A version of this piece has appeared on the E-QUAL Newsletter 3.2
“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
–1921, on Thomas Edison’s opinion that a college education is useless; quoted in Frank, Einstein: His Life and Times, p. 185.
Can critical thinking be taught in a class room? As our educational context evolves, our educational technology must keep pace and cater to the needs that are not visible at present. Clearly the only way to address unforeseeable information is through an emphasis on critical approach to information. Having said that, the answer of what ‘ought’ to be does not necessarily address whether critical thinking ‘can’ be taught in the classroom. I have two experiences to draw upon while assessing this question: firstly, as a student in India, where I was trained to see intelligence as a given that can be nurtured with practice and hard-work, and to consider critical thinking as just ‘thinking’, and more recently as a teacher of English Literature in a Junior College in Singapore, where the system worked to incorporate critical thinking as a part of the teaching curriculum. These disparate experiences invite me to think about the complications in each method, and the challenges in truly creating an environment where critical thinking can be taught effectively.
Common Sense Approach:
I grew up in the urban Indian context, where I attended a private school. In a highly competitive environment where considerable amount of information had to be administered to a large group of students (with class sizes ranging from 40 to easily 60 until class 10) within a short period of time, the values of ‘hard work’ and practice were rewarded by the teachers and the system. The work was hard, in both senses of difficulty, as well as density. Understanding was secondary to absorption as exam performance was usually a matter of memory over intelligence. When your performance in an exam is counted against an exact number on a hundred-mark system, questions of ‘why’ were always secondary to the question of ‘what’ and ‘how’. I learned calculus without ever being explained its significance or application. Mathematical problems that presented complex real-world situations about trains that cross each other at night were fervently reduced to very specific formulae and steps that needed to be reproduced as they were. Even the logic of a computer language was replaced with familiarity and memorisation.
This is not to say that the approach failed entirely. Many of the concepts that were memorized and internalized made sense retroactively when engaging with more complex systems. Many of my friends have become successful engineers and professionals in fields where it would be impossible to survive without a clear understanding of high school science and math. And yet, any such understanding was incidental to the process of education, as the learning of concepts always took a back seat to the goal of exam preparation. The joy of recognizing the significance of an idea in the context of another seemingly unrelated situation and the ability to observe phenomena and identify patterns were often treated as a privilege accorded only to a few. And this is the biggest problem with the common sense approach which assumes that the meta-awareness of the thinking process is self-evident; it ignores the plight of a large group of students who stumble without guidance. In the worst kind of natural selection, students who do not improve are designated as ‘weak’ students, a label that few are able to escape from over the course of their school years.
So in this context, even if it is not based on a higher goal of teaching and learning, critical thinking should be taught for the pragmatic benefit of greater engagement with and enjoyment of the subject that is being taught. The ability to reflexively analyse the thought processes will significantly improve the chances of conceptual understanding even in some of the slowest learners.
Structured Critical Thinking:
On the other side is my teaching experience in a junior college in Singapore where I was part of delivering a structured and conscious critical thinking element as a part of the school curriculum. This certainly helped to unlearn some of the views about the manner in which critical thinking could be incorporated in a classroom. The Ministry of Education, Singapore has historically introduced strategies that update the educational practices to the changing demands of the society. Famous initiatives like Thinking Schools Learning Nation (1996) and Teach Less Learn More (2004) aimed at greater deliberation and evaluation of content rather than rote memory that were associated with Asian nations that have produced students who perform very well in test conditions. So the adoption and implementation of Critical Thinking strategies in everyday lesson delivery was a clear step in preparing students to understand processes and patterns rather than specific concepts.
In our school, we used Richard Paul’s framework of critical thinking to explicitly label the elements of thought (such as point of view, purpose, information, interpretation) that could be approached through a rigorous practice of universal intellectual standards (such clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, logic) while discussing various topics. These were framed as questions that provoked discussion on many points of analysis during the class, especially with reference to character motivations and broader thematic concerns. The learning that the students achieved at the end of such a process aims to expand their schema as a method of practice that is transferable to other topics, even across different subjects. The invocation of the thinking process as the primary objective while relegating content to a secondary position is the only way we can prepare students for encounters that have no real correlative in present circumstances.
Of course, such an idealistic vision of teaching critical thinking has to be tempered with an understanding of the ground reality. The best possible outcomes mentioned previously are sometimes just that, the best possible ones. Chief among the conditions necessary to achieve any meaningful dialogue through a critical thinking framework is that the teacher needs to relinquish the traditional position of authority stemming from subject mastery. This is especially challenging for teachers who are not used to having their authority questioned. Secondly, the practice of peer evaluation and critical dialogue has been hushed out from such an early age of the child’s development, that many students find it difficult to shift from an environment of ‘shut up and sit down’ during their developing years to ‘stand up and speak up’ in their age of higher education. The uncertainties that a student encounters at a higher level of learning could trigger the need for the comfort of the familiar – however compartmentalized and exam oriented they are.
Nor does it help that many teachers deploy most of the new innovations and practices in critical thinking as a way of preparing their students to perform even better in an examination. Reciprocally, it is not entirely unheard of for a student to use these questions as yet another routine, and a mechanical process to consult in order to sharpen the focus of an essay, or to arrive at an answer that would be received well, rather than to use them as a way of enquiring after the complexities of the subject. Ultimately, teaching and learning is still governed by the exam outcomes of a student, no matter how significantly positioned the critical thinking strategies are in a school. To enable an entire generation to approach education with a critical and positive outlook, the changes that need to be effected are more fundamental; in that critical thinking should be decoupled from exam performance. If it becomes yet another performance indicator, as it has in many situations, critical thinking is also bound to be reduced to a mechanical process.
To go back to the question with which this piece began, can critical thinking be taught in a class room? The short answer would be, yes. Many teachers profess dimensions of critical thinking that a student must be familiarized with as a set of thinking tools or guidelines. But that answer would shy away from a bigger question that looms behind the first, if it can be learnt given the pressures of the educational context today. As a practice, critical thinking is also situated at the interstices of curiosity, access and an environment that does not pose a fear of failure. However, even to students who are not able to successfully practice it, the teaching of critical thinking has a lot of positive benefits, such as clarifying the process and objectives of a study rather than to have a compartmentalised and dogmatic knowledge disconnected from other topics in their study. And if only for that advantage, critical thinking should be systematized and delivered to students who hope to grasp big ideas through a personal understanding rather than a system of remember facts.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.