Is That Right? Critical Thinking and the Social World of the Young Learner – WRIGHT (CSS)

WRIGHT, Ian. Is That Right? Critical Thinking and the Social World of the Young Learner. Toronto: Pippin Publishing, 2002. 144p. Resenha de: BRILEY, Ron. Canadian Social Studies, v.39, n.1, p., 2004.

Is That Right? is a useful volume for any teacher who would like to introduce critical thinking into the elementary and middle school curriculum. Although Ian Wright is currently a professor of social studies education at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, his years as a classroom teacher are most evident in this book. The practical lesson plans included in the volume provide concrete examples for teachers. The book is addressed to the everyday concerns of teachers and does not become overly bogged down with theoretical concerns. For example, Wright defines critical thinking as making judgments about what to believe and what to do in situations that are problematic that is situations where we do not know initially what to believe or do (p. 56).

Wright acknowledges that he has not always practiced critical thinking in the classroom, but he has become an enthusiastic convert. Nevertheless, the environment in both the United States and Canada is increasingly hostile to critical thinking. High stakes standardized testing, which determine grade placement and faculty retention, have placed considerable pressure upon teachers to focus upon more rote memory of factual material. In the United States this educational approach is embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act and standards movement.

It is a fallacy, however, to assume that critical thinking is not about standards and excellence. As Wright points out, not all opinions are equally valid. Critical thinking is all about developing measurements and assessment tools, for both students and teachers, to ascertain which arguments or opinions are most valid and best supported. The ultimate goal for an educated community is not memorizing or regurgitating information, but learning to become intelligent citizens who are capable of making informed choices.

Critical thinking provides the foundation for such a citizenry by developing practical tools for evaluating evidence. Teachers seeking more concrete means of evaluation in the classroom might consult the critical thinking rubrics developed by Wright. But the bottom line for those who obsess upon objectivity should be recognition that in our daily lives we must deal with ambiguity, and the classroom under the guidance of a caring teacher is an appropriate laboratory to begin this process. Our best students and citizens are those who develop a healthy respect for the roles played by ambiguity and paradox in historical causation and human motivation.

While Wright asserts that critical thinking skills may be employed in most academic subjects, his experience and examples focus primarily upon the field of social studies. And here we encounter another level of controversy. Some in the discipline of history assert that the social studies are too present minded and expect too little from children. Indeed, many of the sample lessons provided by Wright deal with such issues as what makes a good friend or what to do about garbage. Groups in the United Sates such as the National Council for History Education maintain that young learners are capable of historical understanding and that the social studies approach is ahistorical and lacking substance or context. But in many ways this debate between history and the social studies is a tempest in a teapot; for the critical thinking approach fits well into the history classroom.

In evaluating a primary document or actions taken in the past, the skills of analyzing which argument is best supported still applies. And this works just as well for a classroom mock trial as a more traditional research paper. Was John Brown a terrorist who murdered innocent people or was he a freedom fighter against the tyranny of slavery? Or is reality too complex for such bipolar thinking? The key point is that critical thinking provides an approach to historical inquiry which accounts for the complexity of the past and demonstrates how the past may shed light upon the present.

Those who may really challenge the critical thinking approach are individuals and groups who assert that history should simply be about patriotism and indoctrination rather than the questioning of ideas and even values. Some argue that in the age of terrorism our children might learn to unquestionably embrace Western Civilization against threats from alien ideologies. Yet, as fewer and fewer media conglomerates control mainstream access to information, real security flows from an electorate trained to critically evaluate ideas and resist political or corporate manipulation.

Thus, as usual, teachers are on the front lines of dealing with a complex world. Critical thinking should make this heavy responsibility a little less onerous; for teachers who embrace critical thinking techniques are not authority figures who must always provide the right answer. Instead, the teacher is an intelligent guide working alongside the students to develop and foster the tools necessary to make critical distinctions.

Wright’s book is both inspirational and practical. His ideas may be applied to the university as well as the elementary school classroom. The inclusion of sample lesson plans and a bibliography, complete with appropriate web sites, make Is That Right? a volume which should find a place on most teachers’ bookshelves. More than just a teaching tool, critical thinking is essential to the preservation of a democratic ethos.

Ron Briley – Sandia Preparatory School. Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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