Like dominos, more and more U.S. schools are falling toward a system of standardized testing, where a high score is the only measure of success, and where students are taught to regurgitate rhetoric on an exam, only to forget it once the exam is over. Students aren’t encouraged to contemplate the information given, and praise is reserved almost exclusively for their memorization skills.
It’s gotten to the point where our education system doesn’t foster creative thought or questioning information. Often, deviating and questioning are rewarded with poor grades. As a culture, we are pressured to believe that this is the only way, that the U.S. is successful because of these tests (although it’s worth noting that, despite our preoccupation with testing, we aren’t even truly international competitors, according to this study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center). Standardized tests don’t allow for the most important thing of all: critical thinking.Simply put, our kids aren’t learning like they should.
Finland, a country increasingly renowned for its education system, is painting a revolutionary picture: children are given specialized learning based on their interests. Critical thinking and in-depth reading are not only encouraged but required, and there are no regular, standardized tests. Despite this, they consistently rank among the top five countries in math, science, and reading. So, what exactly are they doing differently, and what can we learn from their success?Finland encourages the support of free thought and students’ passions. Children are given frequent breaks outdoors and taught everything from ethics to chemistry. Giving students the opportunity to learn diverse topics, free from the pressure of standardized tests, has had overwhelmingly positive results for the country. If we hope to have our children truly thrive, innovate, and meet success, the U.S.
must shift its focus away from standardized tests and toward critical thinking. Studies have shown that U.S. adults struggle to think critically. When children are taught to question, they are taught to observe a problem from all angles, and to approach the world with a more receptive and engaged mentality.We are at a remarkable time of change, when an entire generation has never lived without the internet. Gen Z are experiencing a great opportunity to expand their thinking, with access to a menagerie of information, opinions, and opportunities at their fingertips.
The trouble is, we need to be teaching them to think expansively to begin with. The internet also provides a platform for existing in an echo chamber, where narrow opinions of all shapes are reinforced by algorithms that only show you what you want to see. Students need to be given more complex resources and education to even know where to look to begin with. If students aren’t encouraged to think more critically, then they aren’t receiving the tools necessary to expand their perspectives in the first place.If they were given more open-ended assignments and encouraged to question their own beliefs, they would find they were empowered to genuinely think for themselves.
In this age of uncertainty, expansive thinking is more important than ever. Critical thought leads to less bigotry, more compassion, and more radical free thinkers and innovators. When we are giving people platforms to think more broadly, we are encouraging them to change the world, to have dominion over their own existence, and to improve the lives of those around them. Denying our children the right to think critically for themselves creates another generation of people who are not taught compassion for all, who hate because they are taught to hate, and who are complicit in the continued oppression of people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. It isn’t just about encouraging broad-mindedness, however. If we teach kids to think for themselves from a young age, we open the door to their own self-reflection, which empowers them to consider aspects of themselves and foster self-improvement. Most people aren’t given the tools to think for themselves from a young age, which encourages static thinking and closed mentalities. If we encourage children to question why they feel a certain way about something, we are encouraging them to become more well-rounded adults, adults who engage in meaningful discourse about a variety of topics, adults who strive to better themselves every single day.
Giving children the tools to think critically is the cornerstone of a successful, entrepreneurial, innovative generation. The time has come for the U.S. to push for radical educational change if we hope to be a meaningful bastion of growth and possibility in this increasingly global culture.