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Beyond Conventional Wisdom

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An older understanding of education was that children in schools were taught information. This was only half correct. Certainly all education requires the learning of some new information. But any student worth their salt, or any worthwhile education system, will go beyond just the basic information. It’s about teaching information processing skills.

We have more information on hand today than every before, thanks to the internet. Anybody can rote learn this information if they find it online. But can they tell if the information is reliable? Can they look at two or more rival views and draw a conclusion, see the contradictions, find the gaps in the story? Most people can read information, most can memorise the facts, but any decent student should be able to understand and evaluate what they read in order to have a real understanding.

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Information processing skills is about how to select, sort, organise, evaluate and integrate information. This is learnt by the process of doing, though watching others and listening to advice can give a head start. But as with reading, writing, catching a ball and learning to drive, we need to participate before we can do these things competently.

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One important distinction here is experience versus learning other people’s ideas. We might stand on a bus and feel the inertia when the bus speeds up, or the acceleration when the vehicle turns a corner. This is experience. We might also read about inertia and acceleration in a book about Newtonian Physics. When we read the book we are learning Newton’s ideas about his experiences, and these ideas are the result of his own original thinking. He did most of the difficult work for us, we just learn the final result of his insights. This is learning other people’s ideas.

If we want to be original thinkers we need to be able to do something a little more like Newton (perhaps not at his genius level), and build ideas based on experience. Everybody knows about the feeling we have when a bus turns a corner. But it took a Newton to understand this experience, and predict how it would work next time.

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Critical thinking may not require us to form our own theory based on experience, but it often requires us to compare rival theories that might seem equally convincing. There were several theories about why one falling object hits the ground before another. One theory claimed that the heavier object would fall faster. Another that the air resistance caused the larger object to fall more slowly. Critical thinking and experiments would show which theory was more accurate.

Critical thinking is important if we want to compare and contrast ideas, and find the truth behind varying accounts of an event. This is not just learning information (which we have to do first), it is about processing the information we have already learnt.

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It is too easy to get decent grades when we are young by simply learning second hand information, by simply learning from a secondary text. Real learning, and the advanced grades that follow this, require a true understanding and an ability to separate the useful from the misconceived. We need to be able to process the raw information to find real patterns, useful theories and original ideas.

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