So let's say tomorrow, I get sworn in as NSW Minister for Education. Hey, given the theatrics of the State Cabinet lately, its not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Enough of that though, as I promised they'd be no politics this time around.
Well, there are some basic steps I'd take. I'd decouple the core English curriculum of reading, writing, and speaking from the study of literature, for reasons Paul Graham has explained better than I ever could. I'd make mathematics compulsory through to year 12, although with a reworked syllabus; few people really need to know what the derivative of tan is, but I recently got into a Facebook argument with a well-educated, science-literate person who couldn't tell the difference between a positive feedback loop and negative feedback loop. Software design and development needs to be redone, from scratch - high school age kids are more than capable of doing real programming and real computer science.
All this is merely tinkering, though.
Civics really needs to be core to the curriculum. It used to be, I'm lead to believe, but now, its not, for some bizarre reason. See, in a democracy, school isn't just vocational training, much as everyone seems to want to pretend otherwise. School is where you learn what a citizen of a society needs to learn. This includes knowledge and skills that help you become an economically productive individual, sure. Citizens aren't merely consumers and employees, though. They are voters, and members of political parties. They are plaintiffs and defendants in law suits, not to mention jurors. They are, ultimately, sovereigns, and to leave school and attain majority with absolutely no real knowledge of the government they are both members of and subject to is absurd. I could crap on about this for ages, but really I think its a pretty straight forward point. Hell, if I recall correctly there currently isn't an HSC course in Politics or Government you could take, even if you wanted to! Ridiculous.
OK, some changes to existing subjects, and the introduction (or perhaps its reintroduction) of a subject. Nothing too revolutionary there.
Do I have any grander schemes? Any more radical proposals?
Well, education is hard to do well, and there are lot of interesting theories floating around with little hard evidence to support them, and a lot of criticisms of existing arrangements and dreams
I'd like to say I'd like to teach teenagers to be good critical thinkers, but probably most educators would say the same thing. I could say that it'd be nice if there was less focus on specific factual content like who won the Battle of Thermopylae or the name of the law which ended no-fault divorce, and more focus on applying reasoning skills to those facts. Except, besides from pragmatic issues like the greater ease of measuring factual knowledge, as a rule people aren't innately good at generalising, and so giving someone a lot of information and then asking them to analyse it is quite possibly a better way to teach them abstractions then actually starting with the abstractions themselves.
What is critical thinking? It's focused on the idea of criticism, in its substantial sense - to consider something carefully, and find any weaknesses or flaws. Specifically, a good critical thinker is a strong critic of ideas - they are able to spot errors in people's arguments and theories. Most importantly of all, a critical thinker learns to criticise their own ideas, to see the holes in their own arguments - either with a view to papering the holes over, if they are a professional advocate like a trial barrister, or, hopefully, with a view to aligning their beliefs more closely with reality.
Can you teach this? Well, some people can teach it, and some can learn it, without a doubt, since it is clearly an acquired ability in particular to be self-critical of one's beliefs - by default we are overwhelmingly not rational so much as rationalising, forever finding reasons to justify our intuitions and behaviours. How to reliably and practically teach such skills to every school child is another question entirely.
Again, I think there is an extent to which it is futile to start in the abstract. Everyone learns abstractions at first via examples, even the deepest thinkers - the axioms of group theory were discovered by mathematicians interested in the common properties of integer addition, permutation composition, geometric transformations, matrix multiplication and the like.
So schools should have lessons about the most well know and comprehensible cognitive biases. It is just as easy to explain the sunk cost fallacy to a bunch of year nine school students as a bunch of first year undergraduates in Economics. Framing isn't just something psychology majors should learn about, its something everyone should learn about.
This stuff doesn't require any prior knowledge, nor an indepth understanding of the causes of the biases or any of the rest of the surrounding science. It is not, conceptually, that difficult; certainly its comparable in intellectual rigour to asking teenagers to write about the causes of World War I or to prove something by mathematical induction.
The best part about it is, you can very easily do the relevantt experiments, in the classroom, and then explain them. Here's why you all answered this way, and here's why you're wrong. And here's a ton of examples from real life about how this kind of utterly commonplace mistake in your thinking can lead you into trouble.
Now, would there any point to all this? Well, I believe, the jury is still out on that question; studies indicate some cognitive biases can apparently be corrected for by telling people about them, while others can't; and I'm unaware of anyone trying to explain them to children and then checking five years down the track if it helped them as adults.
At the very least, though, it should give the kids a thorough sense that they can be mistaken. If school were to have only one lasting influence on their reasoning, that would be a good pick. Even for the smart kids; in fact, especially for the smart kids - most of histories worst ideas came from smart people.
With special thanks to Nonchalant Adventurer, or whatever his blogging pseudonym is these days, for the long hours of philosophical exchange about critical thinking that helped shaped my current views, and of which this post is but the smallest of appetisers.