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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

No Independent Thought or Discussion Allowed in AP Class!

A friend’s daughter is taking Advanced Placement (AP) World History. During class she and another student got into an engaged discussion about a topic they were studying that both had passionate feelings about and which both were prepared to discuss respectfully and knowledgeably. One had made a statement with which the other had disagreed and so voiced her opinion. The other was eager to take her on, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. But rather than allow the discussion to unfold and engage the rest of the class, the teacher responded by saying, “Whoa you two, okay. That’s enough of that.”

AP classes are meant to be the equivalent of college courses. Has it really come to this that there are teachers, especially at this supposed high level of learning, who will not permit their students to voice their opinions, engage in discussion, or even be permitted to think and speak in class about the very topics they are studying?

The dangers we face in the world stem from a combination of our lack of critical and creative thinking, along with our propensity for myopia and our deadening of our own compassion. The systems in place that perpetuate injustice, destruction, and cruelty cannot be shifted or changed if we are unable to assess them; yet schools have been relentlessly moving away from critical and creative thinking as they have focused more and more on covering material on which students will be tested.

It’s time to devise solid and meaningful assessments for critical and creative thinking, reasoning, and innovation. That is what our world needs from our graduates. And if we elevate these skills and develop good ways to chart our progress in conveying them, perhaps our children will finally be invited, encouraged, and made to think.

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach

Image courtesy of Scott Ogle via Creative Commons.

About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


8 thoughts on “No Independent Thought or Discussion Allowed in AP Class!

  1. Hi Zoe,

    I spent my “coffee hour” this morning with your Tedx Talk. Not only did I get my caffeine fix for the morning, but I also found my “cognition ignition”. You’re right on!

    Your “true price” activity was particularly powerful. Actually, over the Christmas break, I reserved two domain names: peoplearedyingfor and

    It was during a flash of “critical inspiration” that I put down my money to, basically, bookmark on an idea, a question that you (and others) have already begun deep thinking about: Would knowing the true cost of our lifestyles, our ideas, and our decisions change our behaviour?

    So often, the critical thinking activities that I’ve seen going on in our schools are just that: activities. I’m always inspired to hear instances of kids (and, sometimes, schools) who take these activities further, but we need more of the deeply effective (and affective) life-altering critical thinking work throughout our entire system.

    What student, what teacher wouldn’t want to rush off to school every morning if they knew that they were going to be tackling meaningful stuff?

    Just one final note from your talk regarding “schooling”. I’m pretty sure that the original meaning of the word had something to do with “leisure”. My, how we’ve strayed!


    Posted by Stephen Hurley | March 23, 2011, 5:24 am
  2. Well said. If our schools will not provide a supportive environment for discussion of opposing views then where will our children learn how to do it properly? This current attitude simply cripples them. Fact is that life in the real world includes others who will not agree with us, and better to learn how to deal with it as early as possible.

    Posted by bridgesburning | March 23, 2011, 8:13 am
  3. I’m finding, through my own children’s experiences, that the high school AP classes are turning into “prepare for the AP exam” classes. The purpose is to COVER the information that will be on the exam. Ugh.

    I’m so glad that my AP teachers were allowed to let us UNCOVER the information through discussion, help us learn through interesting projects, and encourage critical thinking skills through their own supportive questions. I remember that my classmates and I all did very well on the AP exam. I wonder whose brilliant idea it was to change to the current method of instruction. Sad… and so, so wrong.

    Posted by Michelle Baldwin | March 23, 2011, 5:02 pm
  4. Well, after fifteen years of teaching AP English and Literature (plus a couple of years of AP World History), I can assure you that AP still insists that its teachers’ most important duty is to teach critical thinking skills, including textual analysis. Group discussion is the primary method for teaching said skills. I don’t think we should tar the entire AP program with the brush of one mistaken teacher (who may have had any number of compelling reasons to shut down that particular discussion).

    Posted by kmb | March 23, 2011, 5:32 pm
    • Of course you’re right about not tarring the entire AP program. Not my intention. But it was an example of critical thinking and discussion being quashed in a class. I know the girl in question and she is an eager student, a great young woman, respectful and a dedicated learner. This was not meant as a condemnation of anything but the propensity to crush discussion in too many (but certainly not all) classrooms.

      Posted by Zoe Weil | March 28, 2011, 2:55 pm
  5. First of all I cannot speak for all AP classes because I am certain that we still have some that the teachers dig deep into the subject. I have witnessed AP classes first hand this year because my son is a senior in a public high school. The AP courses are lecture and notes and a test. They teach just what Dr. Strange teaches against. Burp Back Learning! You go in and take notes from a lecture and you burp it back on the test at the end of the week. there is no open discussion or writing or anything extra to encourage critical thinking or any open discussions. I believe that when these students get to college they will be surprised that they can have an open discussion and have an opinion. Well, In most classes! As teachers we have to realize that AP students are more intelligent and get bored easy during lecture and an open discussion with ideas and examples would help them hold on to their studies for life. Thanks for sharing this because in so many classes this is exactly what is going on and this needs to change.

    Posted by Lara Bishop (USA Student in EDM 310) | April 1, 2011, 8:55 pm

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