By Ronald E. Johnson, C.Ph.D.
So-called educational experts have for more than three decades adopted the mantra of promoting critical thinking skills, ostensibly to inspire children to develop a love for learning. At the same time, sympathizers of Common Core Standards decry the practice of rote memory of facts and figures, and insist on universal adoption of international academic standards. But the question must be asked, “Is that strategy working for American children?”
Educational quality must be measured by the over-all impact of trends on culture. During the highly-funded attack on rote memory and the push to develop critical thinking skills through adoption of Common Core Standards, American student dropout percentages have escalated to real numbers hovering around 40%; student addiction to prescription drugs is shameful; classroom unrest is pandemic; and teacher retirement is leaving gaping holes in the availability of quality teachers. Moreover, student performance on international tests in math and science are at the bottom of industrialized nations.
As a building principal, district superintendent, board trustee, and participant in state textbook-adoption panels and designing academic assessments in two states, I have observed with much grief how my profession has contributed to the demise of the love for learning by embracing and participating in educational trends that have consistently eaten away at tried-and-proven methods of inspiring students to develop a love for learning.
A basic fallacy of the “critical thinking skills” crowd is the naive notion that children do not need to memorize and store certain bodies of knowledge and facts by which to apply critical thinking skills. Without a pool of pertinent knowledge (stored in the brain via memorization), youth are deplete of data by which to practice deductive and inductive reasoning — critical thinking skills. Coupled with stress levels associated with preparation to take academic assessments aligned with Common Core Standards, students have learned to deplore education and a love for learning. Moreover, they abhor the idea that love for learning is dependent on passing state exams and wallowing in “gobbledegook” falsely labeled as critical thinking skills.
A love for learning emerges when students experience meaningful acquisition and application of knowledge. They love to learn when knowledge can be obtained, based on individual interests, initiative, and opportunity to apply that knowledge. Youth love to learn when personal effort produces positive results…like correctly answering math questions, quoting famous people, and writing prose because pertinent information has been stored in brains through memorization. Brains rendered numb with ambiguous critical thinking gunk and test preparation have no interest in developing a love for learning.
The result of educational focus on anti-memorization is growth in the school choice movement. Parents are expressing their distaste for the Common Core Standards agenda by opting to home-educate, where parents can focus on building a love for learning through application of memorized information.