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 cant say that I have ever seen this done
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
Am I doing something terribly wrong, when, as a teacher, I dont
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 ones 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
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
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. Dont
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
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 cant
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 couldnt 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 dont 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 dont 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 cant 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 cant 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 Sagans 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
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
Part 9 of a series
on raising literacy by William Lauritzen. He holds a masters
degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education
for over 15 years. He can be reached via his Internet site: www.earth360.org