguments and Open Discussions.
      ... Occasionally an atheist/materialist worldview is explicitly stated, as when Carl Sagan (winner of awards for science education) opened Cosmos by asserting that "The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be."  More often, materialism is implicitly communicated, even if this is not intended, when "no theistic action in all scientific descriptions of the universe" implies "no theistic action in the universe."  Due to these implications, ignoring religious perspectives (as in a simplistic policy of "teaching only science") does not produce a neutral balance.
      Implicit arguments can be persuasive because only one view is presented, with no opportunity for counter-argument.  Because the arguments are hidden, they are not critically analyzed, so fallacious reasoning can survive and thrive.
      By contrast, open discussions will encourage understanding and critical thinking.  Possible discussion topics include...  /  During discussions, important ideas from major viewpoints should be expressed accurately (with no weak, distorted "strawmen") so the ideas can be understood and evaluated. ...  A respect for religious perspectives, with an absence of "faith versus reason" implications, is important.  Without respect, a discussion of important ideas can be harmful.  With respect and wisdom, it can be helpful and educationally productive.

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Copyright © 2003 by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved