If people cannot write well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.
We are more than a decade into the 21st Century and Orwell’s quote is as relevant as ever. Information and misinformation travel at the speed of megabytes per second via text messages, Facebook status updates, blogs, tweets, etc. In addition to these online sources, we have television and radio news networks trying to fill up much of their 24 hour schedules with speculation masquerading as news. When it comes to the clutter and clamor of the omnipresent media, our students need to be able to separate that which is reasonable and true from all that is questionable and maybe even preposterous. Helping our students further develop their critical thinking skills is one way to help them deal with the multitude of messages coming their way.
When students become better writers, they also become better at examining how others develop and defend ideas. They become better critical thinkers. I didn’t fully appreciate this concept until I went back to school to work on an administrative endorsement. Every course involved a lot of writing. Some of the courses were online, and because of the nature of online courses, a great amount of writing was required. The more I wrote for my classes, the more I began to realize that becoming a better writer was also making me a better thinker. Writing forced me to have a good understanding of my subject in order to effectively communicate my thoughts, research, and conclusions to my teachers and classmates. I also had to be able to defend my ideas, because writing also exposed me to scrutiny and challenge. I came to appreciate the importance of being my own devil’s advocate.
It is possible for people to be good writers, and their messages turn out to be intellectually bankrupt. Political speeches and propaganda are possible examples of this type of writing. The writing sounds reasonable and maybe even inspiring, but turns out to be as substantial as a soap bubble when pricked by the slightest scrutiny. It is important that we challenge the thinking behind our students’ writing. We need them to be able to defend their positions and cite their sources of information. We also need to teach them to establish the validity of their sources. In addition, students need to critique the writing of others in order to discover how the writers develop their arguments, and to discover the writers’ biases, assumptions, or examples of lazy thinking. These challenges will take them beyond just writing and on to deeper thinking.
This type of writing requires students to take big risks. In order to prepare students for the challenges that will be directed at their ideas, they need to be able to trust their teachers and their classmates. Teachers need to develop a safe and trusting environment in which discussion of multiple viewpoints is encouraged and no one feels personally attacked when asked to defend his or her position.
Orwell’s statement, found at the beginning of this blog entry, provides direction in helping our students become the critical thinkers they need to be. In order to help our students think for themselves, and keep others from thinking for them, we need to have them write often in every subject while also challenging their assumptions, arguments, and conclusions in a safe and supportive environment that allows for risk-taking.
For additional information, see the links below.
Foundation for Critical Thinking
What is Writing?
An excerpt from the book How to Write a Paragraph