“Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” Margaret Mead – Education
What is the purpose of school?
Most teachers agree that skills and content are important components for a quality education. Debate erupts over which is more important. Some argue that teaching a person how to think should be the primary focus. Others argue that teaching content knowledge is more worthwhile. In the middle of this debate are the students who have very passionate ideas of what the purpose of school should be.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts with guest, Michael Strong, author and school innovator, for a conversation about education using the Teach Different 3-Step conversation method.
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Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators from Illinois, who’ve created the Teach Different podcasts to model how to have unforgettable conversations using a super simple three step method, and quotes from some of the world’s great thinkers. This method works with students of all ages and all types of classrooms, and can be used in online or face to face environments. So, if you’re a teacher, administrator, social emotional learning specialist, or anybody who loves the art of conversations, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome.
Steve Fouts: 0:38
Well, welcome everybody to the Teach Different podcast. We’re excited tonight to have guest Michael Strong, who has a very interesting resume that I don’t think I can even try to share with you. I’m going to let him speak for himself right now and introduce himself. Michael, welcome to the show.
Michael Strong: 0:58
Well, thank you. I’m delighted to be here. I love to think I actually wrote a book called, “The Habit of Thought.” I’ve been doing Socratic seminars, and then ultimately what I call Socratic practice for 35 years. I actually left Harvard to go to St. John’s College where for four years we did nothing but read, think, and talk about ideas. And so, I love finding educators who are similarly interested in thinking and discussing ideas. So, I’ll keep it short for now.
Dan Fouts: 1:32
That’s great. Well, we’re very happy to have you here. And tonight’s quote is from Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist who has a really interesting quote on education which we’ll get to in a second. Just to remind all of our listeners, if you’re not already familiar, we’re going to model the Teach Different conversation protocol. We start with a claim of Margaret’s quote, then we’re going to work with a counterclaim, and lastly I’m going to end with an essential question. The whole idea of doing this is for anyone listening to envision using this quote with their own students to see what their students will say. How will they interpret the quote? The adults get to model it first, I guess is the way to think about it. Here’s Margaret Mead’s quote, and it’s a great one, “Children must be taught how to think not what to think?” Michael, do you want to weigh in? What is Margaret getting at here?
Michael Strong: 2:49
A great question. I actually am against (teaching them) what to think. I want to cultivate independent thinkers, and I actually chafe a tiny bit in terms of how to think. I think I know what she means, but I want to get them thinking. The how is a little bit more complicated. So, I’ll just pause there.
Steve Fouts: 3:13
Interesting. It’s almost like motivation is the real challenge. The how and the what kind of come after the motivation to maybe feel like you have that agency to even have an opinion, to share it, to learn from others, and adapt it. That’s an interesting take on this. Your kind of getting around the how, and the what. It’s interesting.
Michael Strong: 3:44
I’m most curious about what people think. I actually have a YouTube series called “Love your Child’s Mind,” and I’m wondering what’s inside Dan’s mind, what’s inside Steve’s mind? Where I come from is a place of curiosity. How do other people make sense of the world?
Dan Fouts: 4:04
Yeah, and that gets into what perspectives do they come from? What is the content of their heads that’s driving what they’re thinking? That’s really interesting.
Michael Strong: 4:15
Then I guess the other thing, maybe this is getting closer to what Margaret Mead means by how to think, is I have the expectation that other people think in a manner that is, in some sense, consistent or coherent. So, when somebody says something, I ask them how they make sense of the world. How do they know what a bird is, or what truth is, or whatever, and if they say something that seems contradictory, I think wait, how can you believe X and then believe Y when they seem to be contradictory? And so, I would say for me, the way the how gets packed in is through my internal expectation that people are making sense in a consistent, coherent way that I can understand if I kind of know what’s going on inside their head.
Steve Fouts: 4:58
It’s really a criteria that you’re setting up. This is very Socratic. It’s no coincidence here that Socrates would get in his conversations and point out contradictions in other people’s ideas and opinions. Once you point out a contradiction, you can rely on just about everybody not wanting the same thing to be an opposite thing at the same time. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s like you’re appealing to an intuition.
Michael Strong: 5:38
Big time. What’s interesting is that I actually do think that being rational and logical is intuitive. I think there are a lot of people out there who think intuitive is the opposite of rational. I think we all have an intuitive sort of rationality. Just because all this can quickly become very abstract and philosophical, I want to ground this just a little bit in my conversations with children. I had this conversation with this young woman named Ilana, who was four, and I asked her, what is a bird? She said it flies and has two wings. I said, okay, suppose we take the dragonfly, and we cruelly take off some of its wings, so now it only has two wings. Is it now a bird? And she says, no. Even though she’s four, I’m asking her to come up with a coherent definition of a bird. This example shows that two wings are not quite enough to define a bird because a dragonfly, where you take off two wings, is still not a bird. And so, I think she has sort of an intuitive rationality since that doesn’t seem to be a contradiction, even at age four.
Steve Fouts: 6:52
Interesting. I think that’s a good way to look at it. What do you think, Dan?
Dan Fouts: 7:00
Yeah, I think that’s interesting. It makes me think, does rational thinking have to be consistent all the time? Are there ways you can think that might not be consistent, but could be valuable in certain ways? The jumble that sometimes comes out of students, my artistic students specifically. The way they think is not Socratic. They’re not thinking we need to be consistent with this and that, and we need to compare things. They have their own kind of tunnel of thinking that is artistic and doesn’t take a rational form. So I don’t know. That is, I think kids would weigh in on this, at least at the high school level, and would talk about their own unique way of thinking, not wanting to be put in any kind of box. Does that make sense?
Michael Strong: 8:01
Totally. But again, this is why I am interested in intuition and creativity. At the same time, I want to push back and say there is almost, maybe we should call it an instinctive rationality. To give you a kind of a high school example. I’ve had conversations where kids say boys and girls should be treated equally. I say, okay, does that mean that you pay as much attention to girls sports as you do to boys’ sports? I’m just saying how can you reconcile the notion that they should be treated equally when most of them probably pay more attention to boys’ sports? It’s an honest question. How do you reconcile those two? I would say most high school classes at least recognize some kind of a contradiction there. Then how do you reconcile it?
Steve Fouts: 8:46
And with Margaret Mead, is it obvious what she means by how to think and what to think? With these quotes, Michael, if you hang out with Teach Different long enough, you’ll realize that when you put a quote up, you hope it starts a conversation. But in reality, there’s always a word or two, or a phrase, that you almost need to unpack. You need to start things off by really talking about the process of thinking, what is the end of thinking, and really what that means. This one would be pretty conceptual. I’m wondering if either of you have an idea of how to bring this one down to the student’s level and talk about the difference between the how and the what.
Michael Strong: 9:49
I always like going back to the text when I lead Socractics. It’s useful and it sort of grounds, and centers, and gives us a common place to go. I also have my initial reaction to chafe a little bit against how to think. I think I probably had that attitude more when I was younger. I think a lot of us, well I’ll speak for myself, although I’m also interpreting Margaret Mead, have a sense that maybe other people don’t know how to think, and maybe they need to see it modeled. So not just ask questions, but also talk about ideas, bouncing them back and forth. You know, is it consistent or not, those sorts of things. Maybe the How is a process of modeling both one’s own thoughts as well as being in dialogue with others about thought.
Dan Fouts: 10:43
Interesting, so the role of a teacher would be to model how to think about something. That reminds me in class, I teach a philosophy elective, Michael, where this is all we do. We have discussions like this all the time, and when we approach really important moral dilemmas where there’s no clear answer, the kids get confused. Many of them stop me and just say, could you lead us through how you resolved this dilemma? And so usually teachers are told don’t state your opinion in class, don’t think for the kids, but I find that laying out exactly how I get to a certain conclusion can be a really valuable experience for the kids to see.
Michael Strong: 11:37
Big time. I would just say that the Junior Great books program is like a cousin of what I do. In their training they often say the teacher should never give his or her opinion. I think they do that because the default is for teachers to tell kids what to think all the time. But I agree that I find it really important to see myself as an authentic participant in the discussion. So even as I’m asking the students what they think and why, sometimes they’ll ask me point blank what do you think? I don’t want to be mean or anything, so I’ll tell them this is how I go through it. If it’s a matter of interpreting a text, I would want them to struggle with the text a little bit, so I wouldn’t share right away. But on something like moral dilemma, or actually freewill, I remember after having a long conversation about freewill, where the kids worked hard for an hour struggling to understand it, one of them said what do you think? And clearly he’d spent enough time working and struggling on it. I thought this is just, at bottom, an equal human relationship. We respect each other’s minds and thoughts, and that means, if they ask us something, and they authentically want to know, as opposed to just being lazy, then absolutely share.
Steve Fouts: 13:04
I think that’s really important, Michael. Whether to share an opinion, from a teacher’s perspective, is a question of is it appropriate or not. If you’re telling them what to think, of course, you’re doing too much. But they do want to hear from you. Sometimes when you put yourself out there, it brings others out, especially when you don’t have it worked out entirely in your own mind. But you give that keen question that nags at you, that you would love to have their input on. I find those are good prompts.
Michael Strong: 13:45
Big time. I would also add that I like to be transparent about how my beliefs are constructed. I’ll go into whatever evidence or experiences and say, I had this experience, or I read this, or I understood this, and try to give them almost an archaeology of how, according to my own understanding, certain opinions on certain things developed. I think this goes back to your point, Dan, of modeling for them.
Political debate is so horrible in this country. People think having an opinion is yelling at each other. Whereas, the ideal scientific discourse is that scientists base their opinions on evidence, and eventually that evidence becomes very persuasive to the whole scientific community. I like to model this notion that evidence matters, and how I think about different kinds of evidence. It’s especially interesting if I’m weighing contradictory evidence. I’ll say, on one hand this is persuasive, and on the other hand, that’s persuasive. I’m kind of looking for evidence to help me tip it one way or another.
I would expect you guys are familiar with John Stuart Mill’s on liberty and his arguments for freedom of speech. I’m a big believer that constructive healthy disagreement is important and valuable, and especially where we believe something is super important for us to hear the other side. We should want to hear the strongest possible case of opinions that disagree with us. Because whether we’re persuaded or not, it helps us understand our own views much more deeply. I love to have classroom conversations where the students disagree firmly, but politely, and realize that their own views have evolved somewhat. Again, it doesn’t mean switching sides, that’s almost a trivialization of this. I see people developing much more nuanced and sophisticated perspectives by means of this kind of dialogic thought process.
Dan Fouts: 15:44
And this can be young children. Michael, can you talk a little bit about the wide range of kids that you work with?
Michael Strong: 15:50
Yeah, going back to the videos on my YouTube channel, the kids start at four years old. A lot of it is very simple. Actually, I’ll give you one thing I’ve done in classrooms, and this is maybe first grade classrooms. I have four sentences, my name is myself, my body is myself, my mind is myself, and my soul is myself. I just ask them what’s most true? Typically, they very quickly get into this thinking; is it my name or my body? Would I be the same person with a different name? Even young children get into that. Most of them kind of land on their body. A few think of mind and maybe a few, with perhaps a religious background, think of spirit or soul. But a lot of them are very concrete. I love them saying, okay, it’s not my name, and then interesting dialogues about is it my body or my mind, and what are they? Even five, six-year-olds can have fantastic conversations on this.
Dan Fouts: 16:51
I find it fun, when a kid is really passionate about a certain argument and they’re bringing people along in class, to just stop them and say what is the best argument against your position? Literally, I think that’s teaching people how to think right there, where you can stop midstream, pursue a different argument, and then still weigh it, and believe it, and still fall on the side that you had in the first place. That’s so important to be able to do that.
Steve Fouts: 17:35
Go ahead, Michael. I’ll go in a little bit,
Michael Strong: 17:38
A little bit orthogonal, but just because it’s an interesting example, one of the other things I think of is, sometimes I go in thinking that I want to get the kids to think about a certain topic, and it turns out that they have no interest in what I wanted to talk about, or ask. They have a whole lot of energy or interest in something that’s completely different, and I want to respect where their passions are. So, a little bit of a strange example, but I was in a third-grade classroom, and we were reading a book – alligators swim in the swamp, bears climb trees, cats eat mice. I was going to forget where I wanted to go, but somebody said, this is an alphabet book. Then somebody else said, no, it has to say A is for alligator, B is for bear, C is for cat, or it’s not an alphabet book. The other kid said, no look, it’s an A, and then a B, and then a C. This is an alphabet book. They had the most passionate conversation about this, and I would have never thought about that.
Steve Fouts: 18:35
That’s kids for you. They’ll take an idea and just go with it. I was going to add in something about “the how to think” phrase. We’ve talked a little bit about not being contradictory. That’s one thing that you can teach. You don’t want to step on your own toes, if you’re going to have an opinion. I’m thinking of another one, and we’ve kind of touched on it. You can have an opinion, but if you haven’t considered something that’s in opposition to it, you’re not thinking properly, you’re stipulating. You’re forming an opinion that is maybe in between knowledge and ignorance, but you want to get closer to knowledge. The way to do that is to consider all of the perspectives, especially the ones that almost convinced you to disagree with yourself. Kids don’t like that any more than adults do. Everybody wants to have an opinion. They don’t necessarily want to second guess, or create doubt. They want to show conviction, to show confidence. But, I always found that the best way to reel those types of people in is to say, well, I’ll tell you what, if you can come up with an opinion that you agree with and that’s in opposition to the one you just shared, then you’re going to be able to beat anyone in an argument.
Michael Strong: 20:19
Totally great. Two things, one is just on the people who resist. A lot of people do resist this initially, but I find that once people kind of get into it and begin to enjoy thinking, that it’s almost like this phased transition where some kids, some groups, and some adults are very resistant, but something clicks, and then they love it. Then they’re almost addicted and they can’t get enough. I’m sure all of us are kind of in that stage, but it is sort of interesting.
Just to go to the other point of getting them to consider other things. Often, I find if I’m in a group of students, where the socially dominant, popular, or influential kids, are all on one side of an argument, and the shyer or quieter or less socially influential kids are on another side, I’ll kind of subtly build up the side that’s less strong, just so they can see that this argument is respectable. It adds my way of thinking to whatever side needs a little compensation.
Steve Fouts: 21:20 – Counterclaim
So what do we think about taking a detour right now on this quote, “children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” We really want to put our money where our mouth is and disagree with Margaret Mead. Does someone want to argue that there are times in life where elders or teachers should be telling people what to think at certain times? Let’s not get into this, oh, it could be anything. Let’s consider all the sides. Are there times when telling people what to think is appropriate?
Michael Strong: 22:11
It’s a good question, and a huge topic that we’re not going to be able to resolve right now. What comes up for me are things where it’s dangerous or harmful. We all might have different sorts of examples, but where a student may believe something that could actively harm him, or her, or others. Especially if one believes, or as an educator, or parent, we believe there’s an imminent danger. It’s sort of tricky, because it’s fine to entertain almost any idea for a while, but if they go out into the world with some beliefs that that can be harmful, it’s tricky. It’s kind of a slippery slope where once you start doing that, where do you stop?
Steve Fouts: 23:06
That’s exactly it. I think that many people, and definitely many children, are ready to be told what to think. There’s a comfort in that. Maybe we pride ourselves on being open-minded and like philosophical discussion, but for a lot of people it throws them off their rudder; they become less certain and it creates insecurity. What came to mind, Michael, as you were painting a picture where telling someone what to think might be appropriate, was something like don’t get into cars with strangers, you can’t trust strangers, you should not think that a stranger is trustworthy. In a way that is very limiting as to what you’re expecting from your own child to make their own decisions. They’re thinking nobody is trustworthy. These are tight ropes you have to walk.
Michael Strong: 24:17
Yeah, there’s kind of an issue with respect to age and maturity. With a lot of children of various ages, absolutely don’t do that (trust strangers). Don’t believe it’s safe. At some point, I would hope that most normal adults can make their own judgment. It’s especially tricky with adolescents because, and it can even vary within a given group of 10th or 11th graders, there are some whose judgment I trust a lot more than others. And it’s tricky, where you want to say the most mature ones are going to be thinking for themselves, and occasionally you think, oh my gosh, this kid’s not ready for that, and how to kind of calibrate that.
Dan Fouts: 24:57
Thinking of an example in class, where I maybe tell kids what to think, I’m being self-critical here, but not self-critical. I’m just being revealing. One thing I stress at the beginning of the year is for the kids to be comfortable with silence. I really do think I tell them what to think about silence. That silence is not your enemy. In a classroom, silence means that people are thinking and reflecting, and you’re giving people oxygen to assemble their jumbled thinking so that they can be confident to share something in class. I don’t have a discussion in class over the value of silence, I essentially tell them that this is an important value.
Michael Strong: 25:58
So, I would parse that a bit differently on my side. First of all, I’m kind of a radical with respect to intellectual autonomy. I want to cultivate intellectual autonomy, but I make a sharp distinction between behavioral autonomy and intellectual autonomy. I’m happy to tell the students, hey, I’m still majorly a dictator, and if I say silence, there’s going to be silence. If I say, you’re out, whatever it is. A very sharp distinction there, and as we said earlier, I’m also willing to say I believe this, this is where I stand. This is where I believe I have the authority to enforce this, these are the rules. But, the subtle distinction is that I don’t personally pretend to say that I’m going to change their mind. I think nobody can change our minds, but ourselves ultimately. But we do have to enforce certain things, and the way we enforce certain things might be with silence. Maybe they need to experience it and see the value. There’s also the other thing, where we can’t force their minds to change, but we can create experiences that perhaps lead them in a direction that we believe is desirable.
Dan Fouts: 27:07
Yeah. With silence, you may have interpreted it as them being quiet in class, but I usually use it when in a discussion; when a student needs to jump in and say something because everybody’s quiet. I try to model that it’s okay for the silence to be there.
Michael Strong: 27:29
I’m very interested in the long stretch of history on this issue. Back in Egyptian times, the Pharaoh was God, and what God said ruled. If Pharaoh was God, and God tells you to build pyramids, then you do what you’re told to do. But gradually, I think agency and autonomy have become much more important. I think the more rapidly the world changes, the more important it becomes. I think that whatever case there may have been for telling people what to think in the past is rapidly becoming, especially for adults, a different situation. 21st century jobs are being done by robots and AI – anything a robot can do it will do, and anything that can be automated will be automated. Those jobs are disappearing for people. I think the more we can become independent thinkers, the more likely it is that we, and the children we educate, will be valuable in the workplace in the decades coming and going forward.
Dan Fouts: 28:35
Just think of social media and all of that, and how that is disseminated. Everybody’s in echo chambers. It’s literally telling people what to think. I mean, that’s the currency of what people are sharing, and that’s very troubling, in so many ways. Unless we teach people how to think about what they’re hearing, they’re going to be susceptible to information that just isn’t true, or not thought out, or not defended. It’s happening so much.
Michael Strong: 29:15
I agree. I was thinking earlier of going way back to famous Jim Jones and drinking the Kool Aid in this mass suicide in a South American jungle, cults basically. If people don’t think for themselves, then they’re vulnerable to all sorts of people who are more than happy to tell them what to think. I think part of teaching students how to think is to actively seek information that contradicts their own beliefs. That goes back to a different form of logical consistency. If I believe something and I hear somebody that I respect thinks something differently, I want to know how this person can have this crazy belief. That desire to want to be exposed to contradictory information, is how all of us evolve, in terms of becoming more thoughtful.
Dan Fouts: 30:05
And how do you cultivate that, Michael, that desire to want to know how someone else is thinking?
It’s more than just what someone else is thinking. It’s actively searching out someone who disagrees with you and is just as passionate as you are, and presumably, just as intelligent, and well meaning. You should be curious about that. That should motivate you as a learner.
Michael Strong: 30:39
Big time. Just go to Dan’s piece first. I do think modeling and being interested in other people’s thoughts is very powerful. If as educators we’re modeling being interested in the thoughts of our students, then eventually getting other students to be interested in each other’s thoughts happens. It’s a long, slow process, but you’ve seen it happen, I’ve seen it happen.
Going to your point, Steve. The other thing I see is that this is fundamentally experiential education. It’s funny, a lot of people think I love Outward Bound and backpacking, and that’s experiential education. But I see this as fundamentally a different kind of experiential education, where over time students have the experience of changing their beliefs, or being very dogmatically certain about something, and then their best friend has a different belief. Oh my, he believes that! Then they’re kind of forced to come to terms with the fact that maybe they don’t have all the wisdom in the world. Then, they begin to respect a difference of opinion and this process of learning why people have different opinions. I believe this can change the world, so you’re speaking to somebody who is as deep of a believer in this as possible.
You see so many disparate kinds of functioning out there. I think it’s important to help young people become thoughtful, respectful, willing to evaluate evidence, willing to consider different opinions, and even when they disagree, being okay with it. Saying I understand why you believe that, maybe you’re coming from a different premise or you’ve seen different evidence and you weigh different evidence in different ways, and maybe you trust different people. At least they can understand why somebody might have a different belief than they do.
Dan Fouts: 32:22
In the political context, Michael, what that does is set up a spirit of compromise. Because when you see the goodwill of your opponents, you’re in a position to say, I can sit down at the table with someone and actually treat them as a human being and come up with some reasonable accommodation. Something our political world is struggling with right now. There are so many positive applications for this kind of skill.
Steve Fouts: 32:50
I was going to add in the social emotional learning aspect. We’re really referring to social emotional learning skills when we talk about things like empathy, perspective taking, and listening. This prepares you to function as an adult, as a person in society, whatever you do. People will just naturally be drawn to you because they’re going to feel like you’re not judging them, that you can have an opinion and they can have their opinion. They can learn from each other. These are just important skills for life.
Michael Strong: 33:33
Big time. Just to comment on each of those. First, going back to tolerance with Dan, one of the things that always comes up for me are things like John Locke’s letter for tolerance. The whole history of tolerance as a movement in Europe sadly began after Catholics and Protestants had been killing each other for 100 years or so. It’s very sad that it has to get to the point where only after a great deal of bloodshed are people ready to learn the value of tolerance. To your point, Steve, on one hand I’m glad that social emotional learning has become so popular, but sadly a lot of it seems to be lessons on social emotional learning, where again, this is experiential. I would say the exact same thing with character education. People thought we needed character education, and then we had these didactic lessons telling kids what to think. But, this doesn’t really change who they are. I would say that this kind of dialogue about important moral questions is real character education and this kind of dialogue about who we are and how we relate to each other is real social emotional learning.
Steve Fouts: 34:37
You are preaching to the choir.
Dan Fouts: 34:42 – Essential Question
That’s great. Well, this has been a wonderful, invigorating conversation, Michael. Your perspective is fascinating. We did agree with a lot of things, but that’s good. I think we gave Margaret Mead’s quote a good hearing. Imagine asking this at the beginning and at the end of this conversation, what is the purpose of school?
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas and are confident that conversations like this are possible. It’s just a little bit of planning and a three-step routine. Make sure you go to our Conversation Library to learn more, and try out some conversations we have all ready for you. Don’t forget to Teach Different with conversations and make a difference every day.