Children should be Taught HOW to Think not WHAT to Think: The Role of the School


“Children must be taught how to think not what to think” I love this quote by Margaret Mead, don’t you? It reminds me of the old tale about how you can lead a horse to water but you can’t teach it to drink. Let me start by sharing a short story which I stumbled on, that talks about how we can encourage children to think for themselves, follow their own interests, and explore the ideas that inspire their curiosities.

A Secondary School Class teacher had the habit of telling a parable to his students at the end of each lesson, but they didn’t always understand the message. Then came this particular day, one of his student defiantly asked:

Student:  Master, you always tell us a story, but never explain to us its deeper meaning.

Teacher:    I beg your pardon for this (the teacher apologized), allow me to repair my mistake, while I offer you the Orange I’ve just bought.

Student:   Thank you sir.

Teacher:  However, I would like to thank you as you deserve. Do you care if I wash the Orange for you?

Student:  Yes, thank you very much (surprised and flattered by the offer of the teacher)

Teacher:  Would you like, since I have the knife in my hand, that I peel it for you that’s easier for you to eat it?

Student:   I’d love to, but I won’t abuse your generosity, I will handle that myself.

Teacher:  It is not an abuse, it’s me offering to. I just want to please you in every way I can. Also let me cut it into smaller parts and chew it a little bit before I give it to you to make it easier for you to eat.

Teacher:  No master, I wouldn’t like you to do this! (Replied the student surprised and shocked).

The Master paused, smiled and said:

If I explain the meaning of each of the stories to my students, it would be like feeding them with fruits already chewed.

When we are forced to think to solve a problem or try to figure out where we have been wrong, the brain produces a restructuring that results in growth. When children are accustomed to think, to question the reality and search for themselves the solutions, they begin to trust their skills and approach life with more confidence and less fear. Unfortunately, many teachers think it is better to give children the perfectly cut and chewed fruit.  Educating doesn’t mean creating, but helping children create themselves. If we teach children to accept something without thinking, the information will not be significant, it will not produce a major change in their brains, but will simply be stored somewhere inside the memory where it will slowly disappear but when we offer them the challenges that oblige them to think, we will develop their ability to observe, think and make decisions. Socrates, all the way back in ancient Greece recognized the perils of transferring knowledge and values from teacher to student. As he proclaimed “Education is a kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel” So education should not be just about the transferal of information but also provides training ground for students to hone their critical, rational, and ethical capacities.

Teaching students how to be their own persons by abandoning group-think and developing the courage to think for themselves should begin from the very first day of high school. The school owes its students to teach them how to think, not what to think; to question whatever they read, and never to accept any claim blindly; to suspend judgment until they have heard all sides of a question, and interrogate whatever claims to be true, since the truth can withstand any scrutiny. Critical thinking is life’s indispensable survival skill. Every school in Nigeria should teach the arts of critical thinking and critical reading, so that a critical spirit becomes a permanent possession of every student and pervades the teaching of every course in Nigeria because the essence of Education is to gain the ability to think critically and protect oneself from falsehood and lies.

Although to an extent, I would not apportion blames on teachers for this negligence of duty, some of these teachers fail to critically present their courses or train their students on critical thinking because ‘there is no time’, School Management mandate that so much material has to be covered and therefore  In order to cover the curriculum, courses are taught quickly, superficially, uncritically and in an infallible way of boring students, as they keep one eye on the clock to finish their course by the end of the session while some teachers on the other hand are practically lazy, at the end depriving students an informed understanding of the topics involved, the controversies surrounding the topic, and its impact upon society, as they struggle to understand amidst the rapid pace of the course.

What better way to frustrate the burning idealism of youth intent on bettering their lives through higher education than by denying them with areas of knowledge, experience, insight, and wisdom that would have enriched their understanding of themselves and the world, not only by what was taught, but also, by what was omitted. Imagine students conditioned by years of these tests that attempt to brainwash them into thinking that every question must have a right answer; trained to accept the framework they’re given rather than thinking outside it and resist the indoctrination of believing whatever they’re taught.

The minds of children need room to breathe, to be inspired by vision, and the health-bringing balm of many perspectives. They need exercise, play, and relaxation; in short, they need a sound body and spirit to have a sound mind. Rather than spending their magical years on inactive learning that prepare them for impossibly difficult tests, children need schools where every day they can learn something new in classrooms that echo with laughter and joy.

This would be the beginning of real educational reform in the 21st Century!



3 thoughts on “Children should be Taught HOW to Think not WHAT to Think: The Role of the School

  • September 7, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    This is a rich article that all teachers should read to enable them make students to think rather than making them redundant.

    • September 11, 2017 at 5:28 pm

      Thank you Stella Ekechukwu, we hope to get all teachers to think different in order to engage the students for better results.

  • October 7, 2017 at 10:30 am

    As I read this article, more fuel was put into the fire of my aspirations for my unborn kids, as regards their education. In my undergraduate days, I approached all my courses with this mentality, that I have to know what I am studying; I just cannot and should not be cramming and absorbing ever large amounts of information without at least knowing their applicability. If the main idea in your article is effected from the secondary school level (like you suggested) it will completely change things for the better! Nice piece!


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