Get on the insight track

June 1, 2007

Clarity and independence of thought is a form of literacy too often neglected, argues Brian Greetham. To save students from glib complacency and muddled thinking, we must fill them with passion for ideas

To improve student literacy, we must teach students to think. One form of illiteracy results from poor education, another from the best. Over recent years, we have made efforts to address the former, but the latter remains the most enduring problem of higher education. University teachers have always complained about the illiteracy of their current batch of students, while graduates have struggled years later to overcome the illiteracy they developed as undergraduates.

The sad fact is that most of those affected enter universities well-educated and literate, yet leave illiterate. In their assignments, they seem to struggle to express ideas that are not theirs, in a language they do not command. In its usual form, illiteracy is best tackled by getting students to read more, but not in this case. It is not that students read too little, but that they read more, think less and, consequently, process ideas only on the surface.

For the most part, we are content to teach students what to think, rather than how to think. When we ask them to express themselves they are not expressing their ideas, but what they think their teachers think they ought to think. We are happy producing passive surface-level, rather than active deep-level, processors. Too many students fail to analyse, criticise and evaluate ideas and make them their own by testing and integrating them within their own network of beliefs and understanding. As a result, they struggle to express them with any clarity and assurance.

Of course, we all insist that students should challenge authority and have opinions of their own, but we take little part, if any, in developing these higher cognitive abilities. Rather than develop our students' abilities to analyse a concept, we teach them to remember our analysis, which they are required merely to understand and recall. At most, they are left just to learn by their mistakes or by example in those rare moments when they might see their teacher think through and analyse a difficult concept, or pull ideas together from different sources and synthesise them into a new way of looking at a problem. If they recognise the significance of the moment, and most do not, they might be lucky enough to retain a small inkling of what went on in the hope that they, too, might be able to do the same.

Without these skills, the gap widens between students' experience, feelings and beliefs and the ideas they think they ought to express. They are not involved in what they are writing at a deeper level. They do not share the needs of a genuine thinker. In our copy-and-paste age, where right answers can be garnered from trawling the internet, deep-level processing is no longer necessary. As students see it, their role is not to make the idea their own, to buy into it, but just to wield it accurately. And no one, not even the most accomplished writers, can write well when they are expressing ideas that have no meaning for them. They will struggle to give shape to the ideas; their fluency of expression will break down; their sentences will no longer mean what they meant them to mean; they will become illiterate.

Quite simply, we should be teaching students how to think by developing their higher cognitive abilities. Three things could be done. First, we must introduce courses that develop thinking skills - not just critical thinking, but how to analyse concepts, synthesise ideas and discuss, criticise and evaluate arguments. Second, we could integrate sessions within our own teaching to help students develop these skills. We could, say, analyse a concept with them, drawing on their experience and ideas, rather than give them our analysis to learn and recall. And third, we should set assignments that get students to work without a net: without the comforting support of a book or other people's ideas. With these abilities, they will be better able to process ideas, make them their own and express them with clarity and confidence.

But the cognitive abilities are just one part of the problem. We also need to generate a passion for ideas in our students, an irresistible drive to get to the bottom of things. If someone is interested in something, he or she will overcome any obstacle. We must work more to get our students to buy into the ideas that so fascinate us. Otherwise we will generate glib complacency in the best students, trading in ideas they do not believe in, and varying degrees of illiteracy in the rest. We must work to give them that sudden clarity when they see for themselves the joy and excitement found in learning. As the writer Peter Drucker insists: "The only thing that matters is how you touch people. Have I given anyone insight? That's what I want to have done. Insight lasts; theories don't."

Brian Greetham is a visiting fellow at Durham University and author of How to Write Better Essays (Palgrave Macmillan).

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