Some years ago, I assigned a failing grade to a student’s report. In response, she spent an hour threatening she would get a lawyer to sue me, lodge a formal complaint with my boss, and contact the press to break the story of my actions. During that hour, she made it clear the assignment instructions were irrelevant, the grading rubric flawed, and her report was, in fact, fantastic. I further learned that, in her opinion, the course had no validity. Thus it was an injustice her degree program required her to pass it.
She was pissed.
Perhaps you have felt the same way in some of your classes. Have you had assignment instructions that made no sense? Maybe you have had teachers who seem to assign grades arbitrarily. Has the teacher ever given you feedback that said, “To strengthen this section, do this …” only for you to wonder, “How the heck am I supposed to do that?”
The teacher’s an idiot, right? They are supposed to teach you. They tell you what you need to do, you do it, and then you get the grades.
There are bad teachers, no doubt. Often, though, this frustration is less a sign of a lousy teacher and more a symptom that something cool is on the verge of happening in your brain.
The cool thing happening in your brain
In many introductory courses, the teacher drops a textbook on your desk and tells you to read it. You memorize the definition of all the words in bold, spot the correct description on a multiple choice exam, and boom, done. Pretty straightforward.
As you get deeper into your education, teachers focus less on memorization and more on critical thinking. Those bold words become conceptual building blocks you mix and match in innovative ways to solve complex problems.
Mastering the skills to solve these problems is vital. The world is filled with complex problems with no easy answers. We need you to help us solve them.
Though developing the skills to solve these problems is vital, mastering those skills is hard–if it was easy, we would have solved those types of problems long ago. The difficulty of learning these skills causes your frustration. It is also where the cool thing starts happening in your head.
It turns out, we gain the capacity to think critically in stages.
- We start out thinking there are right and wrong answers for everything.
- We then learn the world is complex. Everyone has a different viewpoint. Thus, your opinion is as good as anyone else’s
- Then, we discover having opinions is insufficient. You must develop a rationale to defend your opinion.
- After this, we discover solving complex problems is not about having an opinion. Instead, one must assess the situation, create solutions, and then evaluate different options. Once you finish your analysis, then, and only then, do you form a conclusion.
For better or worse, we cannot skip stages as we develop critical thinking. We go from one stage to the next. Each step has a physical impact on you—they form neuronal connections between different areas of your brain. That’s right. The physical architecture of your brain changes as you rise up the ladder of critical thinking. Neat.
What does this have to do with my idiot teacher?
Though the idea that critical thinking physically changes your brain is interesting, this is also a source of frustration. Until those connections form, you will struggle to operate at the next level.
You can do everything right. You can study hard, work ahead, and visit your teacher for help. Until that new neuronal connection forms, however, operating at that new level is hard. It is easy to become bitter when you work so hard, yet fail.
What are we to do?
In my years of teaching, I have observed four broad ways people respond to this frustration.
This first is exemplified by my student above. Some people become frustrated and lash out. They work hard and fail. They used to do well, but now they flounder. They become resentful and disengage from the process.
The second response is to give up. Students feel that if they work so hard yet fail, then they must not have what it takes. They feel hopeless and walk away.
Thirdly, I see students who refuse to give up, but they refuse to adapt, too. They try, fail, try again, changing nothing. And so, they fail once more.
Finally, some students wade into the frustration with a spirit of experimentation. They, try, fail, adapt, and try again. One day, a light fires in their mind and they get it.
What can we learn from this?
Learning critical thinking can be uncomfortable. Once achieved, however, you see the world at a deeper, more meaningful level. Moreover, you gain the capacity to solve the world’s problems. From my experience, this is the mindset of students who I have seen master these skills.
- Forgive yourself. You grow when you operate outside of your comfort zone. Being outside your comfort zone means there will be times when you give it your all, yet still get disappointing results. When that happens, be kind to yourself. You are in the process of becoming better than you were.
- Trust there is another level you are moving towards. Though at times you may struggle, know your struggles means you are operating at the transition point between one level of thinking and the next. You are close to a breakthrough!
- Adapt. To succeed at this new level, you must master new skills. Experiment. Learn what those new skills are. Practice them.
- Keep at it. Forming these new neuronal connections will happen with practice. You will do it.
This next point may seem weird. There is, however, research supporting this.
- Engage in the arts, whether it is books, music, dance, painting, baking, or whatever. Critical thinking requires the formation of neural connections between different areas of the brain. Art develops these connections.
Perhaps you have mastered a hard subject in the past. Maybe you are a teacher who has some advice of their own for struggling students. Please share your story in the comments below.
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