The problem with reason

Albert Einstein said, ‘The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.’

Intuition and initiative often play second fiddle to rationality and reasoning in schools. Reasoning is an obsession, and it’s often used to measure intelligence. I frequently hear children described as a 125 or a 106. Ironic when you remember that Alfred Binet, founder of the IQ tests, said ‘intelligence, like love or beauty, is immeasurable.’

It’s not how smart you are, it’s how are you smart; there are myriad ways in which children can demonstrate ‘intelligence’, as Howard Gardner recognised in his multiple intelligence theory. But the need to focus on literacy and numeracy skills for SATs and the ever-growing pressure to prepare children for verbal reasoning pre-tests combine to create a very narrow view of what it means to be ‘clever’.

With so much emphasis on deductive logic, knowledge-processing and analytical thinking, it’s easy for a child to grow up believing that to become cleverer is to boost your computational capacity – to retain knowledge quickly and to apply it logically. And if you can’t, there’s something wrong with you.

Speed isn’t everything. Neither is logic. I don’t believe that we have survived this long on the planet because of our processing speed or our ability to rationalise or apply logic. I think our existence is testament to our ability to adapt, to invent, to imagine and to harness our eusociality to collaborate with others; to interpret the world through our myriad senses to see meanings, motives and emotions in the people around us. Rational thought has a valuable role to play in problem-solving, of course, and it needs to be encouraged in schools, but not to the detriment of the facets of being human that make up our astonishing brain circuitry.

School should be an aesthetic experience but too often it is anaesthetic one. The worrying rise in multiple choice based testing forces me as a teacher to shut down the children’s creative thinking, precisely because there is only one logical answer. So many times I have had to mark an answer ‘wrong’ when marking test papers, even though I can see exactly how the student has reached it through imaginative thought and clever inference. Too much thinking, you have to stay literal! Don’t show initiative!

I should know, I wrote a book entitled A Revision Guide to Verbal Reasoning. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. We use it in my school and I always feel a sense of guilt for perpetuating this narrow form of intelligence testing, so often used as a method of secondary school entry.

If we continue to focus so heavily on logic and reason we risk building a generation of students reliant on predictable, logical futures. And life isn’t like that. In the twenty years I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen a sharp rise in students who require extra support and care when things happen unexpectedly. We sign post and we timetable and we plan ahead, in order to avoid anxiety in the change-averse children in our class. I worry for them, because they have become victims of the operating systems we’ve built. They weren’t so nervous when role-playing in pre-school.

The children in our current Reception class will leave school in 2031. Given that we already have home-computers with a computational capacity far in excess of ours, it may be that the truly obsolescence-proof skills they will need are the very ones we’re shutting out now. Intuition, initiative, instinct, resourcefulness, inventiveness and the ability to cooperate with others – these will be the in-demand skills and aptitudes in a diminishing globalised marketplace in which they will jostle for a market share by doing things differently and creatively with the limited resources and budgets we’ve bequeathed them. Perhaps that’s why the young entrepreneurs I’ve had the privilege of meeting often tell me their success is despite their schooling rather than because of it.

Let’s continue to debate the purpose and relevance of school and the nature of learning. And while we’re doing so, let’s allow ourselves some creative thinking and resourcefulness, while we still have it.


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