Better Citizens Through Critical Thinking
In a deeply polarized nation, our best hope for civic enlightenment will come from schools’ training of the next generation
BY WILLIAM T. GORMLEY JR./School Administrator, April 2018

Bill Gormley, rear, with students at Georgetown University, where he co-directs the Center for Research on Children in the U.S.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Tulsa, Okla. There may or may not be a 101st year. Critics believe that the school should be re-named because Lee owned slaves and led the Confederacy on the battlefield. Supporters believe the name should be preserved because expunging discredited names can obliterate lessons from history.

Last November, the students in Larry Cagle’s Advanced Placement Seminar and Research courses at Edison Prep High School in Tulsa heard arguments on both sides of the issue and questioned a distinguished panel of community leaders, professors and parents.

The panelists thoughtfully articulated a range of opinions. But the real stars of the show were the students, who demonstrated curiosity, an awareness of historic precedents and respect for different points of view. They asked all the questions and often raised followups to probe positions further. There were no boos, catcalls or groans. Student fact-checkers helped to keep everyone honest.

During a brief intermission, Cagle expressed his admiration, telling his students, “I’m so proud of you guys. I’m literally goose-bumping!”

Well before the event, Edison Prep students gathered relevant evidence on the subject. They conducted baseline surveys to gauge citizen and student preferences on renaming. Later they gave respondents information, pro and con, about General Lee, to see whether this shifted opinions. They were especially interested in knowing whether adults or adolescents were more malleable. Before, during, and after the panel, students exercised critical thinking skills to illuminate a touchy, tricky public issue.

Asking and Listening
School-based experiences like this one in Tulsa can be enormously valuable. Our country faces a grave crisis — a society so deeply polarized that we’re losing the ability to ex-change candid, well-reasoned views on controversial issues. All too often, we oversimplify the facts and demonize our opponents. This makes it difficult to resolve issues at all levels of government. It also makes us wary of our fellow citizens. It has led to a bitterly divided country, united in name only.

Our best hope for civic enlightenment is to ensure that the next generation of citizens has strong critical thinking skills, including skepticism, self-awareness and a passion for the truth. We need to teach students (a) how to distinguish between good and bad arguments; (b) how to understand and appreciate people whose life circumstances and experiences are very different from theirs; and (c) how to participate in activities that could improve conditions in their communities and in the nation.

Asking good questions and listening intently to the answers, as Tulsa’s Edison Prep students did, is a great way to train for citizenship. Students also need to acknowledge the limits of their own point of view. And they need to learn empathy, which can be elusive in an increasingly diverse society. Role-playing is one way to do this, and simulations are a great vehicle for role-playing.

Every December, students at Swanson Middle School in Arlington County, Va., participate in an event known as Ellis Island Day. Each 7th grader assumes the identity of an immigrant from a particular country and conducts research on his or her country of origin between 1880 and 1910. Many students dress the part and carry battered suitcases or pillowcases stuffed with valuables. They must persuade immigration officials, played by adults, that they are healthy, have at least $25 in cash and do not harbor dangerous politi-cal sentiments.

The students I observed were eager to share their researched life story with adults. Later, two of them explicitly connected their Ellis Island experience to the real thing. As Gillian Doherty, who posed as an Irish émigré, put it, “I felt nervous in the Great Hall … Multiply that by 10 and that’s how it actually felt to immigrants.” Rose Haron, who posed as a poorly educated Italian, said, “I felt powerless because I had a limited education. I felt a bit intimidated. … It kind of makes you empathetic.” These students and many others learned a lot from walking in someone else’s shoes.

Early Activism
The ultimate payoff to civic education is civic activism. Although we usually associate this with adults and older students, it is never too early to begin.

Two years ago, I visited Lincoln Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pa. Teacher Teresa Partee asked her 3rd graders to brainstorm about an issue they really care about. Eventually, her students settled on neighborhood violence. A key catalyst for this decision was a student whose uncle had died of a gunshot wound after a robbery. But most of the students knew what it meant to live in fear.

With help from Partee and other teachers, the students organized a rally. They conducted a survey, developed a website and prepared posters and placards. The rally at Lincoln attracted the mayor, a police commander, a state legislator and others. A 3rd-grade student summed up what many of her classmates were thinking, saying, “We’re here today ’cause we want to make our neighborhood a better place. We want to ask our fellow citizens to end this senseless violence against one another.”

Several 3rd-grade students from Lincoln Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pa., protesting neighborhood violence during a street rally.

After the speeches, the students marched peacefully on city streets in an effort to reclaim their neighborhood. Jason Rivers, a parent and project manager of the equity office in Pittsburgh Public Schools, expressed his admiration for the students, who demonstrated a capacity to think critically about a public issue that affects their daily lives and to collaborate on a big project.

Districtwide Commitment
It is relatively easy to identify teachers who provide some conceptual scaffolding to help students develop critical thinking skills and apply them to public issues and debates. It is harder to identify school districts that have made a districtwide commitment to strengthen civic education. Nevertheless, there are some encouraging examples.

The Chicago Public Schools has partnerships with a number of nonprofits that actively promote civic education and engagement, such as the Mikva Challenge, the Constitutional Rights Foundation and Facing History and Ourselves. Every high school student must take a civics course, which includes a role-playing exercise of some sort. The course also includes an action project, a historic case study, archival analysis and a structured discussion of a controversial issue.

Two-thirds of the district’s high schools and a growing number of elementary schools have student voice committees, which enable students to rethink and reshape their school environment. Approximately 15 high schools in Chicago have a partnership with the Field Museum, where students help to restore dunes in the Calumet Watershed area.

A few years ago, the Oakland, Calif., Unified School District decided to change its mission statement to reflect a commitment to college readiness, career readiness and civic readiness. With help from researchers at Mills College, the district worked at improving students’ ability to engage in civic dialogue by sharpening their digital media skills. Students collaborated on a project aimed at investigating gender imbalance in STEM course enrollments using riveting graphs. Since that time, more female students have enrolled in STEM courses. Students also testified before the Oakland City Council, complaining about deteriorating neighborhoods and citing specific examples to substantiate their complaints.

Multiple school districts have collaborated with the News Literacy Project, which helps teachers show students how to assess a news story’s credibility. This is a great example of applied critical thinking because it forces students to use good evidence to assess the accuracy of news accounts. Public school districts in New York City, Chicago and the District of Columbia have been among the most active collaborators. The News Literacy Project used to send journalists into individual classrooms. In April 2016, the project introduced a virtual classroom, checkology, which enables the project to reach more students at a lower cost.

Planting Seeds
What can school districts do to promote civic education through critical thinking? First, they can include civic readiness as an explicit goal in their mission statement, as Oakland did. Second, they can establish partnerships with local organizations committed to civic education and civic engagement among youth. Third, they can develop curricular materials to help teachers provide appropriate scaffolding and examples for different subjects and different grades.

It is a mistake to wait until high school to promote civic education. The seeds should be planted much earlier, as in Pittsburgh or Boston, where even elementary school students can participate in a civic education exercise known as Discovering Justice. It is also a mistake to confine civic education to civics courses or social studies courses. Many op-portunities to promote civic education and expression can be found in science, English and foreign language courses as well.

As school districts promote civic readiness, they should recognize that critical thinking skills are indispensable. Students must learn to challenge other people’s ideas forcefully but respectfully. They also must learn to reconsider their own beliefs and to seek out good evidence to inform public debates. As students approach adulthood, these habits should be part of their muscle memory, acquired early and sustained over time.

School districts can do much more to equip the next generation of citizens with these vital skills. The future of our democracy depends on it.

WILLIAM GORMLEY is professor of public policy and co-director of the Center for Research on Children in the U.S. at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and author of The Critical Advantage: Developing Critical Thinking Skills in School.

Additional Resources
» The Critical Advantage: Developing Critical Thinking Skills in School by William T. Gormley Jr., Harvard Education Press: Cambridge, Mass., 2017

» “Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation,” by Joseph Kahne and Benjamin Bowyer, American Educational Research Journal, February 2017, pp. 3-34

» “The Republic is (Still) at Risk — and Civics is Part of the Solution” by Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Tufts University: Medford, Mass., 2017

» “Survey: Teachers Talk Politics to Students, Despite Divisive Atmosphere” by Madeline Will, Education Week, April 4, 2017

» “Worried You Can’t Tell Real News From Fake? Slow Down and Be Skeptical,” by Harrison Smith, The Washington Post, March 28, 2017