Critical Thought: How the Education System is Failing our Students

You’ve heard the debates everywhere over education policies. “More funding for schools,” cries one politician. Another calls for “teacher accountability.” Yet another praises the Common Core, which intends to standardize the educational content of classes on a national level.

The truth is, though, that some of the current rules and programs that regulate schools are harmful to the critical development of our nation’s youth.

In this month’s issue of Scientific American, Dennis M. Bartels argues that our education system is “increasingly failing to require students to ask the kind of questions that lead to informed decisions.” He points to a cognitive science study of fifth-graders and college students in which the students needed to develop a plan to prevent the extinction of bald eagles. While both groups came up with recovery plans of similar quality, differences arose between the questions both groups came up with related to these plans. Fifth-graders, on the one hand, focused on each animal; on the other hand, college students asked about interdependency issues that might help the plan’s implementation. The college students were asking far more critical questions, demonstrating a higher level of thinking that is almost entirely removed from the classroom experience.

Bartels goes on to point out that children and young adults can still learn these critical thinking skills in informal learning environments, such as museums and interactive exhibits. But how many public school students have access to these institutions? In theory, they all do: many museums are free to the public (or ask for a suggested donation), and may offer workshops for schoolchildren.

In practice, the issue of access becomes much more complex, influenced by educational background, economic class, and location. For example, parents of low socioeconomic status are typically less aware of free or low-cost resources and programs in which they can enroll their children. These parents, under financial strain, devote many hours to working in low-paying jobs, which means that they have less time to devote to engaging their children in meaningful experiences, or taking them to institutions where this learning can occur.

Worst of all, while upper-class (typically white) students are being increasing enrolled in private and charter schools, lower-class (“minority”) students are forced to stay in the shambles that are our public schools (at least in NYC, as recent trends indicate). The result? Students of low socioeconomic status will be further denied their right to a stimulating education, which will probably be an extreme disadvantage to them during the college application or job search process.

It is of the utmost importance that educational professions make immediate changes in educational policies to make sure that students are learning how to learn, by asking critical questions that take into account multiple viewpoints, interrelationships, and deep reflections. Only these problem solving skills, which can most effectively take place in science classrooms, can prepare young adults for the challenges they will face as the leaders of tomorrow.

“What is Your Question?” by D. M. Bartels in Scientific American (Volume 308, No. 3)

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4 Responses to Critical Thought: How the Education System is Failing our Students

  1. meriamsahin1991 says:

    It is interesting that you bring this up. With the current system it seems that most students are prepare only for exams. In an educational system that it based on exams and grades most schooling is geared towards improving test grades. So the students are not always taught how to learn but how to improved on certain exams.

  2. cbohl45 says:

    First, I have to say that I don’t really understand this study by Bartels that you cited. It seems like we shouldn’t need a study to demonstrate that college students are more cognitively advanced than 5th graders. Even if we exclude the (what a presume to be substantial) gains in critical thinking that come with 7+ years of additional schooling, it also doesn’t seem to account for the fact that not everyone gets in to college. That is, I would expect people who are accepted to college to have better critical thinking schools than those who are not, in general.

    Of course, I am not arguing that we shouldn’t try to teach critical thinking to 5th graders. On the contrary, I am pursuing a career in physics education to hopefully do just that.

    I am particularly interested in this subject of cognitive development as it relates to the so-called “achievement gap” that you touched on. I was recently reading an article by Ronald Ferguson ( that details the history of and current efforts towards closing this gap. Ferguson notes that, though this gap was closing throughout the 80’s, progress has stagnated since the 90’s. One suggested culprit is that government funding (Title I, Head Start, etc) tends to focus almost exclusively on early childhood. The article explains that, while these programs often have good results, they tend to “wear off” over time. It seems that the gap is caused by ongoing factors that hinder education, which implies that there need to be programs in place to continuously aid underprivileged children throughout the education process.

    I mention this article specifically here, because the second source that you cite takes aim at increasing funding for early childhood education. I just thought I’d present this other school of thought here, which would seemingly advocate that new funding should be used in the later years as well and not simply focused on early development.

  3. samuelv1908 says:

    I definitely agree that the approach to educating our youth begins with how they receive (observe and analyze) information given in the classroom and textbooks. However, is this not something that is learned as one matures? The earlier years of education focuses more on inculcating the basics and building a foundation for cognitive thinking. As the young mind develops, one can introduce other facets of how to learn….

    Education policy is definitely an interesting topic!

  4. cbohl45 says:

    There was actually a segment on The Daily Show this past week that talked about early education funding. It gets going into that around the 2-minute mark:

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