Ian Gilbert offers four good reasons to read this book: to confirm ideas, to inform ideas, to challenge ideas, and to form ideas in the first instance. (Actually, he gives these as good reasons to read any book). Independent Thinking is not a -˜how to' guide to mastery of a 21st century cognitive competency. Rather than -˜teaching' independent thinking, this book originates from independent thinking. Rather than promoting independent thinking, the book is a veiled call to action; students have, after all, learned various interpretations of the world, but the point that still remains is to change it. The book revolves around that eternal central question - -˜what is the purpose of education?'. Viewed through the lens of critical pedagogy, there are two possible responses: indoctrination or liberation. In this educational dichotomy Gilbert makes his position clear: he's on the side of liberation.
The question of the purpose of education is not by extension the same as asking -˜what is the purpose of learning?'. Learning, I would posit, is the automatic process of psychological development within and into a social context; it is the natural functioning of the brain facilitated by the collective endeavours of social groups that cultivates the creation of knowledge and understanding. Education, by contrast, is a social - and often political - construct; it is the way in which learning is organised and the mechanisms employed to bring about educational outcome and output. It takes both a formal and informal form, occurring in every realm of human endeavour and in every human relationship - some of these, of course, impacting to a greater degree than others. The most prominent and visible form of formal education is the schooling system, which represents the institutionalisation of learning.
From indoctrination to liberation The mechanism that achieves indoctrination is regimentation. Children are -˜trained' into a submissive state, accepting of the prevailing social order and the world-view of the brokers of power. Children learn obedience and conformity, and education is marked by control. The strategy utilised to achieve this end is the regimentation of school life and the establishment of schools in accordance with the factory model along the principles of Taylorism; uniforms, bells, walking in line, queuing before being given permission to enter a classroom, permission slips to go to the toilet, elaborate procedures for punishment and reward, the overuse and mis-use of summative assessment, the swamping of curriculum with superficial content. Adult -˜experts', rather than enhancing the process and experience of learning, hinder and shackle it in the name of -˜education'. In many institutions throughout the world these measures are explicitly and overtly militaristic in their design. The message is simple: be obedient, don't ask questions, know your designated place, fulfil your assigned role. In the so-called -˜traditional' (whose tradition?) model of education, students arrive at the classroom as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge from an elder authority figure, a teacher. Once sufficiently stuffed, their memories are tested to measure how much educational -˜stuff' has stuck; if there's enough in the mug they are permitted to pass on to the next stage of life, university and employment. This is the -˜banking' educational model criticized by Paulo Freire (1970) who instead proposed, promoted and practised a literacy for critical consciousness. Freire practised a transformational style of education in which students acted not as the objects of education but as the subjects of learning, gaining and experimenting with knowledge (Gibson, 1999). Education, therefore, needs to be student-centred with critical awareness following from critical enquiry. Freire sought to create not only a better educational experience for students but also a better world where the educational techniques he promoted represented a way to learn as well as a way to live (ibid).
Play and dialogue are the mechanisms of learning and the most valuable education, I would argue, is that which equips the learner with the essential skills of learning and generates a disposition inclined to learning as a lifelong endeavour. In this model, education acts to enable autonomous independent learning and, in doing so, liberates the individual so that he/she can control and direct the successful completion of his/her own development and ultimately be true to his/her own nature; achieving Maslow's (1954) all-important self-actualisation. The nurturing of the individual and support of their learning, through the informal channels of socialisation and the formal institutions of school, is an enabling experience from which agency ensues.
Independent Thinking is not a work of original thought, and Gilbert makes no such claim; indeed by page 2 the whole thing's already been attributed to Freire. But it clearly contains the convictions of an educationalist arrived at independently, although not in isolation, free from indoctrination, through the reading of great works written by other thinkers, through life experience, discussion and observation, from trial and error, and from a niggling feeling that the educational model being widely peddled is a concoction from a traveling medicine show.
Gilbert tells us that he doesn't set much store by way of answers; like all good thinkers he prefers questions. But not all answers are replies to questions; some are solutions to problems. Independent Thinking is part of the answer to the problem of education. It's a dip-in or read through text in -˜coffee-table-book' form. And that's exactly where it needs to be: on the coffee tables in the staffrooms of every school, to be picked up, flicked through, pondered and put into action where it really counts - in the classroom. It's a book for adults, written and produced with a child-like charm to encourage those adults not to forsake the charms of childhood, and to do the right thing by way of the young people whose learning opportunity, success or failure, is largely in their hands.