Robert Swartz

Teacher and philosopher

"More than 90% of what children learn in school has no impact on their lives once they leave."

How schools can help students develop critical thinking and autonomy.

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. At the moment, everyone's calling for a different approach, and we do need to change things how things are done, but how?

Within a traditional education structure, teachers explain things and students memorize them. 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?

Every day, we make decisions, solve problems, think about what might happen in the future and choose what facts to believe and act on from the information given to us by other people. 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.

Schools don't 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!"

Nowadays, children have access to the Internet, which is a fantastic tool that didn't exist 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. That's how we try to 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.

Find out more about Robert Swartz

Robert Swartz has PhD in Philosophy and teaches 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.
How can you help a child to think better?

First, you have to explain to them that they're going to use this method of thinking throughout their entire life to make good choices and solve problems. Of course, schools want to get the best out of their students, and they can do this by helping them to use these thinking skills in order to be better at learning. This has a dual effect. Lots of people have ideas about thinking and learning, etc. However, if you combine all the ingredients, you don't just get students that are better at learning, you can also help them to learn in the best way they can. That's how learning works.

"You have to teach parents to help their children to think and to become their mentors"

See the full video here.