Birthing a Thinking Mind

When I was a girl, I would often retreat to my favorite thinking place: a fallen, yet still-growing tree on the highest hill on my family’s land and there I would spend time until either my brother found me or until my parents would call me inside for supper. I recall liking this activity because I was alone with my thoughts and it game me time to reflect on the things that had happened to me during the day and I could spend some time wondering. Much of that wonder translated into the subjects I would pick to read about on trips to the library with my mother and brother.

Reading Bell Hook’s Critical Thinking in Teaching Critical Thinking (2010), I resonated with so much of what was written, but the statement “the heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know–to understand how life works” gets to the root of what motivated me all those years ago to seek refuge in nature for time and space to think.

In my early schooling, critical thinking was both encouraged and discouraged–depending on who was teaching the class. I had the good fortune of being identified early on as a bright student and was placed into a gifted classroom for a couple of hours each week. In this alternative classroom, I had opportunities to engage in a wide range of critical thinking exercises and early research projects that gave me invaluable experience which I believe has helped me on my educational journey.

At the same time, though, I was in mainstream classes for most of the day, and the fact that I was separated from the group in this other setting was alienating for me. I was rejected by some of my peers and despite this, I tried my best to fit in. It was in these mainstream classes that the desire and will to think critically was nearly educated out of me. Or as Hooks puts it, students are taught “that all they will need to do is consume information and regurgitate it at appropriate moments.” The asking of difficult questions or any deviation from this model of memorize & regurgitate will get you disciplined–sometimes embarrassed in front of the group–or dismissed from the class entirely. (Which did happen to me on occasion as I spent a year locked in a battle of wits with my 9th grade Mississippi history teacher who preferred to discuss JR Varsity baseball over the course material. This was not a unique experience, I had several teachers like Coach who didn’t see me except as a source of dissent in their ranks.)

[I am apparently not the only one with this experience. Debjit Gupta discusses a similar experience in his post this week Whose Fault is it Anyway?]

I have mixed feelings when I reflect on these past experiences. On one hand, I count myself as lucky and fortunate to have been born into a society that values education and so I was actually able to attend a decent public school. At home, I had the comfort and security that comes from having two working parents, food in my belly, and a roof over my head. I can’t claim that I didn’t have it good.  On the other hand, I am sad that for the parts of my education and experience that contributed to the self-doubt, the extreme self-consciousness, and the anxiety that I developed and carry with me in adulthood. It is quite the opposite of the critical thinking outcome we would wish on our students.

I want to be the best teacher I can be. School should be exciting and fun because real learning is going on. I want to give my students a meaningful and empowering experience. It’s a disservice to my students (and to mankind) to not hold myself accountable and to not think through what kind of a person I am going to be in the classroom and what kind of impact will be felt years from now as a result of my pedagogical philosophies. While these are the ideas and questions I have at the beginning of my journey, Kathryn Culbertson shares some insight from her experience and comments on universal truths in her post this week #IAmACuriousBeing that are definitely worth reading.

So this week has been extremely powerful and has had a real impact on the way I think about education. When I read the final paragraph of the excerpt I cited from Hooks, my heart leaped and I thought “YES! This is what I will do, this is who I will be.”  And so that powerful paragraph goes like this:

“The most exciting aspect of critical thinking in the classroom is that it calls for initiative from everyone, actively inviting all students to think passionately and to share ideas in a passionate, open manner. When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful. In such a community of learning there is no failure. Everyone is participating and sharing whatever resource is needed at a given moment in time to ensure that we leave the classroom knowing that critical thinking empowers us.”

This concept of a learning community is so inspiring to me. Students must understand that we are all learning–that there is no shame in speaking up and asking questions or participating in the conversation.


The main part of my blog post this week was on Bell Hook’s writing, but I wanted to mention the other part of this week’s assignments. I never heard Paulo Freire speak before this week, but since I discovered this interview, I realize I have been missing out. I watched the Literacy.org interview with Paulo Friere over and over. He touches on so many interesting subjects–on ethics, critical thinking, education, literacy, language, and power.

Curiosity is a process that leads to learning. Learning is the active part of an education. To fight back against injustice, education is absolutely necessary–just as important as the language necessary to communicate. In a world that seems so divided, we must remember that there are core values that unify us all. Simply put, we all want to live the good life. So as Freire speaks on tolerance, another learning moment resonates within me:

“It is through the exercise of tolerance that I discover the rich possibility of doing things and learning different things with different people. Being tolerant is not a question of being naive. On the contrary, it is a duty to be tolerant–an ethical duty, an historical duty, a political duty but it does not demand that I lose my personality.” -Paulo Freire

“A duty to be tolerant–an ethical duty, [a] historical duty, a political duty but it does not demand that I lose my personality.”  This will be my argument against those who fear and fight against openness and diversity. You’d think we’d be well past these issues, but I agree with Bell Hook’s reference to John Dewey in “Democratic Education:” “‘democracy has to be born anew in each generation, and education is its midwife.'”

Amen to that, Freire, Hook, & Dewey! And that’s why we’re all here: to gain the tools necessary to go out into the world to educate (and be educated). We are life-long learners, we’re here to help birth a generation of thinkers. As future educators and thinkers in general, we are all working to propel society forward towards truth and understanding.


Reference:

Hooks, B. (2010) “Critical Thinking.” Teaching Critical Thinking. Routledge.

Hooks, B. (2010) “Democratic Education.” Teaching Critical Thinking. Routledge.

Paulo Freire “An Incredible Conversation” (1996 interview with Literacy.org)

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