“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Aristotle – Critical Thinking
What is the mark of an educated mind?
When we hear a new idea, our first instinct is to accept the idea without question, either because we have intuition that it is true or we simply trust the messenger. Accepting truth in this way is comforting for it requires very little work and gives us permission to stop thinking. It’s also dangerous. Sometimes new ideas must be met with delay and smart suspicion. Delaying acceptance affords us time to evaluate the true worth of ideas and compels us to reject the bad ones.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts – founders of Teach Different and twin brothers with over 50 years of teaching experience – along with United States educator Joe Schmidt, social studies specialist and Acting Coordinator of Secondary Education for the Maine Department of Education, for a conversation about critical thinking using the Teach Different 3-Step conversation method.
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Image source: Wikimedia | Tilemahos Efthimiadis
Dan Fouts 00:00
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here from Teach Different. We’re veteran teachers from the United States bringing educators together from around the world to learn a simple conversation method, which we model on this podcast for you. If you’re a teacher, administrator, or parent who wants to use the power of conversations to build stronger relationships and fight polarization, stay tuned to hear the impact our method can have on your discussions. Then join our Community of Educators at teachdifferent.com for additional resources and to participate in lively conversations among teachers and faculty, free for 30 days.
Hello, everybody, welcome to the Teach Different podcast tonight. We have a quote from Aristotle about critical thinking that we’re going to get to in a minute. We’re going way back to the Greeks for our inspiration tonight, and we have a great guest, Joe Schmidt, who is a social studies specialist with the Maine Department of Education. He will introduce himself when he first talks about the quote. We’re going to start the conversation with a provocative quote, then we’ll talk about the claim of the quote, by putting it into our own words, and discuss how we might use it with students in the classroom. At a certain point in the conversation, we’re going to shift to the counterclaim to push against what Aristotle is saying, and do it in a way that is convincing. This causes tension in the conversation with ideas competing with one another. This is when the kids really come alive during this method. We’ll end with an essential question and be on our way. Here we go. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Joe, welcome to the show. What’s your take on this quote?
Joe Schmidt 02:05 – Claim
Well, good evening. Thank you for having me and thank you for that kind introduction. My name is Joe Schmidt. I’m currently the Social Studies Specialist and Acting Coordinator of Secondary Education for the Maine Department of Education. I’m also currently in year one, of a three year term, on the NCSS board of directors. I teach an elementary social studies methods course at the University of Maine, and in whatever spare time is left over, I’m finishing my book that we were talking about right before we hit record. It’s coming out this spring. You’ll be able to purchase my book, “Civil Discourse and Classroom Conversations for Stronger Communities,” co-written with Michelle Pinkney, and our author mentor, Julie Stern.
I think this is such a great quote, because we spend so much time talking about civil discourse and this idea of let’s agree to disagree, or at least that we can disagree, but not be disagreeable. I think what Aristotle is saying is that I can entertain that idea, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go with it. It doesn’t mean I’m going to have my mind changed. The reason I really like this quote is that it’s a goal. We want our students to be able to hear all things, all the approaches, and accept whatever fits their own personal beliefs. Maybe more importantly, for an educator, where we have claims evidence and a reasoning component. As Dr. Sam Weinberg, one of the co-founders of the Stanford History Education Group, says, we all have opinions, but not all opinions are equally valid. I think the educated mind is able to walk that balance between hearing those opinions. Aristotle didn’t have to deal with online media literacy, but I think the roots of human existence fall into what do I believe, why do I believe it, and am I willing to hear you out on your beliefs.
Steve Fouts 04:30
I agree with your statement, the willingness to hear someone out. I’m getting the same thing from this. What’s the phrase, open mindedness? I feel like this is a quote that is talking about open mindedness and critical thinking. These are two terms that people are familiar with, but they’re things that you should have if you’re educated. If you have a mind that is thinking beyond the moment, then you’re considering these types of things. You need to be a critical thinker and open minded in order to be educated. That’s how I was reading it as well.
Dan Fouts 05:24
Building on that. I like the word entertain. When you entertain a thought, you’re bringing it in, but you’re not accepting it. You’re not immediately saying it’s true. You’re entertaining it with the idea that you’re going to mull it over, think about your past experiences, and think critically about it to see if it’s something you can accept. Aristotle is almost calling on patience in thinking. Joe, you mentioned social media. This is such an important concept for kids to understand when they get showered with information. Before blindly accepting it, they should entertain it and really think about it. That is becoming a lost art in many ways.
Joe Schmidt 06:24
In Dr. Diana’s 2009 book, “Controversy in the Classroom,” she talks about bringing these topics to the center to fairly consider and critically evaluate them. Just because we bring something in doesn’t mean that it’s worthwhile. We can critically evaluate the worth of it to determine its worth. I think that’s what Aristotle is getting at. We’re not shutting people out, we’re not living in an echo chamber, but we are potentially seeking out differing points of views so that we can fairly consider them. The educated mind critically analyzes them. In the end, you may or may not accept it, but you don’t have to accept it to be educated.
Steve Fouts 07:23
That’s a really good way of saying it. The only thing I would add is the word entertain. I want to believe that word is serious. We don’t want to come across as being disingenuous. Everyone’s been in a conversation where the other person is asking for your opinion, but you can just tell that they’re biding time until they can give their take on it. They don’t really care about what you’re saying. They just want to give you a little bit of oxygen to say something, but the real goal is to get their own position out. That would be a hard thing to read into this quote. Whatever he meant by this, it’s important that different ideas are out there, and you’re not just sticking to your own. You are entertaining. That’s the first step.
Dan Fouts 08:34
Maybe the phrase, Steve, is active listening. When you’re actively listening to people, you aren’t being disingenuous, you are literally trying to figure out what they’re saying. You are entertaining their thoughts in good faith. But, you’re right, when you talk to certain people, you look in their eyes, and can see that they’re just reloading their opinion. They’re not really listening to what you’re saying. We know what that feels like. When we do that to other people inadvertently, they know what it feels like as well. So, we want to avoid that.
Joe Schmidt 09:11
Well, when you say active listening, is that even enough if we really want to get to the best case scenario of what we think Aristotle was saying? Can I be actively listening just to rebut you? Maybe I have no intention of actually considering that. The educated mind is able to thoughtfully consider without accepting. If we differentiate in a debate where you say yes and I say no, I’m going to be actively listening, so that I can win. I don’t know if the intent there would be to change my mind at all.
Steve Fouts 09:59
Great point. In a debate, you have to know what the other side is thinking and why they’re thinking it, not because you believe in what they’re saying. You’re just readying yourself and reloading.
Dan Fouts 10:16
Again, you have to actively listen in good faith, where you’re really considering what they’re saying. It has to be honest, because people can sniff that out pretty quickly.
Steve Fouts 10:32
Joe, let’s move to the counterclaim. When you look at this quote, is there another perspective? It could be another definition of an educated mind, or you can play with some other words. What would you say is the best way to push against a quote like this?
Joe Schmidt 10:56 – Counterclaim
We were pivoting around the word entertain. That it means more than checking a box. I think we’re saying that an educated mind is actively engaged, thoughtfully working, and considering. I think we put a lot of higher order thinking verbs in place of entertain as we talked through the claim. I think that’s in there. The other part that comes out to me is what is an educated mind? He doesn’t say. He says, entertaining a thought without accepting it, is the mark of an educated mind. Is that true indefinitely? We can be really thoughtful, entertain that thought, and not change your mind. What happens when somebody never accepts a different thought? Do we feel like they have an educated mind? I’m struggling with the educated mind part of the quote, because there are people who are absolute experts in their fields, and we’d say that they are highly, highly, highly educated, but they might not ever step back from a position in which they’ve taken a stance, good, bad or other. I think there are nuances here. If somebody were to never change a thought, or if somebody was so educated on a topic that they might not even be willing to consider another idea, are they still educated? What does he mean by entertain?
Steve Fouts 13:04
That’s the big word in the quote. I would even say educated is a big word, too. I don’t know if there is a common definition of educated. What is an educated mind? That’s really what the quote is talking about. I’m struggling with a counterclaim myself.
Dan Fouts 13:23
I can jump in. Going with what you said, Joe, I think Aristotle is talking about when you initially hear an idea, to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Often, we accept things based on trust and faith. We don’t critically analyze what’s being told to us. We intuitively feel what things are true, and we act on that. So, I really think Aristotle is being biased towards critical thinking. A counterclaim could be that you base your beliefs on trust and faith, but you could still be an educated person. You don’t need to entertain, slow down, and be patient to consider all sides before making decisions and shaping your beliefs about the world.
Steve Fouts 14:41
Let me restate the quote going with that, Dan. It’s the mark of an educated mind to show conviction through intuition. But, that becomes different than what I would believe an educated mind is. That’s not a bad thing. Did I do justice to the way you were saying it?
Dan Fouts 15:05
Yeah, I think so. The idea is that you have conviction in your beliefs, and that’s what makes you smart or educated. You have the courage to state your opinion, and believe it wholeheartedly.
Joe Schmidt 15:29
I’m trying to put a counterclaim into words with educated. I think what might be a negative in this quote is how we interpret educated. You can play it both ways. There are very knowledgeable individuals who may not have formal education. They don’t have a college degree, or maybe they didn’t even finish high school. Aristotle opens the door to the idea that the educated mind isn’t one that necessarily has a degree, but one who’s willing to entertain thoughts. I’m wondering if a counterclaim can be made where it’s not about an educated mind, but about an open mind, or a knowledgeable mind, or an understanding mind. Maybe it’s not about being educated. Maybe it has nothing to do with education. It has to do with a personality that’s open to change and compromise, open to others. It is the mark of a personality open to others, who is able to entertain a thought without accepting it. Maybe if we really dug into it, we would find that some of these traits overlap. Aristotle’s potentially confusing those two.
Steve Fouts 17:02
I love that Joe, it is the mark of an open mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. You could also call it the mark of an empathetic person to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. I really like that way of approaching the counterclaim. You deal with the word educated, because it does have some negative connotations in certain contexts.
Joe Schmidt 17:41
Now I’m thinking about the student experiences. I love empathy. That’s what it is. It’s the empathetic person, as opposed to the educated mind. It’s trying to put themselves in another person’s shoes. In my years of teaching high school government, when we would discuss welfare reform, the number one indicator of a student’s belief in what should happen with welfare reform was their proximity to it. If their closest proximity to welfare was a family member who benefited from it, then they tended to be pro-welfare. If someone’s closest experience was a neighbor on welfare who has a big screen TV, then they’re abusing it, and don’t need it. They would be against it. Where’s the empathy? How are they accepting? I would ask, do you think there are people who need welfare? Everybody would say yes. Do you think there are people who abuse the system? Everybody would say yes. Then, I was that differential. If they thought more people needed it, then abused it, then they were okay with welfare. If they thought more people abused it then needed it, then they wanted to get rid of welfare or change it. I would say both of those sides entertained both thoughts without accepting them. I’m wondering where empathy fits in. I’m really liking how we’ve gone from educated to empathetic, but then does empathy disallow entertaining? What do we really mean by empathy? Are those students empathetic to those situations, or are they just aware of them?
Steve Fouts 20:32
This is a layered quote. This is not an easy quote, in my opinion, Joe, for the reasons you just pointed out. Educated and entertain are the words that make it layered when you’re looking for the claim and counterclaim.
Joe Schmidt 20:54
I think many educators, probably those listening to this podcast, would say that having students entertain thoughts, but never accepting any, is not our goal for students. They might push on that piece. That’s not education. The education piece is that openness. At some point, we have to at least be willing to accept some other thoughts. This is why I loved playing with this quote, because what are we trying to get at?
Dan Fouts 21:43
Yeah, it goes in interesting directions. We’re always preaching open mindedness, entertaining thoughts without accepting them, but you have to make decisions. You have to accept certain things in order to chart your course in life. You can’t spend all of your time in a position of deliberation about entertaining every thought. We can get trapped into thinking too much about things and not ever taking a stand. I think that is something to discuss with the kids around this quote. Where is the balance between being open minded, yet having conviction and moving forward with decisions.
Steve Fouts 22:47
While you were talking, Joe, I was thinking about why it’s hard to entertain thoughts from another person who you probably don’t agree with. You’re not accepting their thoughts in the sense that you believe they’re true, but you’re entertaining them. Why is that hard? Tell me what you think about this, it’s the mark of a courageous mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
Joe Schmidt 23:38
I would like to counterclaim that one, because Dan’s got me really thinking. I love the point he made. We can sit around and entertain thoughts all day long. To me, that’s almost the sign of an uneducated person. I’ll sit and think. Isn’t that what some of our social media and Facebook followers do? I will click all day long, but we do have to make decisions. It’s not a big stand. I talk a lot about different ways that we approach thinking with educators in professional development. Like the idea of where are we going to go out to eat, or what are we going to have for supper tonight? Well, you start with all of the options. We had Italian last night, or I don’t want to go out because I’m on a budget. You start to narrow down the list.
At the Right Question Institute, Rothstein and Santana, would say it’s divergent thinking. You take a metacognitive approach to think about what’s important, then you start to converge back down. If you didn’t, Dan, we would never make a decision about what to eat. if we entertained all of the thoughts, we would starve at some point. Maybe that’s the counterclaim. The mark of an uneducated mind is to entertain thoughts without accepting them.
Dan Fouts 25:05
I love it. That’s the counterclaim.
Joe Schmidt 25:13
I think we figured it out.
Dan Fouts 25:15
I think we figured it out.
Steve Fouts 25:19
Explain the uneducated mind to me.
Dan Fouts 25:23
You’re spending your time in deliberation, not in action. An educated person is someone who not only thinks, but who acts. Someone who has conviction and pushes forward with their beliefs.
Steve Fouts 25:39
I want to push back on education, because I don’t get a sense of where action exists in educated people. Some educated people believe that you should act. I agree with that. That’s why I came up with courage, because it’s more action oriented. I’m listening to both of you, and it’s making sense to me.
Joe Schmidt 26:12
Are you entertaining our thoughts, or are you just waiting to push back, even though you’re not accepting?
Steve Fouts 26:20
Joe, you called me on it. You tell me if I’ve captured what you both are saying here. Paralysis by analysis. Is that the phrase?
Joe Schmidt 26:33
Steve Fouts 26:34
What we’re really talking about here, is if you’re entertaining so many thoughts, you will not act.
Joe Schmidt 26:49
I used to use Likert scales, and then we would debate them. Okay. You believe chocolate ice cream is better over here, but you think vanilla ice cream is better over there. I would always have students who sat in the middle. I would divide them into teams and have them take a stance. Tell me why chocolate is better. They would say, I don’t know, you put me here. I didn’t really want to be here. That became their out.
Even the C3 framework has dimension four, taking informed action of an inquiry arc. I don’t think any of us really wanted to counterclaim Aristotle until we started picking apart pieces of his quote. I don’t think it’s as simple as saying an uneducated person acts, but, for me, that gets a lot closer to what I think a reasonable counterclaim would be. If you really want to be considered educated, whether that’s formal or informal education, at some point, you have to do something. When we go to a sage, or someone with a lot of wisdom, and tell them our problem, at some point you want them to tell you what to do, not just ask questions and consider more options. That’s why you came to them for advice. I need you to pick something to eat tonight, so we don’t starve. I need you to take a stance on this topic, so that you can write a strong argumentative paper for my class.
Dan Fouts 29:36 – Essential Question
Well said. Okay, I think we definitely worked with the claim and finally got to a very legitimate counterclaim on this. This could go in a lot of different directions, if you were to give this to students. Sometimes you end with a lot of frayed thinking on different things, but the fact that the kids have grappled with it is a good sign that they’re thinking.
There are so many different essential questions you could come up with for this quote. Here’s one, what is the mark of an educated mind? I imagine kids having a mini discussion about this question. I think education is being open minded. Well, I think education is being able to do things in the world, and to be productive in society. That’s really what education is about. This conversation might fold into what is the purpose of an education. You never know. Joe, thank you so much for being our guest.
Steve Fouts 29:47
Thank you, Joe.
Joe Schmidt 30:25
Dan, can I keep going here? I have an idea with this.
Steve Fouts 30:25
Of course, put it out there.
Joe Schmidt 30:28
I love student voice and choice. Not only does it rhyme, but I also feel like it’s really helpful. Dan, you mentioned that we might have frayed ideas. It’s not nice and clean. I would turn that over to the students. The essential question is student voice and choice. If I’m a student who’s hung up on entertain, I might ask, does entertaining a thought truly mean consideration? If I’m hung up on educated, would an educated person ever truly accept another point of view? I do a series of trainings and presentations around inquiry. The first one that I usually do is called, questions are the new answers. You can assess students by the questions that they ask. I could see doing this activity, and then the exit slip is to write the essential question that you would want your classmates to answer. I think by judging the students on their question, you’re going to get just as much, or maybe more, than if you said, here’s the quote, write a reflection piece on it.
I have an activity where the students bring questions in, and then I pick a question of the day. I call it one more question. You could say tomorrow we’re going to revisit this with one more essential question. Everybody proposes a question and then the kids debate, or engage in a discussion, about why their question might be better than a peers question. That’s a whole new layer of getting into their head. We could finish and not even have the students write down anything. I think you’d really have a lot of insight if they tore it apart. Use the 3-step method, and then instead of us coming up with the essential question, have the students write an essential question and then determine which essential question to discuss one more time with this quote. I think you’re going to know all you need to know about your kids before you get to that last day.
Dan Fouts 30:28
Steve Fouts 30:34
I love that.
Dan Fouts 33:21
Formulating good questions is an intensely valuable academic exercise. It’s a great suggestion, Joe. Joe, how can people get a hold of you if they’re interested?
Joe Schmidt 33:37
Well, the best way to get a hold of me is on Twitter. I’m @madisonteacher. I also have a website www.joeschmidtsocialstudies.com. You’ll get to see more information. I have a newsletter that you can sign up for. I tweet it out every couple of weeks with a different question. Yesterday’s question was, is pumpkin spice over done in the fall? People are out there talking about it. Yes, no, maybe. We’ve got pumpkin spice lovers out there. In the coming months we’ll have more information about getting the book pre-ordered. I’m also available for professional development for districts, and other groups around the country. Please reach out to me @madisonteacher or find me at www.joeschmidtsocialstudies.com. I believe I’m coming back. We were talking about a follow up conversation. I’m super excited. I had so much fun. We could just do episode number two right now, because I don’t think I’m going to sleep. That’s how much adrenaline I have right now.
Dan Fouts 34:43
Nice. Yeah, we’re going to see you in the late spring, after your book is out. Joe, we really appreciate your time. I’ve been connecting with you on Twitter for three or four years now, and you’ve always been a great advocate for Social Studies. Hopefully, one day, we’ll have another face to face conference, where we can sit down and have dinner or something.
Joe Schmidt 35:05
Absolutely. I would love to do that. Yeah, you’ve been a good supporter as well. Not only when I was running for NCSS board of directors, but retweeting all my information to get it out there. You guys do good work, and I’m happy to support you.
Dan Fouts 35:19
Great. Thank you. Have a wonderful night, Joe.
Joe Schmidt 35:22
Dan Fouts 35:23
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and have a sense of confidence that you too can master the art and science of conversations to make a lasting impact. We at Teach Different are dedicated to supporting you along that journey. Please visit teachdifferent.com to join our Community of Educators for additional resources and engaging discussion among fellow teachers and administrators, free for 30 days. We’ll see you there and next time on the Teach Different Podcast, take care!