On Captive Audiences and Critical Thinking in the Classroom

By Jen

Ah, the halcyon days of elementary school. Cheery greetings at drop-off and pick-up, daily opportunities for parent involvement in the classrooms, chatty, colorful newsletters keeping you up to date about your child’s day, countless social interactions with other school families, and reliably uncontroversial, predictable lesson plans.

By contrast, the journey through secondary school is marked by reduced contact with parents and a shift in focus to the main stakeholder: the student. I quickly became aware of this when my firstborn entered middle school. Suddenly he had six teachers instead of one. He had friends I’d never met. He had homework in subjects I hadn’t given much thought to in 30-odd years (hello, Algebra!), as well as exposure to new perspectives, ideas, curricular materials, and, importantly, an expanded role in his own education.

Although it took a bit of adjusting on my part, I have learned to embrace my diminished role in the day to day school experience, largely because taking ownership of their academic affairs has been a key component of my kids becoming more self-reliant and developing independent critical thinking skills. We converse daily about school, but the onus is on them to be their own advocates whenever possible. If they have a question about an assignment or a grade, they’re fully capable of contacting the teacher directly and resolving the issue.

Now some years into the secondary school routine, both kids are comfortable with their current levels of independence and corresponding accountability. I’m enormously proud of both of them for taking initiative to solve problems when needed, and being truly engaged, committed students. All that said, my comfort in sending them into the wilds of public education unaccompanied is rooted in the trust of the quality of the education they’re receiving. For the most part, this trust is warranted, but there have been rare missteps.

Both of the recent incidents I’m about to relate centered around topics that were completely appropriate fodder for the teen classroom. But the materials chosen to introduce them were so outrageously biased and inaccurate, I felt like I had to intervene. The larger issue that these episodes bring into focus is that there is a significant different between preaching critical thinking and practicing it. ‘Critical Thinking’ is a phrase that many of our secondary school teachers use in describing their classroom dynamics, but, as these incidents show, building critical thinking opportunities into the learning process does not always occur.

The general formula is as follows:

1. Kid comes home and voices concerns about the accuracy of a ‘documentary’ presented in class
2. We do some research together and quickly realize that said ‘documentary’ is indeed rubbish.
3. With the consent of the kid, I formulate a polite email to teacher, endorsing discussion of the topic, but questioning the choice of material and inquiring about future plans to give students a more balanced picture.
4. Teacher replies with generally unsatisfying promise of balanced discussion and critical thinking.
5. I counter that a great opportunity for critical thinking has been presented in the form of discussing the validity of the material in question.
6. The unit wraps up quickly with notable scarcity of critical thinking and is never revisited.

In the first instance, without preamble or context, a middle school Social Studies teacher showed the class the HBO Vice episode entitled “Savior Seeds”, a decidedly biased take on the use of GE traits in agriculture. I’ve never watched VICE, though I’ve heard good things and it’s apparently won some awards, but considering that one of the executive producers is Bill Maher, inaccurate reporting of science-based issues isn’t exactly surprising.

After viewing the GE portion of the program and discussing the content with my kid (step 2) I proceeded to step 3: first contact. The response contained much bloviating about critical thinking and letting kids do their own research. I opined that, while that was a stellar idea in principle, biased introductory materials were detrimental to this process.

The next day, my kid came home with a lengthy printout of websites through which to ‘do his own research’. The printout was from the resource page of ‘The Future of Food’ website, which contains a long list of links to anti-GMO organizations. Sigh. Repeat steps 2 and 3.

Johann_Peter_Hasenclever_-_Die_Dorfschule (1)On the final day of the ‘research’ phase, the kids were instructed to go to the Monsanto website during class and look things up for themselves. Finally, while no ‘debate’ was held, students were encouraged to share whatever they wanted about their research. According to my kid, most of the class was either neutral or slightly in favor of GE technology, and it was clear from the teacher’s response that this was not her desired outcome. I couldn’t help but wonder how much the direction of the unit had changed due to my intervention. And it was hard not to think that whatever critical thinking had occurred in the class was in spite of, rather than because of, the way in which the material had been presented.
The second incident occurred a few months later, in a high school Health class. This time, the questionable material came in the form of a film called “Forks over Knives”, which presents an argument for a plant-based diet being superior to all others. On the face of it, that’s not a controversial claim at all. Consuming less animal fat and more fresh fruits & vegetables is one component of the standard recommendations for reducing disease  risks across the board.

The problem, described in some detail here and here, is that ‘Forks over Knives’ grossly overstates the benefits of their particular plant-based diet based on some notoriously shoddy research. This, combined with the scary implications that all other diets are a fast-track to pain and death, concerned me mightily. Adolescents already have a whole lot of risk factors for disordered eating, so adding these unsubstantiated claims to their pile of things to worry about—again, with no context or balance given, seems like a terrible approach to ‘Health’.

Again, steps 1-6 proceeded. Again, the classroom outcome was underwhelming. No other materials were presented, and there was no discussion of the merits or shortcomings of the film. The teacher announced at the conclusion of the unit that some parts of the film were accurate and some were not, but didn’t give examples of either. Again, a golden opportunity for actual critical thinking was squandered.

Again, I wondered what the outcome would have been had I not raised concerns about the source material.

Part of the underlying issue here is the relative ease in finding misinformation vs. accurate material. The internet is full of outrageous lies, many of them packaged in attractive, professional-looking, plausible formats. Science-based information, by contrast, doesn’t always rise to the top of a Google search. It can be hard to find in the first place, and often inscrutable when located. No wonder the pretty lies can travel so much farther—even as far as our K-12 classrooms.

This makes me wonder how many times this sort of thing plays out in various classrooms everywhere, and how many—or how few–times parents like me speak up. Recognition that a classroom full of kids is the very definition of ‘a captive audience’ is one key reason why action is so unambiguously warranted when a teacher’s religious views influence their curriculum. But there’s no recourse when broader unscientific views are taught as objective truth. Teaching kids how to think critically would go a long way toward minimizing the impact of such sub-par source materials, but in our experience thus far there have been disappointingly few opportunities to develop these skills in any practical sense.

One big positive in all this is the awareness that my kids clearly have excellent BS detectors. One could argue that, since they clearly know not to believe everything they hears without verification, there’s no need for me to intervene. But it’s not just them I’m thinking about. All the promises of critical thinking as a tenet of modern instruction aside, most secondary students still view classroom materials as objectively true and accurate. When inaccurate information enters the classroom, it’s the kids who haven’t been cultivated to think for themselves whom I worry about.

You might disagree with my choice to voice these concerns on the grounds that it doesn’t respect academic freedom and/or disrespects the efforts of already overworked public school teachers. I absolutely do not mean to malign teachers in general, or even these particular teachers. I know how hard they work. I know how challenging the job is. I know how much both my kids have benefitted from the efforts and dedication of their teachers over the years, and I know that much of that benefit has come from the individual passions and personal interests that these teachers have brought into their classrooms. I know that teaching kids how to think is much, much harder in every possible way than telling them what to think.

All that said, I don’t regret my decision to challenge their choices in how these materials were presented. It may not make any difference to the way they teach these topics in the future, but it might. I hope it will, and I think it was worth it to try.

I’m under no illusion that this is the end of classroom controversies for our family. Already I see that ‘Alternative Medicine’ is on the syllabus for one child’s class later this school year, so stay tuned for how that plays out!

Meanwhile, maybe there’s a lesson here in the importance of staying engaged with your child’s education, even as they grow more self-sufficient and autonomous. These experiences are adding to the critical thinking toolkit my kids are currently assembling for themselves. My efforts to foster this are an investment in their futures, just like their extensive orthodontic interventions, or the college plans we’ve been paying into since they were babies. Learning how to sort out good facts from bad will pay dividends, no matter what academic, professional, or personal pursuits lie ahead.

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