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Raising Literacy Part 9:
Critical Thinking or Critical Linking?

by Bill Lauritzen

In this day of claims of alien abductions, psychic powers, divine interventions (miracles), ancient astronauts, get rich quick schemes, advertisements to make us sexier, smarter, more powerful, and so forth, we sometimes hear about the need to teach students “critical thinking skills.” However, in all my years of interacting with students and teachers, I can’t say that I have ever seen this done by teachers.

In fact, Homo sapiens probably is best known for its big brain, an honor it shares with dolphins and whales. Humans are supposedly good at thinking. So why this need to teach them thinking or critical thinking?
Am I doing something terribly wrong, when, as a teacher, I don’t teach critical thinking?

It makes you wonder, “What is thinking?” Perhaps it could be defined as comparing past events of pain and pleasure to the present situation to change one’s behavior in order to survive better in the future. (Survival, of course, is the goal of the organism and species and thinking helps to accomplish that goal.) With this definition, we see that memory is a component of thinking, and that if one did not have a memory one could not think.

So, when Homo erectus was drifting off to sleep, and he recalled the sharp rock he saw during the day, and the freshly dead animal, he put the two of them together and came up with a tool, to help skin the animal the next day. Or someone sees a typewriter and a TV and puts them together to make the computer word processor.

Therefore, it appears that besides using instincts, many organisms think. Where there is learning, there appears to be thinking involved.
But why do we have to teach something that naturally occurs? Do we need to teach the sex act? Or how to swallow water or food? Or how to eliminate wastes from the body?

I have shown elsewhere (see my two essays, “Useable Science”) that science itself is a natural process which can be considered to be simply try-see-say, “try” being the experiment, “see” being the observation and data, and “say” the conclusion and new hypothesis.

The answer, I think, lies in the development of language by our species. This is an event that occurred somewhere between 40,000 to 1,000,000 years ago. Grunts, hand gestures, and later noises could be passed along from father or mother to son or daughter. The species was able, for the first time, to communicate about events that were not present. Events that were either distant in time or distant in location.

With this wonderful invention came the ability of the species to store, beyond death, information learned, to be used sometime in the future. Homo erectus or Homo sapiens could explain to his child, that “over yonder mountain were many tigers,” and “over yonder mountain were many fruit trees.” And that once, many generations ago, “yonder mountain had explode with fire, and that only our people survived, because we went down by the ocean and ate clams,” or something like that.

However, with the benefits of language came some disadvantages.
Before language, if humans saw a tiger, it was time to run. After language, “There are tigers beyond those hills. Don’t go there.” However, some young ones might wonder what the heck a “tiger” was.

So after language all manner of misinterpretation could come into play. Someone returns from Africa to Europe and describes a big beast, somewhat like a horse, but not exactly, with a horn on its nose (a rhino), and we probably have the birth of the unicorn.

I am suggesting here that the misinterpretation of distant events or things, which occurred after the development of language, is the fundamental cause of unfounded, extraordinary beliefs. If this is true, then it presents us with partial solution. As I have stated previously, students should try to “link the ink” and “ground the sound.”

In other words, link the word on paper with something in the real world. Or ground the sound of a word to the real world. When students read or hear “sodium hydroxide” they should be shown some sodium hydroxide. When students read that “force equals mass times acceleration” they can be shown this with two objects of different mass. When students read that “all objects fall at the same speed regardless of their horizontal velocity,” they can be shown this by dropping a penny off a table while sliding one rapidly off a table at the same time. (They both will hit the ground together.).

Of course, there are times when linking to the real world can’t be easily done. Especially when something is very distant in location and time. (Which is, of course, the advantage of language.) When students read about the battle of Gettysburg, they, theoretically, could be flown to Pennsylvania, but they couldn’t be shown exactly what happened, in all its gory detail. When scientists tell us that an asteroid hit the Earth and wiped out the dinosaurs, we don’t want to see that again. (However, seeing one hit Jupiter was a good substitute.)

Real world linking takes intelligent, trained teachers, it takes supplies, and it takes materials. In other words, it takes money we don’t often have. Therefore, we will often have poor teachers resort to mere memorization in the classroom. And even good teachers may have to make do with linking words to photos and video images.

And although they can’t see the asteroid wipe out the dinosaurs, they can see skeletons of dinosaurs in a museum, and they can see an asteroid impact crater in Arizona. They can do experiments in science and math, and they can have plays in English and History, etc. They can, as much as possible, avoid mere memorization and replace it with linking.

Also, even though we can’t link the whole story, we can usually link the individual words of the story. Teachers can make sure that the students knows what “asteroid” means and “extinction,” etc. Thus, the goal of teachers and students, no matter how unattainable, should be to “link the ink” and “ground the sound.”

There is another aspect to this story that unfortunately needs mentioning. You probably know that some people, in order to take advantage of their fellows, try to 1) distort or twist links or 2) attempt to create make-believe, fairly-tale, or fake links.

Thus, it is important that students be shown how various individuals or groups attempt to twist links or create fairly tale links. Photographs, films, and videos can be made which twist links or attempt to create fairly-tale links. Students can be shown how statistical data (see the book, How to Lie with Statistics) can twist a link. They can be made aware of the tricks and distractions used by magicians and scam artists to distort or fake links. They can be made aware of how advertising distorts and fakes links. They can be shown how governments use propaganda to distort or create false links.

Various people work hard on exposing bad links or twisted links. I have seen James Randi, author and magician, expose psychics by showing audiences exactly how they distort or twist links. (He has a video available at www.randi.org) Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon Haunted World, shows how Unidentified Flying Objects can be wrongly linked to alien space ships. The James Randi Foundation, The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and the Skeptics Society, at their best, all work toward exposing bad links and twisted links. Their web sites can be accessed via mine (www.earth360.com). Long before any of these efforts, Martin Gardner wrote on these topics and still does. He is considered one of the founders of the modern skeptical movement.

There are other organizations that attempt to bring truth to advertising and government reports.

Teachers can become aware of these resources and others.

Teachers should be made aware that theories of science also need to be verified by linking them to the real world. For example, I have a strong feeling that there are no dimensions beyond height, width, length, and time, and that super-string theory, with its supposed higher dimensions, will eventually will need to be modified or thrown out.

Perhaps it comes down to, as they say in Missouri, “show me.”

Part 9 of a series on raising literacy by William Lauritzen. He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years. He can be reached via his Internet site: www.earth360.org