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Critical thinking in schools

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The ability to think critically is a dynamic learning process that can be improved through careful and thoughtful teaching in any environment. Ian Davies, Head of School, Garodia International Centre for Learning, elucidates

Most people would agree that a key goal of education is to enable students to think critically. The ability to evaluate, to be open to different perspectives and create a balanced view, to analyze, challenge and question constructively and still appreciate the value of evidence such that all decisions are considered ones: that is what we all desire. Even more, as educators we hope that conceptual appreciations can ally themselves to global and interrelated experiences that develop new modes of thought, understandings and communication that can lead to a better world.

And yet, the evidence suggests that schools and curriculum that are teacher led and emphasis rote learning, whilst valuing repetition, rarely develop critical thinking. Some may argue that intelligence and critical faculties are inherited. Thankfully, this view has little validity. The ability to think critically is a dynamic learning process that can be improved through careful and thoughtful teaching in any environment. It is not just an activity for advanced thinkers. Indeed, the potential for growth is endless and part of our pathway through lifelong learning.

Firstly, a key point must be made about all learning: to be able to think, foundational knowledge is essential. Our brains work more efficiently and quicker when solving problems, if we have already stored in our long-term memory essential information and experiences. This is an instant ‘repository’ to draw upon enabling critical thinking to take place. But, the question remains: how often and how deeply do teachers develop learning beyond basic information and recall? Critical thinking is commonly defined by cognitive scientists as reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving. But, to take to higher levels there needs to be an increasing amount of creativity and independent learning. Critical thinking thus takes what we already ‘have’, allows students to self-direct how they develop and de-construct the task, problem and information and knowing when to ask the right questions to often produce a new model of investigation and then re-construct new modes of meaning and understandings. Yet, knowing that one needs to think critically is not the same as being able to do so. The final key point is that specially taught critical thinking programmes, provide only modest boosts in learning and achievement, if at all. Critical thinking best develops within subject areas where there are clear domains of thought and practice. So, this is a task for ‘all’ teachers and actually parents in the way they support their children at home.

Here are some of the strategies that we can employ:

  • Place all learning in a context of previous experiences and knowledge.
  • Develop questions that move beyond basic recall types to ones that create an environment that predicates these understandings being applied in new situations. For example, don’t ask a chess player to analyse a new strategy to achieve checkmate, but ask them to apply basic strategies to economic theory.
  • Develop a range of methods to solve problems. Drop all time spent on so called ‘learning styles’. Yes, people have preferences about the ways in which they learn (aural, written, inter-active, discussion, listening, kinesthetic etc.) but research by Hattie, amongst many, shows that focusing on such activities linked to individual results from a questionnaire or such, has little effect, if any, on actual achievement and completion of tasks and problem solving. Learning requires the student to be skilled in a range of possible ways to make solutions and to appreciate which is best in different situations.
  • Set clear, achievable goals and use a ‘scaffolded’ structure whereby all tasks are broken down into simple and stages of development to achieve the answer. You cannot expect a student to, for example, write an essay, if you have not taught how to write effective sentences, paragraphs, introductions, conclusions and so on. Just slow things down.
  • Set tasks that take students through the process from remembering to understanding, to applying and analyzing and then to evaluating and creating (as Bloom showed us as long ago as 1956) such that good habits of thinking become second nature.
  • Choose ‘wild’ topics that stimulate questions and explorations that are full of unexplored possibilities rather than ‘tame’ topics that include common certainties (Guy Claxton).
  • Teacher’s ‘model’ problem solving themselves and demonstrate the process of learning rather than just set tasks.

Finally, for critical thinking to become a common part of schooling the school itself needs to recognize that a certain culture is essential. One that promotes collaboration rather than competition, risk not safe academic answers and uncertainty not absolute solutions. The path forwards is to develop autonomous learners that use reflection to improve in the art of ‘thinking about thinking’ in an intellectually disciplined manner.

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