Volume Twelve, Number Three............April 1988

Ask a Stupid Question

Greenwich, Conn., April 8, a day to live in infamy--

Children in kindergarten here are learning how to think. Not just to read and write and spell, but to think.

"What's inside the box?" asks the teacher, Robin Mosely Keffer, holding up a foot-long blue box sealed with tape. The 5-year olds make some wild guesses: an egg, a fake animal, a big book, a balloon, high-heeled shoes, a cookie, spaghetti.

Ms. Keffer passes the box around and lets the children shake it, listen to it, smell it. She prods them to use their "powers of analysis" to eliminate some possibilities. The children decide the object is not a cookie because they could have smelled it. It is not an egg because an egg would have broken. A furry toy animal would not have made the rustling noise heard when the box was shaken.

The children never do guess that the box contains snapshots of them. But the wave of giggles when they peek inside suggests they have savored the thrill of deduction with the zest of Sherlock Holmes. They practiced making inferences and learned how to support their hunches with a well-reasoned argument.

THE people who "report" on "education" are generally a sorry lot, and a splendid example of the terrible things that will happen to you if you give teachers all that respect they think they deserve. How fondly they beam on any silly notion that comes from a schoolteacher who just loves children. The stuff above is from yet another article on the Great Thinking Revolution, this one by a certain Joseph Berger, reporting "special to the New York Times." If you ever run into him, invite him to play poker.

Somehow, he manages to detect "the thrill of deduction" in a bunch of kids who have lost a game of Twenty Billion Questions, and who have, quite appropriately, giggled at its silliness. Did Ms. Keffer explain it to him, or did he figure out for himself that it was out of "well-reasoned argument" that the kiddies figured out what something was not? Has he never heard of hardboiled eggs, or thought of wrapping a furry animal in crinkly tissue? How long since he sniffed a cookie box? Did he ask any questions at all, or did he join in the game? And did his teacher give him a golden star, an A for effort?

Plato understood guessing as the least, primitive stirring of the desire to know and understand, and the one most natural to children, dreamers, and madmen. (There were no education reporters in his day.) In people who want to think, guessing is a very bad habit indeed. It leads to confabulation, and to that illusion of thinking in which a wrongness is excused because, with nothing more than a little bit of luck, it might have been right.

The problem with all the Thinking teachers is that they show no sign of having thought about thinking. For them, it is obviously just about anything that goes on in whatever you want to call mind. It is not by thinking that one discovers what is in a box. It is by looking in the box. One who "concludes" by "well-reasoned" argument that it is neither a rhinoceros nor a river has neither reasoned nor argued, but he has done the only sort of thing that can be done in response to a stupid question. Nor does he, unless he is insane, truly expect to answer the question by the process of elimination. If you ask people enough such stupid questions, you can probably make them insane. Maybe that's what the Thinking Revolution is meant to do.

Consider the nifty questions in the box on the next page. (From the same article.) Read and ponder. How else, after all, will you be able to figure out what these people imagine that they mean by "the critical-thinking method"? Overlook, if you can, that mere fact that those "last words" were not somebody's last words at all, but try simply to decide what these twits might mean by the word "rephrase." If those things in column B are "rephrasings" of column A, there probably is a rhinoceros in the box.

Next, try to decide what information would be needed to "answer" the "questions" in column B, and whether thoughtfulness or guessing would be provoked in the answerer. Just how many "modern-day counterparts" can you name? How well-acquainted are you with the mysteries of their hearts? Now go ahead and draw your shopping mall. Then draw it bigger. As to exactly how much bigger to make it, don't worry. Here, as always, one guess is as good as another.

Rephrasing Questions to Make Pupils Think

These examples show how teachers can phrase the same questions traditionally to elicit one correct answer, or rephrase it to provoke thought and discussion using the critical-thinking method.


"Give me liberty or give me death" were the last words of: Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry or Benjamin Franklin.


Analyze a modern-day counterpart to the Sons of Liberty. What are the similarities, what are the differences?


Draw a scale model of a local shopping center.


Draw a scale model projecting your local shopping mall into the year 2025, based on predictable changes in population and consumer needs.


Identify the managers of the New York Mets.


What Qualities did Casey Stengel and Davy Johnson share that produced winning performances?

Now, if you have enough information to "answer" the third "question," first give yourself a big demerit for being an underemployed trifler, and then recite some generalizations and platitudes, easily to be learned in any local barroom, along with more guesses, until your teacher can boast that he has taught you to think.

There is a shifty business going on here, of course. We are expected to believe that the questions in column B are "better" than the niggling little questions in column A, that they are more than mere tests of the mere remembering of mere information. And, for the schoolers, if not for the schooled, they are better, because they have no right answers. Schoolers prefer not to be held to anything at all, and they disarm criticism by preaching that correct answers are possible only in trivial matters, and that where such a great matter as Thinking is concerned, all answers are OK. Indeed, even answers that are just plain wrong in trivial matters will do just fine as thinking.

You can't believe that, can you? Well, try this, as reported by Berger:

"Even in teaching mathematics, some proponents suggest instructors can move away from the assumption that there is always one correct answer. Instead, they say, students should be encouraged to explain how they arrived at a different answer.

(Take a little time out just now, and consider what an "assumption" is. Try to find some principle by which to distinguish the sorts of questions that do have a "correct answer" from those that don't. Consider further what he is actually up to who would like us to believe that we only "assume" that there is one correct sum at the bottom of a column of figures. Consider further whether you would like to try selling that notion to the IRS, and the great ease with which Thinking Consultants have sold it to the people who grant their grants and pay their salaries.)

And now give ear to the words of Ira Ewan, who is nothing less than the whole head of New York's Reasoning Skills Unit, as reported without any trace of a smirk by Berger. "Mr. Ewan said he could accept 6 as a plausible answer to ‘What is 27 divided by 5?' if the student provided a reasonable explanation."

"A student, he said, might calculate that 27 chips divided into piles of 5 each will yield 6 piles, even though one of the piles is shorter than the other."

And that's the Head of Reasoning in New York. Explains a lot. Poor guy has piles problems--doesn't hear his own words. Just two words later, piles of each become piles not of each.*

And then there is another great thinker, one David Perkins, co-director of a cognitive skills project at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, a very strange place. When "critical-thinking apostles" teach a lesson on the Boston Tea Party, he explains, they rightly eschew the mere recitation of facts, and choose rather to have the students imagine themselves as colonists. "Then they have to consider alternatives of protest like boycotting tea or sinking the boat." Whether they are to do this utterly without knowledge of any facts, he does not specify.

His lesson on the Tea Party is the same old educationist game, another how-would-you-feel-if exercise in the good old Affective Domain. He says--they all do--that "a great deal of research in cognitive psychology shows that the more actively you process information, the more you retain it." But he does not say what it means, "actively to process information." We would like to suppose that he will admit that the processing of information, either the active or the other kind, can not be expected in the absence of information, but we're not counting on it.

Except for education reporters, it is not hard at all to imagine some of the questions that should be put to Twenty Billion Questions teachers and Cognitive Skills Gurus who can not keep track of their own words. What do you mean, exactly, when you use the word "thinking"? Is a daydream, or a fantasy of being a colonial, the same as thinking? Is there no difference, except in "rephrasing," between a guess and a hypothesis? Is rapping thinking? When Ira Ewan cooks up a scenario by which he would pronounce a wrong answer right, is he doing what you call thinking? When a teacher "rephrases" an order to draw a shopping mall into an order to draw some other shopping mall, is it an act of thinking? Is there some necessary relation between thinking and information, which might, for instance, preclude thinking in cases where there is not enough information; or can we think about anything we like, whether we know anything about it or not? Is your thinking of such a nature that it might be shown right or wrong, unlike the results of division? Would you say of Ira Ewan's hypothetical student that his answer might be wrong, but that his thinking is just fine?

Is there some essential, and perhaps even democratic, pluralism in your idea of thinking? Is it just anything that goes on "in the head," anything from Ms. Keffer's decision to put pictures and not cockroaches into the box, to the coach's gameplan? And if it is not just anything that you have in mind, exactly what is it that is not thinking. Could you give a few examples of acts that go on "in the head" that you do not mean when you talk about "thinking"?

What distinctions do you make between thinking and this "critical" thinking that you keep talking about? Can you make any such distinctions at all until after you have decided exactly what it is you mean by the first? Would your distinctions enable us to discover that a certain conclusion may be the result of plain thinking, but that critical thinking would provide another? If you were to make such distinctions, by which kind of thinking would you make them, and by which kind ought we to judge them?

And what about Problem Solving? Is it the same as thinking? The same as critical thinking? Are all the products of thought solutions, or only some? How can we tell? Are all solutions provisions of meaning, or only some? How can we tell? If they are the same thing, why do you use both terms? If they are different things, which will you use, and why, to answer these questions?

To such questions, and other such beyond counting, there are no answers in either the theory or the practice of the Thinking Educationists. It would be good, perhaps, to require answers of them, but it would be even better to know that they have no answers. And who is to ask these questions, not into the empty air, as we do, but before the public, so that all can study and consider what these people do and why?

Not the New York Times, obviously. But who knows? Maybe they know what they're doing. Plain and simple truth will seldom make news that is fit to print.

The Real Thing

NEVERTHELESS, it is possible to teach little children to do some thinking, although it would help those who undertake it to come up with a better word, and thus a better thought, than "teach." Thinking often comes about, especially in those not habitually given to thoughtfulness, by some event better understood as a provocation than a lesson.

Here is an example of such a provocation. It has all the elements that the educationists say they want in their thinking teaching. It relates to a current issue; it is relevant to everybody's life; it could be put forth as a "consciousness-raising" exercise; and it is even suitable for the seventh-grade rap session. But they still won't like it.

It begins, as thinking always begins, with a statement; and it is made up, as thinking always is, of statements about that statement, and statements about the statements about that statement. That can be done only in language, of course, but it doesn't require any unusually great skill in language. Simple attentiveness, in fact, is even more important than the skill.

Now for the statement with which to begin. It will sound familiar, not because it is especially nicely put, but because the idea it expresses is familiar:

"It is simply unjust to place people in dehumanizing social conditions, to do nothing about those conditions, and then to command those who suffer, ‘Behave--or else!'"

While the man who put it that way is eminent, there is nothing special about his way of putting it. Countless others could have said the same. Therefore, a lesson in thinking about that statement must not become a lesson in the power of authority. Indeed, anyone who would lead children into thoughtfulness must never cite authority, or identify in any way the source of a statement to be considered. It will never fail that children, of whatever age, will first react to what they hear, which is bad enough, and thereafter react, if they happen to know it, to the party or persuasion of the speaker. Let them attend only to the words.

The words at hand happen to state a well-known sentiment or belief, one that even children will recognize, and probably even approve. No child is unaware of the existence of injustice, and very few indeed will account for their own misfortunes in any other way. But the teacher of thinking must not let expressions of approval, or disapproval, replace the thinking. The end of thinking is not the discovery of the right sentiment that will drive out the wrong one, but only the discovery of the meaning of a statement. Until that is clear, no sentiment is appropriate.

The teacher must stick to the words. The words form a sentence. A sentence is about something, or someone. We can understand sentences most readily when we "know the subject," which is the only context in which that tired old phrase is useful.

So, the first question--and all of this must be done in questions--is, "What, my dear students, is the subject of this sentence?" Even dull students will see that the subject is "It." But the question, "‘What, exactly, is It," is not so easy to answer. It might take one of the brighter students to see that "It" is the same as "to place," "to do," and "to command." That, while quite correct, is not an answer that brings a sudden burst of clarity to the mind.

Since anyone who will pass himself off as a thinking teacher will have to be expert in language, and always attentive to it, this would be a good place to ask the children whether they have just discovered something important about writing, to wit, that a sentence is easier to make sense of if its grammatical subject is a good match with what might be called its "topic."

And, indeed, a statement that at first seemed clear, will suddenly seem less clear to people who notice that its topic seems to be a combination of placing, and doing, and commanding. All of them, verbs. So the teacher can now ask the children to look around in the sentence for the subjects of those verbs, the people who are the placers, the people who are the doers, and the people who are the commanders. Is there some child so dull as not to discover that those people do not seem to be anywhere in the sentence?

In such an inquiry, the teacher will be heeding a principle that is at once grammatical, rational, and, for those of a pragmatic turn of mind, perfectly realistic. There are certain things that can be done only by people, and that can not even be named without implying people, and the greatest clarity of statement, therefore, will be achieved when the subject of every verb that implies people is clearly visible.

The children will see this for themselves if the teacher asks them to decide, for instance, whether the placers, doers, and commanders are to be understood as the same people in each case. As to this, they will find no clue, and some of them may even notice that they had assumed the same subject for each verb, but, now obviously, without any justification for the assumption in the sentence. Interesting.

Now, oh joy, the teacher can let the children be creative. "Where would we stand," he can now ask, "if we were clear as to who did what?"

"Let's make another statement, as close to that one as we can get, but naming someone with every verb." He might offer the first example himself. The children will soon get the hang of it.

"Henry places people in dehumanizing conditions; Harvey does nothing about it; Harold commands them to behave; this is injustice."

Now the children can be asked to suppose that the first three statements are all true. What then can be said of the fourth, and what is its subject? This sort of question can lead to lively discussion in children. One of them will sooner or later point out that while Henry and Harvey may have forfeited the right to expect decent behavior of those "people," the same can not be said of Harold. This will eventually lead to the entertaining idea that crimes of the "people" committed against Henry and Harvey are nothing less than what those two deserve, but the same is not true in the case of Harold. And, come to think of it, who are those "people"? Could Harold perhaps be one of them, another victim of the oppression of Henry and the neglect of Harvey?

Since no modern child's consciousness remains unraised, it will be clear to them all that the statement is about an Issue, and that the speaker of those words didn't really want them to put specific persons into the empty slots. Certain classes were intended, and the children know which. But when the presumed classes are put into the statement, strange new questions will appear. If the haves, for instance, have no right to demand good behavior of the have-nots, whom they have oppressed, must the have-nots also abandon that demand? Is it still an injustice if some of the have-nots command other have-nots, Behave--or else? And what about those, haves or not, who do do something about "those conditions," the speaker himself, for instance? Is it unjust for him to command a certain behavior of the have-nots because he is, after all, one of the haves, or can he justly make that command because he is not one of the neglecters?

And such questions will lead to others even more entertaining. Might there be some have-nots who also put "people" into "dehumanizing conditions," and then "do nothing about it"? What just expectations can they have as to the behavior of "people"? And suppose--children love this sort of thing--that some have-not manages to place some of the haves in dehumanizing conditions, and does nothing about it? Is he to be excused for having done that for which those who have done the same to him are not to be excused?

And so forth. Much of this can be done at the first lesson. The rest of the year can go on with other necessaries, like the testing of terms for consistent meaning, and asking, "If this is true, what else must be true?" It'll be fun. Even the teacher might learn something of worth. But it will never come to any conclusions that will support any agenda, so they are not going to do it.

The Underground

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Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jarre;
nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous.

* This is what Theatatus is talking about when he reports to Socrates that the philosophers of Ephesus are "at war with the stationary." It is a regular attribute of bad thinking that its terms are slippery, that "gifted," for instance, can mean one thing in one grant proposal and quite another thing in the next. Consider, in this article alone, how many meanings these folk have assumed in the word "thinking." back

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