In April 2018, the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull, announced his government is now backing ‘teaching thinking skills in schools’ as outlined in his latest review of schooling (Gonski 2018).
This is good news. I think it is very good news because the School of Thinking (SOT) has been promoting this idea of ‘teaching CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS in schools’ around the world for 35 years.
SOT’s original mission was the Learn-To-Think Project began in 1980 “to teach critical thinking as a skill in schools”.
SOT’s long-term, sustained effort has meant dealing in the USA and Australia with many foundations, government and educational institutions, corporations publishers and media in Washington and Canberra and also with individual educators, parents and students in 45 countries around the world. It’s an interesting story.
Here’s how the ‘critical thinking’ meme actually went viral in the USA in 1983.
At that time, an invitation arrived from the University/Urban Schools National Task Force to speak at their last quarterly conference in San Francisco.
This was a task force of school district superintendents from major American cities – Dallas, New York, San Francisco, Chicago etc. and was headed by CUNY’s Dr. Richard Bossone.
Dr. Bossone told me that their grant had run out and San Francisco was to be their last meeting as they had lost their raison d’etre and after the San Francisco conference, the task force would fold. He invited me to talk about the SOTs activities and our idea of ‘teaching thinking in schools’.
Our presentation was a big hit and as a result they passed a motion that their new raison d’etre would be to promote the teaching of thinking skills and they would apply to have their grant renewed.
Dr. Bossone was successful in getting the University/Urban Schools National Task Force grant renewed and he immediately convened a special conference In San Juan, Puerto Rico to focus only on teaching thinking in US schools.
I was once again invited to open the conference and give the keynote address, “Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in Schools”.
At this conference the leaders of education in the US including Dr. Frank Macchiarola, Chancellor, New York City Public Schools, and Mr. Gene Maeroff, President, New York Times Foundation and Dean of Education Journalists. Gene Maeroff’s presence was strategically important because his was the top voice on education trends in America.
In a long afternoon discussion by the pool in San Juan I explained to Gene how metacognition can actually be taught as a skill in ten hours of training and showed Gene the cvs2bvs brain software which we were using with corporations like GE and IBM. Gene became genuinely excited by the idea of teaching kids to think critically for themselves.
This later turned out to be a highly valuable conversation.
Like the New York Times theatre critic who can make or close a Broadway show in one article, what Gene Maeroff writes in the Education Supplement of the New York Times, inevitably comes to pass. Gene was very impressed with the San Juan discussions and also the financial commitments given to the task force so in a special two-full page pull-out feature he subsequently wrote:
“Teaching to think: A new emphasis at schools and colleges A major new effort to teach thinking skills is planned by the University/Urban Schools National Task Force, which will soon initiate a program in the public schools of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, Minneapolis and Memphis. The College Board will provide $300,000 for the project… The School of Thinking in New York is the base in this country for teaching de Bono’s theory, disseminated from its headquarters in London, which includes breaking out of traditional thinking patterns. This means trying to devise new ways of looking at problems … it affirms the belief that without specific efforts there is no assurance students will learn to think laterally.”
(New York Times: Education Winter Survey. January 9, 1983.)
This was the story that was taken up by the press around the nation and a new fad was created – teaching thinking as a skill.
The media have been generous in supporting SOT and its activities, and as a group, journalists deserve a lot of the credit for SOTs success in achieving its mission.
Within a year from that New York Times story, we had accomplished our mission of getting thinking into US schools.
The Australian Prime Minister’s announcement supports the fact that ‘teaching thinking in schools’ is still an educational trend that is continuing and is very unlikely to stop or unhappen in the future.
When was SOT founded in Australia?
Prime Minister Bob Hawke at SOT launch in Canberra, 1988, with SOT Principal Dr Michael Hewitt-Gleeson
On 30 May 1988 in Canberra the School of Thinking was officially launched in Australia by Dr Michael Hewitt-Gleeson in the presence of the then Governor General of Australia, His Excellency Sir Ninian Stephan AK GCMB GCVO KBE, at the Bi-Centennial Convention of 600 of Australia’s commonwealth, state and municipal statespeople.
After his foundation address, in which Dr Hewitt-Gleeson challenged that “critical thinking” as a school subject should be put on the curriculum for every school in Australia, Sir Ninian stood and said to Dr Hewitt-Gleeson, “You have just given the best keynote address I have ever heard!”
Sir Ninian was then presented with a Clever Brainusers Software Kit by Dr Hewitt-Gleeson.
Next to speak was the Prime Minister of Australia at the time and Rhodes scholar, The Honourable Robert J Hawke AC, GCL who commended Dr Hewitt-Gleeson for this initiative and agreeing,
No longer content to be just the lucky country, Australia must now become the clever country!
Prime Minister Hawke was then presented with a School of Thinking certificate by Dr Hewitt-Gleeson proclaiming him to be “Australia’s Number One Clever Brainuser” and to symbolise the vast potential of the power of Australia’s 16 million brains.
The historic event was reported in Australia’s largest circulation newspaper, The Sun – (Melbourne, Australia, Fri May 27, 1988): “The education for 600 of Australia’s notable statesmen will begin on Monday (30 May 1988) when Dr Michael Hewitt-Gleeson delivers the keynote address “TEACHING CRITICAL THINKING IN AUSTRALIAN SCHOOLS” at the Bicentennial National Congress in Canberra.”
“The Clever Country” mission of the School of Thinking has been to get critical thinking taught on the Australian school curriculum as a core subject.
“If Dr Hewitt-Gleeson has his way, Australian schoolchildren will, by 1992, have the study (of thinking) as much a part of their curriculum as the traditional subjects of maths and English,” recorded Australian author, Peter Fitzimons, in the Sydney Morning Herald (Wednesday September 5, 1990).
In his book, Clever (1993), Dr Hewitt-Gleeson wrote,
If we are to become a clever country and ensure our economic future and our stability as a nation, we may have to focus more on the productivity and potential of Australians as individual thinkers. As a national service, to provide training in thinking to every Australian would be less than the cost of one army tank!