Friday, July 26, 2013

Teaching Students How to Think

In my debates with the anti-MOOCitariat, one of the most frequent claims made for the in-person professoriat is that they "teach students how to think."

I was talking recently to a entrepreneur who had been involved in trying to set up a program in his industry at a local University. He described how the committee of young professors and he had worked out what skills an entry level person in his industry needed and were all in general agreement. At that point the Dean showed up. He pronounced that the University could not be a "trade school" school because that wasn't what they did. What they did do, said the Dean, was teach people how to think.

At this point, the entrepreneur gave up in disgust. You can teach people skills, he said, but nobody ever taught anybody how to think. My instinct was to agree, but I had a nagging feeling that there were parts of the thinking process that could be taught. How to analyze a problem or an argument, for example.

So how do we do that? Mostly, I think, by having people solve problems and analyze arguments. And the perfect context for doing so usually arises in teaching people the skills of the occupations they desire. Of course some subjects are better suited for this than others. History majors robably don't get that much practice in burger flipping.