Promoting critical thinking in classroom

Donald Ewert
The Oklahoman
March 7, 2012
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Two bills before the Legislature, House Bill 1551 and Senate Bill 1742, aim to encourage science teachers to fully teach controversial scientific subjects by protecting them from retribution for doing so. Opponents claim the bills intend to promote the teaching of religion. But the intent of those who created these bills is to free the teaching of science from political influence, creating an environment where students understand the difference between facts and their interpretation, and the limits of scientific enquiry.

 

No academic field has been more abused by politicians, sociologists and commercial causes than science. The reason is simple: Science lends credence to an agenda because it's revered as the bastion of objectivity and truth.

 

History is replete with examples of science being abused to achieve political or social agendas. In the late 19th century, the progressive political agenda developed in the United States based on the view that natural selection implied governments are not founded on lasting principles, but must evolve as man evolves. In the early 20th century, Eugenics movements in Europe (Hitler's eradication of the disabled and Jews) and the U.S. (Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood) found similar “scientific” justification for the idea that humans (the state) must take responsibility for their own evolution.

 

In the 1930s, agriculturalist T.D. Lysenko was promoted within the Soviet Academy because his unproven ideas about improving crop yields supported Soviet ideas that the state could improve the human race and create utopia. More recently, a judge in the United Kingdom found that Al Gore's film “An Inconvenient Truth,” which was distributed to schools in the U.S. and U.K. promoting the theory that global warming is primarily caused by humans, was being used “to make a political statement and to support a political program.”

 

The National Science Teachers Association noted “the political polarization of climate change education and the effect on their teaching.”

 

At issue are not the facts of science but their interpretation to promote particular agendas. The average citizen is ill-equipped to make this distinction. The media are often complicit in the misuse of science for their own agendas by repeating claims without balanced analysis.

 

How does the average citizen know when he's being manipulated by the misuse of scientific information? It can start in the classroom where critical thinking skills are taught and where facts of science are distinguished from rhetoric and philosophical, religious interpretations. This can only happen when teachers and students are free to enter into open discussion of all views on a controversial subject. To do that, students and teachers must have the freedom to engage in discussions of controversial issues without the threat of repercussions from parents or administrators.

 

The bills before the Legislature take an important step toward creating an environment where critical thinking skills can be developed in the classroom. We must stop educating our children to behave like sheep, but rather as critical thinkers who can make good decisions for society.

 

Ewert, of Edmond, is a research scientist.