Education for the Next Generation | By Greg Beiles, Head of School #teachmetuesday

Using Academic Disciplines to Teach Children How to Think

As we move through the 21st century, we see that “ways of thinking” or “habits of heart and mind” are becoming the central goals of education.

Sir Ken Robinson is an internationally recognized leader in education, creativity, and innovation. He asserts that, as a society, we are no longer certain what our children will need to know to be successful in the future.1

Citing the rapid rate of change in society today, Sir Ken has boldly articulated that what students learn today might not be useful tomorrow. He says we don’t know what “stuff” or what “information” they will need.

What we can anticipate is that our children will have to be good thinkers and, especially, good learners.

They will need to be capable of analyzing problems and new situations. Their generation will be required to develop well-considered innovative solutions for the many changing situations they will encounter. We don’t know what “stuff” they’ll need to know, but we do know they’ll need to be smart, mentally agile, and creative.

Critical thinking

But wait! If a content-based curriculum is inadequate, what happens to math, science, language arts, history—all the courses and subjects that we associate with a good education? Should we replace them with a “critical thinking class” or a “creativity class”? I think not. I believe it would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We would lose excellent educational practices developed over centuries, even as we refresh our educational vision.

Rather than jettisoning traditional school subjects, I suggest we reconceive their role. We should value them, not as a means to convey certain information, but as vehicles for developing specific ways of thinking, for honing cognitive abilities, and for nurturing habits of mind. Instead of math or science or language or music being a matter of “stuff” deposited in the minds of our children, we can appreciate these classes as “disciplines,” as ways of training our minds towards particular ends. Since we don’t know what specific information our children will need, our best recourse is to teach them what we do know in ways that sharpen their minds for the future. Indeed, this is exactly what academic disciplines were originally all about.

Word cloud for Scientific revolutionThe Scientific Revolution (1550–1700) was primarily a revolution in thinking, not in information. The discipline of science involves asking authentic questions, developing hypotheses, designing and conducting experiments, and reaching provisional conclusions that lead to more questions. The scientific method imbues students with curiosity and confidence and gives them practice in analyzing dilemmas they are sure to encounter as they grow. Looking up known facts, even under the glorified name of “research,” is not science.

Mathematics involves representing quantities and processes in symbols that can be manipulated in efficient, logical ways. Therefore, it is critical that students appreciate the relationship between symbols and the processes they represent.

Similarly, language arts must engage students in thinking like real writers. Teachers can activate their students’ imaginations and encourage ideas to flow. Thereafter, students can learn to organize ideas in ways that allow them to communicate their thoughts to a reader. This discipline includes teaching children grammar in a functional way, where commas, periods, and quotation marks are not seen as “conventions” but as tools for making expressions clear.

In social science and history classes, students should examine primary sources and discover how historical knowledge is constructed. When they approach their study as “historians” and “archeologists,” they learn to ask critical questions, link their ideas to other knowledge, and ground their conjectures with evidence.

The arts—visual art, dance, music, drama—are key disciplines that train students in flexible and creative ways of thinking. As research continues to show, when we practise an art, we strengthen our mind’s executive function, which is the ability to self-regulate and stay focused on a task.2 Whether students are working with modelling clay or their own bodies and voices, the arts facilitate how students experience the physical materials of existence. Indeed, the arts offer us ways to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas that might otherwise remain buried. Innovation depends largely on the arts.

The Judaic “subjects” must also be understood as “disciplines” and ways of thinking, and not only as “Jewish content” that we can use to teach children how to be “good Jews” or how to perform at b’nei mitzvah ceremonies. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Judaism is not just a way of living but also a way of thinking; and that the mitzvot are not done for one particular reason, they are “sources of emergent meaning.”3

If there is one essential Jewish way of thinking, it is the ability to look at a text or at a situation from many points of view, to look beyond the obvious, to interpret, and to seek and find deeper meaning. Knowledge of the Hebrew language is the gateway to any Jewish learning that takes us beyond the superficial.

Jewish disciplines, such as Chumash and Talmud, engender excellent memory skills and cognitive training. The intellectual skill achieved by Jewish scholars is inherent in textual analysis as well as in decoding strands of an argument, distinguishing competing commentaries, and correlating sources. It is no accident that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish students who were deeply trained in Torah and Talmud took so easily to the study of law, medicine, and science.

As we move through the 21st century, we see that “ways of thinking” or “habits of heart and mind” are becoming the central goals of education. Some of these “ways of thinking” are best nurtured through the traditional disciplines: thinking like a scientist, like a mathematician, like a historian, like a writer, and so on. Other “habits of heart and mind” are nurtured through the cognitively rigorous and ethically essential Jewish ways of thinking and being.

We want our children to discern what is happening in the world around them. We hope they seek to meet the challenge of rapid societal change with their hearts and minds wide open. Academic disciplines—both universal and Jewish—offer the most reliable framework for this important pursuit.

gregbeilesGreg Beiles is Head of The Toronto Heschel School and Director of Education




Adapted from an article originally published in Think, Issue 11, Spring 2012.

1          See Ken Robinson, “Changing Education Paradigms,” retrieved March 12, 2012, from

2          For examples of this research, see the Dana Foundation website which has links to numerous peer-reviewed articles.

3          Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1996).

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