Independent Mind

Independent Mind
“Joseph Schwab said in 1962 that science is most commonly taught as a ”rhetoric of conclusions." He developed sophisticated arguments for teaching science as “enquiry.”

An independent mind is one that is grounded in ‘enquiry’. Enquiry demands the ability to develop significant questions and the ability to utilize good judgment while separating the wheat from the chaff.

John Dewey, a great philosopher, psychologist, and pedagogy discussed the discrepancy between the skills valued in adults and the skills taught to children in schools. Dewey lamented the fact that independent thinking skills were demanded of adults but our children were being taught the converse in our schools.

My grade school, high school and college education convinces me that Dewey is accurate. I am a retired engineer and my contact with the sciences of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and engineering were completely an experience that was algorithmic (a step-by-step procedure for solving problems) in nature. Later I took courses in the humanities and these were more of a historic enquiry into who thought what and why they thought it at the time that they did so.

In my opinion the natural sciences do not prepare an individual to become an independent mind whereas the humanities do a better job of that. Does your schooling lead you to agree with me and Dewey?

Quotes from

I don’t think I really agree with your conclusion (of course I’m saying that just so I can be the same as everyone else).

Critical thinking is an essential part of natural science; the study of natural sciences by the scientific method is all about challenging established notions and trying to tear down assumptions, including your own. I don’t think this need inevitably lead to independent thinking, but I believe there’s no reason it shouldn’t and that it often does.

I have another question (and I need to illustrate it with a ridiculous example, which is not intended to represent your position in any way, only to provide a point for discussion).

Isaac Newton performs a series of experiments, the conclusion of which leads him to define the law of gravity.

On hearing of this, Isambard Nesbitt performs his own series of experiments that leads him to a similar conclusion.

Finally, Ian Nice reads about Nesbitt and Newton, and after much pondering, decides that things fall because the Earth sucks.

Is Ian the independent thinker here? If so, is it good that he’s the independent thinker?
My point is this: sometimes, people all come to similar conclusions not because they’re some kind of big clique, but because there is an underlying truth that compels them to agree.

I think that there are three levels of critical thinking:

  • Reagan level–trust but verify
  • Logic level–comprehension of the science of logical thinking
  • CT (Critical Thinking) level–The logic level plus significant intellectual and attitude development


I think that independent thinking fortified by knowledge is a good thing. I think that independent thinking not fortified by knowledge is a questionable matter.

When independent thinkers fortified by knowledge come to the same conclusion is not surprising. I agree with your conclusion.

It seems to me that many young people think that to be an independent thinker means merely to be negative. When some one says ‘X’ is true these young people automatically say that ‘X’ is not true to show the world that they are indeed independent thinkers. This leads them into a corner because later when they begin to comprehend and wish to reject their previous rejection their ego will fight any such flip-flop.

Well, in my experience, high school and below does not prepare anybody to be any kind of original or critical thinker. However, as a sophomore EE student presently, I’d say that I think you have it backwards. (Well, as long as you put engineering on the “natural sciences” side of the line. I sure wouldn’t call it “humanities”.) My classes are all about figuring stuff out myself, extrapolating what I know to problems the instructor and text tell me nothing about. The goal is to sort of get students to come up with their own style of problem solving, with all the help a college course offers, like instructors, textbooks, classmates, etc. Obviously, I’m not paying all that money for somebody to tell me, like I heard one of my professors say to another student, “Think long and hard. If you still don’t know the answer, don’t go to sleep until you do.” The whole damn point of college is for some people who know better to teach me all they can in a short period. I already know how to think for myself and evaluate new ideas critically. I’m not even sure thats something that can be taught, at least not in a couple of years at school.

Don’t get me started on the humanities. If sitting around discussing what Picasso, or Hemingway, or whoever, meant when they drew/wrote/composed whatever is independent thinking, I want none of it. I think they all just try to get a rise out of each other. Okay, sorry, I got started. But I’ll just end it here.
(p.s. Sorry all you humanities people. I really do love art, music, literature, etc. I just wouldn’t pay to have somebody teach me how to do it, when I can make my own pictures and stories and songs already.)

Dr Cube

I am a retired electronics engineer and when I was in school I thought just as you think now. Hopefully after schooling is over you will begine to expand your intellectual horizons. When schooling is complete you will need some form of intellectual activity beyond your job or your curiosity and imagination will dry up by mid life and there will be little chance of recovering them.

Some examples of how to use the sciences to teach independent thinking:
-Give fourth graders a bunch of wires, batteries, magnets, and nails, and have them experiment with them in small groups. Afterward, discuss as a class what they learned, and lead a discussion during which they find patterns and devise future experiments.
-Take a classroom argument (“How come I gotta wash my hands? There’s no dirt on 'em!”) and turn it into an experiment. Talk to the class: is there any way to find out whether unwashed hands not showing dirt might have germs on them? Devise an experiment with the class, and carry it out.
-When a child asks you a question (“Why are cats so bendy?”) instead of answering it, ask them to make some guesses. Ask them to speculate on how they could find out whether their guesses are accurate, short of experimenting on a cat :). Help them research their hypothesis.

For my student teaching research project, I’m going to be doing something with third grade science. I’m not sure what it’ll be yet, but I hope to use it to encourage critical thought.


Ooh–correction, fourth grade. That means I might get geology (the world’s boringest subject IMO) or zoology (the world’s most interesting subject). Please please please be zoology!


As I recall my pre-collegiate science education, I’d say it did very little to stimulate independent thought about anything. Science, as taught, was, like any other subject, something laregly to be memorized and regurgitated. Laboratory instruction taught me little more about experimentation than following a recipe for baking a cake.

Learning about the natural sciences should be the very best way to develop an independent mind, and there’s no reason why a science education can’t serve that function. I bet it rarely does until students leave high school, though.

I don’t know that I’d say it’s the best way. Discussing literature is superior, for example, for developing a personal code of ethics. But it’s definitely an essential piece of the puzzle.


I really don’t like the idea of public school teachers being involved in “developing a personal code of ethics” any more, but that’s perhaps a hijack subject.

First, it’s happening.

Second, I’m not saying that you tell kids what to believe; quite the opposite. I’m saying you give them some ethically complex subect matter to discuss, and help them outline the issues involved, and let them formulate some answers.

Developing a personal code of ethics is, I believe, fundamental to being an independent thinker. And it’s something that is best done with some training, just like thinking logically is best done with training. And it’s not something that’s done in many other places in our culture. Where do YOU think kids ought to be learning this? If you say “at home,” that’s tantamount to saying that you think that vast numbers of kids shouldn’t learn it.


Great reason to shop for private schools, then. I’ll hijack no further.

It’s not a hijack–it’s a discussion of what it means to teach to develop an independent mind. And I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t find a private school that doesn’t help kids develop some moral sense; the challenge will be finding one that gives them latitude to develop their own.