Critical thinking: Let's think about how to embrace it

opinion May 20, 2013 00:00

By Asst Prof Dr Harald Kraus

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Educators, employers and commentators frequently complain that the youth of today lack critical thinking skills. In response, schools and universities throughout the land make efforts to address this perceived intellectual deficit by trying to include cri

As so often with mantras and memes however, the meanings of key concepts become almost as diluted as homeopathic remedies, and phrases such as ‘critical thinking’ are used with the unquestioned assumption that everyone knows exactly what is being talked about. People nod and agree about the concept to the point that the vagueness of “we need to teach critical thinking’ becomes impossible to act upon at both policy and classroom levels. Ironically, it seems all rather uncritically thought-out.

Sure, one can easily find definitions and entire books on critical thinking. But therein lie certain potential dangers that I would like to address here.
First and foremost among these is the threat that ‘critical thinking’ becomes an independent and essentially isolated course within the curriculum, a standard ‘how-to’ course with pre-selected requisite readings followed by assignments and grades. In this scenario, critical thinking could easily be reduced to the long-demonised rote-learning approach and inevitable tests of the learner’s ability to identify logical fallacies. This in turn would result in the impression among students and teachers that critical thinking is an ‘academic’ skill to be applied only if and when you are asked to. (Thereby undermining another mantra educators like to recite: “encourage life-long learning”.)
The itemisation of learning content is problematic and in my experience quite common: students learn the content of courses only to complete them, not to actually carry over what they have learned into future courses. Indeed, this attitude may have its genesis in the education system itself. As the educator Carl Bereiter notes, a great deal of education aims for ‘minimal comprehension’, in which students learn just enough to satisfy testing requirements. As this process involves not thinking too much, it essentially results in teaching students not to think!
A further consequence of “teaching” critical thinking as a one-off course is that it would it would absolve teachers not tasked with teaching it from practising it themselves, reasoning that if it is covered in someone else’s class, they don’t need to deal with it. To make critical thinking the responsibility of assigned teachers only would practically ensure the sterilisation of critical thinking as a long term educational goal.
So let us clarify what it would entail to meet the objective of having educated, critical thinking students and graduates. First, to engender critical thinking as a true educational goal would entail a cultural revolution in the education system. It would entail liberating – both in the sense of freeing and becoming ‘liberal’ – the classroom somewhat from its current functionalist and socialising ideology of education as preparing students only for work.
It would entail an understanding among teachers and other superiors that the education of the intellect is dialogical and co-constructive and emerges from constant questioning of others’ as well as one’s own assumptions. In the class then, it would mean that teachers let go of “the answer” and set questions to which there is no condoned answer that they can bequeath to students. Indeed, it would mean letting go of the questions, and training students how to ask their own.
To foster critical and analytical thinking, then, requires that it become a part of the educational environment, not the content of a carefully controlled and vetted course. It needs to be part of every course and everyday life in education. It needs to be part of every teacher’s repertoire, to be embedded in the discussions held, the questions generated, the tasks set and the rational debates encouraged. You don’t teach critical thinking, you cause it through intellectual challenge. Education should get over its obsession with testing and let some courses be open-ended forums for exploration and good old Socratic dialogue.
And this raises another problem regarding critical thinking, particularly in conservative countries such as Thailand: critical thinking involves letting ideas take you where they will go. Critical thinking needs space to move. There are no “sensitive” topics, and if some topics are censored, the whole process is essentially repressed from the outset. Thinking critically is certainly not about disrespecting people, or about stirring conflict, and it is often correctly emphasised that critical thinking is not about criticising per se – a critical thinker critiques ideas, not people – but a healthy dose of scepticism and indeed cynicism does not go astray.
In sum, on the one hand we implicitly expect critical thinking and complain when it is not demonstrated, but never really actually demand it, or spend enough time teaching it or clarifying what the process entails. On the other hand, however, some proposed solutions run the risk reducing critical thinking to a lesson plan.
The real potential shame in all this however, is that it is forgotten that critical thinking is a natural and automatic cognitive process: it is the education system that curtails its development. Critical thinking is also, dare it be said, exciting, rewarding and stimulating – for everyone. Let’s demonstrate it ourselves, and nurture it in an atmosphere of dialogue and questioning, not turn it into a boring old exercise. Are the stakeholders in Thailand’s schools and universities genuinely ready for this?