We Teach Too Much “What to Think” And Not Enough “How to Think”

Way back when I was a little high-school student, I recall the pride I felt when working through the nuclear reactor unit of our Grade 11 physics course. The pride derived from the featured CANDU reactor. Wow! Our little Canada somehow produced the best nuclear reactor in the world.

How did I know CANDU was the best reactor design in the world? Why I simply read my government-approved high-school textbook. Uncritically. Because I was so proud. (And naive, but we won’t dwell on that here.)

I recall the unsettling feeling I had in the following year or two upon reading newspaper stories detailing how much difficulty Canada was having selling its reactors abroad. We had to practically give the things away, providing generous subsidies (financed by Canadian taxpayers) in an attempt to convince Pakistan, India, etc., to “buy” our reactors. How could this be? I was genuinely bewildered … after all, these were the best reactors in the world, so countries should be lining up to buy them. Why did the U.S., France, England, and all the rest persist in using their own inferior designs?

I got the answer, and a bit of a wake-up, soon afterwards. One of my friends became a plant operator at a nuclear power station in Ontario, and at a get-together I was able to ask some questions to him and his colleagues. Tritium is the answer I got. Tritium is radioactive, and it is not of much danger if it is lying around outside the body. However, water molecules that include tritium evaporate just like other water molecules, and when they find their way into our lungs (breathed in with everything else in the air), their radioactive decay is indeed dangerous.

How about a critical comparison of the advantages and disadvantages, the costs and benefits, the dangers of various reactor designs? Where was that in the textbook we used way back then? That might have stimulated some critical thinking on my part, rather than the blind acceptance (fueled by misguided pride) that I exhibited.

Or how about presenting a bunch of comparative information, and guiding students to navigate through it all? How about training students to think by providing them contexts, and teaching them to use critical thinking tools? And then let them come up with their own conclusions, and guide them to defend their conclusions and probe the conclusions of their classmates? And then reflect on the whole process, and note that this is the way it works in the real world of scientific discourse … you work hard to collect all of the relevant evidence, weigh it up, consider various perspectives, and then finally you have built yourself some kind of understanding. A tentative one, always subject to change if new information comes to light.

I have had occasion to review a current Ontario Grade 11 physics textbook in the past few days, and I’m sad to say that it is no better than what we got 35 years ago. The book still contains uncritical championing of CANDU.

This is not the way to train thoughtful, critical citizens who will be able to make decisions about science and technology. This kind of training is becoming increasingly important nowadays, and we’re not doing a good job of preparing our students to become intelligent citizens.

We’ve got to do better than this.

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 22 January 2021.)