Encouraging critical thinking, not critics

Encouraging critical thinking, not critics

Welcome to the first of what I promise (okay I have good intentions) of being a regular “Inside Education Blog.”

As with most organizations, we’re always tinkering with our website, and one of the new ‘tinkers’ is going to be this space. Hopefully our partners, supporters, friends, heck even curious onlookers will join the thousands of teachers that access our website every day.

It’s been an exciting couple of days at Inside Education, that’s for sure. As we are working on the promotions for our summer Canadian Oil Sands Education Program, our invitation being extended to teachers across Canada has caused quite a bit of interest — mostly exciting, but also challenging.

This is the story that appeared in the online version of many media outlets across Canada. While we really could have done without some of the image choices that accompanied the story (an outflow pipe with tailings being deposited into ponds?) some of the issues brought up are important. The criticisms levelled by Andrew Hodgkins — a graduate student in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta (and incidentally one of our former teacher program participants) — raise interesting topics for discussion.

With brevity being the soul of wit, there’s not really a point to “Oh yeah?” all of the arguments presented by Mr. Hodgkins, but there are a few points important to address. And for the thousands of teachers who have participated in any of our programs, none of this will be news….

Inside Education’s environmental and natural resources education programs are supported by government, industry and industry associations, the not-for-profit community and some private foundations (Canadian banks, Alberta Ecotrust to name two). This is not top secret knowledge. Heck we have our ‘Alliance Partners’ in a scrolling slideshow right on our homepage. During each of our teacher professional development programs, after sharing introductions, the very first thing we do is let our participants know where the funding for the program comes from. Not in a “brought to you by…” approach, but with an eye to being transparent from the outset.

Second…I’m a word guy…you’ll notice the pronoun above. “Our programs”…meaning Inside Education’s programs. At no time do our partners have ‘veto’ power over what topics and issues we address. They’ve never asked for it in 27 years, nor do they want it — no matter who the partner. Our industry partners are further aware that during our teacher professional development programs we will be inviting in members of the environmental community who will likely have some uncomplimentary things to say about their business.

So….to review…not only do our industry/government/not-for-profit supporters NOT have program veto power, their support enables informed debate about the work that they do.

The last point is really the most important point to me. And it’s here that as an educator I profoundly disagree with Mr. Hodgkins and those saying industry has the most to gain from programs like our summer Canadian Oil Sands Education Program. In fact, society has the most to gain from a citizenry of informed and critical thinkers.

We encourage our young people to be critical thinkers. In our school systems we promote discovery learning, inquiry-based learning, we want students to experience the world first hand.

This is precisely what all our teacher professional development programs are designed to do. Whether the topic is the oil sands, or renewable energy (our 2011 teacher’s tour on this topic certainly didn’t garner this much attention!) — we respect teachers to be critical thinkers. We know they are intelligent professionals with an ability to discern bias — no matter where this bias fits on the spectrum. Ultimately it is our hope for teachers to learn, experience first hand the variety of perspectives on the issues, then challenge their students to determine where they fit on the spectrum.

Thanks for letting me jump on this little soapbox. We’re extremely proud of our programs. As long as teachers keep telling us how valuable they are, we’ll do our best to address the science, issues, technology and careers surrounding natural resources and our environment. Because we believe that helping create a generation of critical thinkers is far more valuable than a generation of critics.