Focus on Teaching Students How to Think (Not What To Think)

By Linda Fisher Thornton

Have you noticed that the current fray about what to teach about difficult subjects has been focused on teaching “one way or the other?” “Are you for it or against it? and “Which side are you on?” This approach completely misses the point that the purpose of education is not to teach students what to think. It’s to teach students how to think, and how to navigate differences respectfully.

To make sense out of this problem, it helps to look at the controversy, rather than looking away from it, or taking sides. Instead of trying to get one perspective taught instead of another, this is a time to listen, check the best academic research we have available on a subject, and move forward together in a respectful way that serves as a role model for the youth of today who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

“Model for your students how to reframe strong feelings into productive dialogue. Teach them how to disagree with someone else’s ideas without attacking them personally.”

Yale Poorvu Center For Teaching and Learning, Teaching Controversial Topics

Students are among those realize that teaching students how to get along in a complex society requires a special teaching approach.

“Teachers giving students the chance to air out controversial issues is so important because that’s what the world is like. Students need to be able to do that before they go out into the world. They need to be able to handle people having views that they don’t agree with and find ways to work it out and have civil debate. It’s really important that teachers teach them how to do that.”

High School Student, quoted in the Brown University, Choices Program Resource Guide: Teaching About Controversial Subjects

Good thinking requires being able to hold different perspectives in one’s mind at the same time, and to struggle to try to make sense out of why they differ. Good thinking is grounded in respect for others, and for ethical citizenship. Let’s make sure that all students learn these important abilities. Learning how to respectfully talk through complex issues is more important for students in the long run than any questions about what we should and shouldn’t be teaching. These are the skills that will be be required for them to survive, hold regular employment, and thrive in society as good people, citizens and leaders.

Unleash the Positive Power of Ethical Leadership 

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