March 24, 2021

My Brother and Critical Thinking

My brother works as a foreman for a pipe-laying crew. He mostly puts in water and sewer lines. He has some great stories from his work. It is interesting the people he has to deal with, the regulations he has to master, and the problems that arise every day. What I find interesting is that every day he is troubleshooting dozens of problems. Some of them very significant…as in if it doesn’t get figured out, entire neighborhoods will not have water service! For example, he might have to figure out how to keep the proper slope to a line after they have hit granite. Simple things that aren’t so simple, like broken machinery, frozen hoses, or just organizing the work site for maximum efficiency. These are all problems that have to be solved. And just to let you know…when he figures these things out, his company makes money. His crew puts more pipe in the ground than the bid requires, so they get done sooner and the company makes more money.

Basically what he does every hour of every day is engage in critical thinking. Not the kind of critical thinking that is “taught” in schools. This is real-life stuff. Now that he is comfortable with making these types of decisions, I have noticed two things that are important for schools.

  1.  Critical thinking leads to resilience, not the other way around. I know there is not a problem he will not try to figure out because he will not give up until he has a solution. That was not always the case in his life. Once he had succeeded in finding solutions through critical thinking, he became more confident and resilient. But he had to go through failures to get there.
  2.  Schools are not set up to give learners experiences where they can use critical thinking skills. Sure, maybe there will be a “critical thinking” worksheet, and possibly in the technical education side of things they might brush up against critical thinking. But at the heart of schooling right now is one simple fact: learners are told there is one right answer and they must find that one right answer. This is reinforced by mandated State testing and the “sage on the stage” model of teaching.

Going back to my brother, he never felt that his K-12 schooling experience was about anything else other than showing up because you were forced to. His schooling experience did not prepare him to be a critical thinker. This leads me back to last week’s post.

School or Education?

My brother uses vital critical thinking skills every day. These skills were not taught to him in school. But let’s remember the 2 purposes of school: babysitting and high school sports.

Let’s not fall into the trap of taking ourselves too seriously as education leaders. If we were to fall into that trap, we might start thinking about “incorporating critical thinking lessons into the curriculum”. Or, worse yet, create a class called “critical thinking skills”. Ugh. Doing any one of those two will not be helpful.

What to do?

Learner-centered leaders concentrate on empowering their staff to create great learning experiences for learners.


No questions asked.


Let’s not get bogged down in too much superfluous junk. Every learner has a great learning experience every day. Gather your staff and students together and define what a great learning experience is (hint, worksheets from a textbook don’t make the cut). If your staff struggles with providing this experience, lead them, show them, help them to become better. Remember, the learning experience is the one aspect of schooling that learner-centered leaders can control. We can’t control what society thinks are the true purposes of schooling. But we can adjust our mindset to create great learning experiences for all learners.

One Final Thought

I want to state again that I am hopeful for the future of school. That hope is predicated on three things.

  1.  Learner-centered leaders think deeply about their own purpose and role in learning.
  2.  Learner-centered leaders create a vision for their leadership of their school
  3.  Learner-centered leaders create the conditions that allow their staff to create great learning experiences.

Eventually, society’s understanding of the true purpose of school will change. But it will only change when school leaders engage in the conversation and back their words with action.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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