COMMENT: Lets Think Critically About Critical Thinking

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Common Core keeps popping up on my radar screen these days. As I understand it, Common Core is an attempt by educators to standardize teaching curriculums across the US with the central goal of raising the US’s reported dismal world standing in science and math. As an example, this article Are We Misinterpreting the STEM Crisis? reports the following:

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development reports that American 15-year-olds were ranked 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. Kids seem reluctant to study STEM, and no one seems to know how to pique their interest.

So, Common Core appears to be an attempt to not only increase STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) competency but also interest in STEM. Sounds good. However, Common Core has been the target of ridicule lately. Here are two such examples.

Here’s a quote from an article that appeared over at The Blaze entitled  Frustrated Father Who ‘Obliterated’ Common Core in Viral Post Shares How His Son’s Teacher Reacted:

Jeff Severt recently grew so frustrated with his second-grader’s Common Core math assignments that, rather than simply help his son with the homework, he wrote in his own response on one of the questions.

Here’s a copy of what Jeff wrote:

Parent responds to Common Core homework assignment

Take a moment to read Jeff’s response. We’ll come back to it a bit later. Personally, I was confused because I simply did not recognize the mathematical process of subtracting one number from another. Number line eh? That’s a new one on me. And write a letter to Jack? What? Where have I been that I didn’t get the memo that subtraction now involves using a number line and writing letters.

Louis C.K. is a well known comedian. He recently sent out the following tweet:

“My kids used to love math. Now it makes them cry. Thanks standardized testing and common core!”

— Louis C.K. (@louisck) April 28, 2014

Louis C.K.’s tweet hit a nerve because many parents feel the same way. What the heck is going on here?

The other day I was having coffee with a well-seasoned educator. I availed myself of the opportunity to ask this very question: “What’s going on with Common Core and all the hubbub?”

Here’s what I found out:

  • The US is falling behind the rest of the developed world in terms of STEM.
  • Because the US is falling behind in STEM, we are falling behind in terms of economic competitiveness.
  • Common Core was designed to address this so-called STEM crisis.
  • Many Common Core math and science questions seem bizarre and confusing to the “older generation” (read Baby Boomers such as myself) because Common Core represents a completely new paradigm as far as teaching STEM subjects.
  • Here’s the heart of the this new paradigm: teach kids, as young as first and second graders, critical thinking.
  • Parents and educators alike will not enjoy this new critical thinking paradigm because critical thinking is hard, especially for young kids.
  • Common Core attempts to make STEM subjects more relevant by making them more social (which explains the letter to Jack in the subtraction example above).

Ahhhhh! A big light went off. There it was: the critical thinking paradigm. It was starting to fall into place: we should teach critical thinking to first and second graders. This may explain why we have headlines like the following: School cancels kindergarten show so kids can focus on ‘college and career’. It will be a matter of time before Zero to Three offers a DVD set designed to teach critical thinking to babies still in the womb. Now I understand why educator Henry Giroux made 282 references to some aspect of critical thinking in his 2013 book entitled America’s Education Deficit and the War On Youth. Critical thinking is some sort of battle cry for some type of new paradigm. If I had to guess, I would say that critical thinking is the battle cry for the postmodern worldview. If my suspicions are right, it then gets very bizarre because postmodernism is centrally about releasing or liberating us from the constraints of modern science. How then can we use a worldview that wishes to point us past science to teach us science. Honestly, I have no clue. However, both liberals and conservatives alike appear to be happy with Common Core. Lets take a look at this bipartisan trend.

Just today I ran across the following article: ‘ObamaCore’? Common Core ed reforms don’t scare GOP voters, poll finds. This article talks about how conservative Jeb Bush is a fan of Common Core. Apparently Bush and other conservatives like Common Core because one of its stated goals is to increase economic competitiveness, which fits with a conservative worldview. Liberals like Common Core because one of its stated goals is to teach critical thinking to kids as young as seven or eight, maybe even younger. I’m suggesting that critical thinking is code for postmodernism. Ergo, postmodern liberals like Common Core because it effectively indoctrinates kids with postmodern (critical) thinking. However, the above article mentions that there is one small liberal group that is not so enamored of Common Core. Consider the following quote:

Opponents on the left say the standards are developmentally inappropriate, especially in younger grades, and dislike the practice of tying teacher evaluations to new Common Core-linked tests.

Ahhhh! Developmental appropriateness … what a concept … what a modern concept … what a Bowlbian attachment theory concept. See, you knew I’d bring this all around to Bowlbian attachment theory. The question here becomes: “Is it developmentally appropriate to teach critical thinking to children as young as seven or eight?” Simply, the answer is no. Freud told us that once all of the Oedipal conflicts have been sufficiently dealt with, the child goes into a latency period from about age 5 until about age 13. According to Freud, this is a period of relative psychological calm in which learning could take place. Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget came along and said that Freud’s latency period was roughly when the individual could engage in so-called concrete cognitive operations (ages 7 to 11), the types of concrete operations typically associated with left-brain logic, formulas, rules, linear processes, etc. Piaget argued that at around age 11 or 12 formal cognitive operations kick in with their focus on more right-brain abstract thought such as moral or ethical reasoning. Today neurobiology researchers such as Russell Barkley and Elkhonon Goldberg tell us that Executive Function skills (which are closely associated with the frontal areas of the brain) are not fully developed until the late teen – early adult years. As I have argued, it is hard to engage in critical thinking without such EF skills as planning, perspective taking, empathy, mental time travel, delaying gratification, etc. I have also argued that early secure attachment is the foundation upon which robust EF skills rest.

One reason adolescents seem to make “dumb” unthinking choices is because in large part their frontal, upper brains have not fully developed. Whereas toddlers tend to stumble around like drunken sailors because they have not developed physically, teens make decisions like drunken sailors because they have not developed cognitively. Until EF is fully online (to use a computer metaphor), it helps if kids and teens have access to adults who can act as a surrogate prefrontal cortex. Typically parents, family, teachers, coaches, etc., fill this role. But wait, Common Core and the postmodern worldview that it supports wishes that children act as their own surrogate prefrontal cortex writing letters to Jack and engaging in critical thinking. In essence, Common Core would have kids pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. This brings us back to the letter that Jeff wrote (see above).

Personally, I think Jeff makes some valid points. In essence Jeff steps in and acts as a surrogate prefrontal cortex for his child, which Jeff should do (so too Louis C. K.). Should Jeff’s child be asked to engage in cognitive exercises (like using number lines and writing critiques) that are developmentally inappropriate? The answer is no. As Jeff correctly points out, Common Core would not fly in the real world. “In the real world,” as Jeff puts it, “simplification is valued over complication.”

So, how will Common Core make us economically competitive if what Common Core is selling is not valued in the real world and might even get us fired from our jobs. The answer is simple really. Common Core alone will not make us economically competitive. Common Core needs a bit of Common Sense. Critical thinking must take place when it is developmentally appropriate, and when it is, well, appropriate period. As my father used to tell me based on his experiences in the army as a Second Lieutenant during WWII, “If you stop to think at the wrong time on the battlefield, it could get you killed. There are times when you have to let your training carry you through.” [1] I think Jeff is saying the same thing: When you need to make a calculation quick, you can’t be thinking about writing a letter to Jack. As evolutionary psychologists (like Bowlby) will tell us, when you’re being chased by a lion, run first, plan for your future (an EF skill) later. A prescription for critical thinking at all ages, and at all times, is a prescription for disaster. The key to critical thinking is to know when it is appropriate, developmentally or otherwise.

In essence, Common Core and the postmodern worldview it supports wishes to adultify or parentify kids. Rather than depending on an adult to be an attachment figure or even a surrogate prefrontal cortex, Common Core wishes young kids to be little autonomous adults at earlier and earlier ages. This is a disturbing trend that conservative social critic Kay Hymowitz wrote about way back in 1999 in her book Ready or Not: Why Treating Children as Small Adults Endangers Their Future—And Ours (executive summary available). Even Bowlby wrote about how role-reversal (e.g., parents acting as children who wish to be parented by their own children) was a risk factor that could lead to the development of insecure attachment. So, see if you can follow this Common Core logic:

  • Common Core wishes to teach critical thinking to younger and younger kids.
  • Teaching critical thinking to young kids is developmentally inappropriate.
  • Teaching critical thinking to young kids is a form of adultification or parentification or even role reversal.
  • Adultifying or parentifying young kids is a risk factor that could lead to the development of insecure attachment.
  • Insecure attachment is a shaky foundation upon which to build Executive Function skills.
  • We need EF in order to engage in critical thinking.
  • Common Core builds a shaky foundation and undermines its own attempts to build critical thinking or EF skills.

Sadly, Common Core and the postmodern worldview that it supports is not concerned with such modern concepts as evolution, biology, developmental psychology, Bowlbian attachment theory, neurology, Executive Function theory, etc. What is Common Core and postmodernism concerned with? Both are concerned with liberation from any and all constraints at all costs and at all times. Kindergarteners must be liberated from a class show so they can focus on college and careers. But what exactly is all of this liberating us to or toward? I don’t think Common Core supporters or postmodern thinkers know the answer to that question. The process of liberation has tragically become an end and not a means. On a simple level, Jeff tells us that it will get us fired. Louis C. K. suggests that it sucks the fun out of life. Bowlby’s work suggests that it could subject us to a life of insecure attachment. Neurologists like Barkley and Goldberg tell us that we may never acquire robust Executive Function skills, the same EF skills needed to engage in critical thinking in the first place. What a mess.

What solution would I offer up? Man, that’s such a tough question. Do what Jeff and Louis C. K. are doing and speak out about Common Core and the postmodern worldview it supports. Take a stand against role reversal, adultification, and parentification. This means that parents need to act like parents, to act as a surrogate prefrontal cortex for their kids until such time as their kid’s own prefrontal cortex is sufficiently developed (typically around age 22 or so, just as they are finishing college). For more help with tackling role reversal and parentification, read Hymowitz’s book Ready or Not. Another book that I enjoyed was Robert Bly’s 1996 book entitled The Sibling Society—An Impassioned Call for the Rediscovery of Adulthood. If you have the time and inclination, give Bowlby’s trilogy on attachment a read and keep your eye out for his discussions of role reversal. Here’s one of my favorite quotes by Bowlby on the subject:

Ignorance of the natural history of attachment behaviour, coupled with a misguided enthusiasm that small children should quickly become independent and “mature,” has resulted in practices that expose children … to a great deal of unnecessary anxiety and distress.

As Louis C. K.’s tweet points out, Common Core is creating a lot of unnecessary anxiety and stress. I would suggest that this unnecessary anxiety and stress comes from Common Core’s “misguided enthusiasm that small children should quickly become independent and ‘mature’ ” … you know, critical thinkers. I agree with the educator above who told me that Common Core will be tough. I agree; turning young kids into little adults will be tough on kids; it will be tough on all of us actually (as Hymowitz suggests). What will be tougher? Turning adults into adults again (with a tip of the hat to Bly). Thanks Jeff and Louis C. K. for stepping up and being adults, for being a good surrogate prefrontal cortex for your kids, and engaging in a bit of critical thinking at the appropriate time. Thanks for bringing some Common Sense to Common Core.


[1] I just wanted to mention what cognitive scientists call procedural memory or procedural thinking. When you drive a car you are using procedural memory and “thinking.” I put thinking in quotes because procedural thinking largely takes place unconsciously. There are many times while driving that I arrive at my destination and have no conscious idea how I did what I just did. In fact, if I did think about driving, it would be hard for me to do it. This is why it is hard for most US drivers to drive on the “wrong” side of the road when they vacation in London—they are forced to think about driving. What my father was saying was that there are times you have to depend on your training, your procedural memories and your procedural thinking. Trust me, you do not want the pilot flying the plane you are on to have to consciously think about flying the plane. Sure, the pilot does engage in some conscious critical thinking, but that “head” thinking is combined with a large amount of “body” thinking (another way to frame procedural memories and procedural thinking). Developmentally kids are much better body thinkers than they are head thinkers. Childhood should be a time of acquiring procedural memories and developing procedural thinking. Unfortunately those educational opportunities have been systematically removed from our schools: school field trips, physical education, recess, playgrounds, drama, music, sports, etc. It may sound trivial but Richard Louv points out in his book Last Child in the Woods—Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder that medical school professors are having a hard time teaching concepts like how the heart works because kids no longer play with garden hoses. It may sound trivial but kids are no longer able to think critically with their bodies. Now, this makes me very afraid. You should be afraid too.