Robert Swartz

Teacher and philosopher

"More than 90% of what is learned at school does not affect the lives of students when they leave"

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All students have talents, but one of the most important ones they can develop is how to work things out for themselves, and they can all learn how to do this. Research shows that between 92% and 95% of what we learn in school has no impact on our lives once we leave. And, of course, now that everybody asks for change, we need to change things, but how do we do it?

Traditional education is geared towards the teacher's explanation and based on memorizing. Under this model, students must learn what the teacher says, remember it and then use it to answer questions in an exam. This does require thought. However, learning to memorize things is a very limited way of thinking that results in a level of learning that is very superficial. For example, if you were to ask a group of students when the French Revolution was, they'd be able to tell you because they'd have memorized the date. But, do they really understand what the revolution was all about?

We make decisions every day, we solve problems, make predictions, we select the information that the people give us and we decide whether to accept it or believe it and we act accordingly. At other times, something might happen and we have to work out what caused it so we can decide what to do about it. We do these types of things every day. We compare and contrast information and, largely, we don't do it very well. We completely ignore some things and form rash conclusions. What we try to do is help students learn how to think more competently and attentively, basically, how to be better at thinking.

At school we do not teach students to make good decisions. Teachers just don't do this. However, this doesn't mean that students aren't making any decisions, because they are, based on what's happening to them and their 'own world'. What influences these decisions the most is advertising, which uses images of things people want to sell you. Advertisers tell you all about the benefits of something in a way that sounds so good you think to yourself, "I want it!"

"We have to teach parents to help their children to think, and to become their points of reference"

Nowadays, children have internet access, which is something fantastic that they did not have 20 years ago. Now, they can obtain information immediately, and what a lot of students do is to look for things using Google, which gives multiple answers. They click on a link, copy the information they find and then take it to school thinking that they've learned about it. They don't think about whether the information they've copied is true or not. It's essential that students learn how to observe and assess things for themselves. They have to be able to think critically about the information they've obtained and form their own opinion about whether or not it comes from a viable or reliable source. When they manage to do this, they have a much more solid foundation on which to base their reasoning and they are likely to choose credible information.

I think that schools that try to teach students how to think have the opportunity to show parents these strategies. This also applies to asking questions, for example, "What questions should you try to answer before reaching a conclusion?" You should think carefully rather than hastily before reaching a conclusion. This is how we help children. We can also help parents learn how to do this so they can help their children do it at home. Children always see their parents as having authority, and they don't need to learn how to think in order to exercise this authority. Many parents with teenage children, or children that have left school will remind them about the importance of thinking about the consequences of their actions.

Thinking about something is a social act. Most of us interact with other people. For instance, if a neighbor warns us not to take a certain route because of roadworks, we'll digest the information and think of a different way to reach our destination. I think it's a real shame, a travesty even, that throughout most of the twentieth century, schools treated students as isolated individuals by focusing on their individuality. This led some students to not want to share what they were doing and there was a lot of competition about who would get the best grades, etc. Then, when they got a job, contrary to what they learned in school, they found that they had to work in a team and understand how to apportion tasks, share ideas and develop concepts put forward by colleagues.

PhD in philosophy and Professor at the University of Massachusetts. He developed a teaching method called "Thinking-based learning" and thinks that schools should encourage critical thinking, cooperation, independent decision-making and creativity.