3 Ways “We” Have Destroyed Young People’s Ability to Think

Here are three ways education has undermined thinking in the younger generations:

The primary education system has changed quite a bit in the last 50 years and many of those changes have resulted in young people’s inability to think critically and instead to rely on cues and memorization.

1 – Memorization

For decades we’ve been lulled into believing that memorizing and recalling information is learning. And perhaps, in an industrialized world, recall was all that was necessary. When the industrial age was ruled by manufacturing and work was repetitive, perhaps remembering the steps in a process and executing them properly was “the skill.” We are now in a knowledge economy (and have been for at least 20 years!). We pay people to think. We pay people to make decisions, solve problems, innovate and synthesize. In direct opposition to this, our educational system (and generally our corporate training system) focuses on teaching learners to memorize information so that, with the proper prompt, it can be recalled; educating/training does not teach us how to use information in a variety of ways and circumstances or (heavens!) use it in a way that wasn’t taught at all (extrapolating).  

2 – Cramming

Somewhere along the line, we have lured young learners into believing that “cramming” is a proper methodology for learning. During exam week at colleges, the libraries and dining halls stay open around the clock to accommodate the learners who are staying up around the clock studying – this only reinforces the idea that the last-push to learn is a crucial time.

Typically young people prepare for a test or exam the day before the exam – which means that they are simply working from short term memory, which generally is good enough if the measure of one’s learning is being able to spot the right answer on a multiple-choice test – but not enough if we expect them to use that knowledge “out in the real world.”

Real-world application is built from learning over multiple exposures to a concept or process, not a cursory review of the key points. 

3 – Testing

Thanks to the introduction of Scantron Bubble Sheets in the 50’s and 60’s – everything became a multiple-choice test. The bubble sheets were extremely helpful to teachers and administrators as class sizes grew and record-keeping became more stringent.  Unfortunately, they took more than they gave. This type of testing fueled the usage of the 2 “learning” strategies discussed above AND undermined the value of the teacher’s input into student’s testing.

Prior to a machine grading tests, teachers had to read each response, giving the answer critical thought. Very often they would add commentary to the grade, rather than simply marking an answer wrong. They might remind the student where the correct information was found or help them to remember how the concept they got wrong was similar to what they were thinking. Sometimes they would give partial credit if the student was on the right track but then veered off before their final summation (this is the only way I passed geometry, believe me).

Prior to a machine grading tests, even when a student got an answer wrong – they were learning. They had coaching, correction and refinement from their teacher based on how the teacher graded the test. Once the Scantron bubble sheet became de rigueur in public school education, students simply received their grade with little to no explanation or intervention.

Unfortunately, I can spot factors that led to the demise of thinking skills (and there may well be more that you are thinking of!) but I am not sure what the remedy should be to reverse the trend. Given class-size and teacher pay, it’s not reasonable to take efficiencies away from public school teachers. Instituting “study skills” classes in college is smart – but it’s usually an elective and addresses a small population of the students (plus, by the time students are in college, it is remedial – we should be teaching study skills at about age 11 and continue it until the end of high school – see my article on 3 Keys to Ensuring Learning for more on this topic).

I think the rise of AI and machine learning will make these shortcomings even more apparent in coming years, as all of the “easy to spot” answers will be gobbled up by robots and the critical thinking will be the domain of humans.

Your thoughts?

Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn.