Three Ways to Teach Students How—Not What—to Think

How do we teach students how to think rather than what to think?

If the latest election cycle showed us anything, it’s that parents care deeply about what their children are taught in schools. Unfortunately, too many students are being indoctrinated into worldviews that don’t match their families’ values. There is no place where this is more evident than on a college campus.

For decades, the political right has lamented the rise of progressivism on campus, which has arguably resulted in mass-indoctrination of students into left-wing ideologies. Many of today’s most popular social movements from intersectionality and critical race theory to third-wave feminism and gender theory can be traced back to ideas developed in the academy and disseminated to students.

This degree of indoctrination at the campus level has driven the political divide in America. If students can’t talk to each other in a place where open and respectful debate is supposed to be commonplace, how can we expect adults to do so respectfully in environments that aren’t as conducive to civil disagreement?

We need a change on college campuses. The purpose of the university is not to create parroting pundits who are hostile to other viewpoints, it’s to create thinkers who will be future innovators that aid in advancing society. Therefore, we need to promote educational methods that will teach students how to think rather than what to think. Here are three.

Worldview Deconstruction: Tests of Truth and Columbo

Everyone has a worldview. Our worldviews influence every aspect of our lives. Not all, however, are equally true. That is, if one particular worldview is objectively true, a different, competing worldview cannot also be true. When something is true, it is exclusively true.

Three standard tests can be applied to examine a given worldview’s coherence and correspondence with the truth. The worldview must be logically sound and consistent, empirically adequate in that all claims can be objectively verified, and experientially relevant—the worldview affects daily living.

One effective method of applying these tests is Columbo. If you are thinking of the inelegant, unassuming homicide detective from the hit 1960s-1970s crime show, that is precisely right. Columbo was extraordinarily successful in interrogation. After asking the suspect some questions, he would get up to leave. But just before exiting, he would turn around and say, “Just one more thing,” and ask a question that exposed the suspect’s inconsistencies.

The Columbo method can—and ought to be—taught to college students because it’s a simple method that points out observed inconsistencies. How can this method be implemented in a classroom?

Greg Koukl, founder of Stand to Reason, an organization dedicated to publicly defending the Christian faith and values, uses an analogy of a house to explain how to use Columbo. He says that a conclusion is like a roof and the reasons for a conclusion are the walls holding up that roof. More often than not, people try to put up a roof without walls. That is, people state conclusions without reasons and evidence. The job of the student then is to take that roof off and expose the priors of the speaker, allowing him to examine his own beliefs—possibly for the first time—and see if that roof might soon fall down.

Columbo can help students effectively engage with ideas even if they don’t fully understand them.

Koukl explains that “‘Columbo’ is most powerful if you have a game plan for the conversation. Generally when I ask a question I have a goal in mind. I’m alerted to some weakness, flaw, or contradiction in another’s view that I want to expose in a disarming way.”

To teach Columbo is to teach students how to meaningfully engage in conversations by asking direct and specific questions about the other side’s worldview. These questions are simple but effective.

Suppose a professor shares his opinion with students and there is an observed contradiction. A student trained in Columbo can start by asking, “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about what you told me?” The student will then clearly and respectfully present the facts that appear to conflict with the professor’s worldview and ask clarifying questions to ensure everyone is aware of the way words are being used: “What do you mean by that,” or “Can you clear this up for me?”

The student can then push further and ask, “What evidence do you have for your conclusion?” This simple question will expose the priors that inform the professor’s beliefs. After prompting the professor to address a possible inconsistency, the student can ask, “Have you considered…” or, “Can I share why I believe something different with you?”

These questions are polite but pointed and steer the conversation towards addressing contradictions that may arise, making the professor aware of his seemingly inconsistent beliefs and unevidenced priors, and introducing an idea that is perhaps more coherent. Instructing students on how to thoroughly examine different ideas, be on the lookout for inconsistencies, and effectively utilize Columbo questions will help them to think clearly and guard them against indoctrination.

Assigning Representative Literature

When I was an undergraduate, I partook in the honors program at my college. One thing that many of my professors did well is they assigned a representative set of literature to expose students to a myriad of political, philosophical, economic, and religious ideas.

One course that was particularly representative was called Western Traditions. Throughout the semester, we studied a bevy of thinkers whose ideas helped shape the West. Though I am sure my professor had his own philosophical biases, he never revealed them. In fact, he was particularly interested in helping us develop our own worldviews by examining new ideas or challenge our existing priors by introducing us to thinkers we had likely never read before.

There was balance. Whenever one viewpoint was studied, the opposing view was discussed right along with it. If the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were assigned, so were those of Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek. If atheists Bertrand Russell and John Paul Sartre were in the syllabus, so were the Christian intellectuals William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga. Students, like myself, loved the course because we weren’t being indoctrinated, we were being broadly exposed to new ideas.

This method is easy to implement if the professor is willing. It’s as simple as assigning readings from scholars with competing perspectives. Professors can ask students to discuss the ideas in class. Something that I found most effective is assigning short written responses to ensure students are engaging and wrestling with the ideas. Ask students to state whether they agree or disagree with each author and explain why using sound logic and the supporting text.

The Oxford-style Debate

The third method is the Oxford-style debate. This is a very effective way of ensuring that students can think through many opposing ideas. It’s easy to implement but professors cannot interject with their own opinions.

Oxford-style involves a two-sided debate on a predetermined statement. For instance, it could be, “Healthcare is a human right,” or, “Welfare programs don’t help poor Americans.” Whatever fits the context of the course.

Professors task students with arguing in either the affirmative or the negative of the chosen statement. In my experience, the best tactic is for the professor to assign positions. This way, students cannot self-select onto their preferred side. If a student wants to argue the affirmative because she agrees with it, but is assigned the negative, she will be forced—for the sake of her grade—to deeply study and engage with ideas that run counter to her own and then present them to the class.

The debates curate thought-provoking discussions that inform, and sometimes even sway, the audience. However, the goal isn’t necessarily to sway students, although this could happen. Rather, it’s to expose students to different perspectives so that they don’t live in a bubble.

The benefit of the Oxford-style debate is that both sides have an equal opportunity to share their arguments even if they disagree with what they are presenting. This forces students to wrestle with worldviews contrary to their own, confront the best arguments head-on, think about where their own beliefs are possibly inconsistent given this newfound information, and gain an appreciation for intellectual diversity.

I encourage colleges and professors to implement these three methods to teach students how to think. Columbo can help students effectively engage with ideas even if they don’t fully understand them. Assigning literature from all perspectives and implementing Oxford-style debates will likewise encourage students to think through new ideas and challenge their own priors, while restricting professors from imposing their own.

College is and should be a marketplace of ideas. Unfortunately, the campus has drifted away from the promotion of intellectual diversity in favor of forced intellectual homogeneity. This is not conducive to scholarly advancement or teaching. By applying these three key methods, we can start reforming the campus and make strides in the promotion of truth and diversity of thought.

Justin Begley holds an MS in Economics from Florida State University and is an MDiv Student specializing in Apologetics and Worldview Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His writings on economic policy and culture have appeared in various outlets such as the Washington Times, the American Spectator, Townhall, and the Detroit News. Justin also hosts the podcast Magnify with Justin Begley available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.