The newly formed education ministry in India has outlined significant changes and conceived new directions in the curriculum and education policy with a focus on (i) overhauling the curriculum, (ii) “easier” Board exams, (iii) a reduction in the syllabus to retain “core essentials” and (iv) a thrust on “experiential learning and critical thinking (CT).” Probably, never before in the history of our planet the need to teach CT has been so pressing and never before has any elected body in our country pushed for a change in the curriculum with the intent to teach CT skills. Before I get into the ‘how we’re going to teach kids to think critically,’ I’ll first discuss:

  1. What does CT looks like? How do cognitive psychologists define it?
  2. Why it’s necessary to encourage CT skills?

Once we have a clear definition of CT, we can deliberate over why it’s important to equip students with CT skills and then delve into how to nurture it, what pathways we are going to take to help kids think & learn (in lieu of rote learn), and so forth. Unless we answer the what and why questions, it will be beating around the bush, and in the end little achieved, if at all.

(WHAT) Defining CT:

Use of the term ‘critical thinking’ to describe an educational goal goes back to the American philosopher John Dewey (1910), who more commonly called it ‘reflective thinking’ and defined it as a way of thinking in which individuals actively, persistently and carefully deliberate over a belief or idea in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further understandings to which the idea tends (Dewey, 1910:6; 1933:9). Dewey defined this habit as a scientific attitude of mind. In short, CT is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking (Richard Paul and Linda Elder, 2008).

Humans are endowed with the ability to think. But our thinking can be flawed, if left unchecked, and when thinking is shoddy, it has a knock-on effect on the society. I think our affiliations, experiences (or of others’), and lack of specific thinking skills can breed biases, muting our reasoning & distorting our understandings. When equipped with CT skills, individuals check their thinking in a very self-regulatory way by using intellectual tools like (i) being curious (ii) seeking evidence & hypothesizing (iv) considering perspectives (v) being open-minded to consider options, & so forth to ensure reasonable, rational conclusions. CT supports individuals to actively and skillfully analyze, synthesize, evaluate information based on their observation and/or experience through reflecting, reasoning, and verifying (Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, 1987). While definitions of CT by various authors may vary a bit, it’s broadly defined as thinking that involves serious consideration and reasoning with a goal in mind, and is a widely accepted educational goal (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2018).

Perkins, Jay, and Tishman (1993), educators at Harvard who focus their research on the development and teaching of thinking, use the term ‘good thinking,’ as a cluster of creative and critical thinking skills. Furthermore, they claim that cognitive capabilities & thinking skills are not enough if individuals lack an abiding tendency to explore, inquire, seek clarity, take intellectual risks, and think critically and imaginatively. And to enculturate a tendency, individuals will need to engage in activities that allow them to use those skills until it becomes a habit, a tendency. Outpouring articles on teaching CT indicate an explicit surge of interest in teaching these skills that broaden the ambit of thinking and support individuals reach plausible conclusions through a self-driven inquiry. Just like any other domain needs to be taught in school, CT skills too need to be nurtured right from a young age. It’s not going to happen fortuitously.

WHY?

In Silicon valley and others centers of innovation, there’s a saying these days: “Qyestitnts are rue

new answer?’ (Warren Berger, 2014). Simply put, inquiry leads to plausible inferences.

The world is changing at a fast pace and to be in step with it, innovative teaching styles have to be roped into the curricula to enculturate CT skills that support individuals make sense of the information-soaked world around them. Ceaseless amount of information (often biased opinions and even fabricated) floating across social media requires us to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion, to glean credible information from the often colored stories and draw logical conclusions. So far, the focus of schools has been to “impart” and make students a “store house” of knowledge, instead of nurturing & equipping them with skills needed to analyze information that they garner via multiple, ever-expanding sources- from books to internet, films, and commercials, throughout life. Our innate propensity to be curious is dampened by the rote learning style of education and testing. Education ought to enable individuals recognize their inchoate sense of perplexity and encourage that perplexity (termed as cognitive dissonance) so it morphs into an inquiry, thereby making individuals active participants in the learning process, within and outside classrooms.

To be able to distinguish between fact and opinion, students not only need certain skills but also opportunities at an early age to develop the capabilities that they can use to discern the distinctions and draw inference. In the following section, I will look into ‘how’ these CT skills can be fostered through opportunities created by changes in the curriculum.

HOW

Just knowing where one intends to reach doesn’t ensure s/he reaches unless s/he chooses the path that leads to the chosen destination. So it’s crucial to specify what strategies schools will use- whether those strategies are based on research, because research and its application in classrooms cannot be separate. The pertinent question that emerges is, how can schools encourage and instill a culture of questioning such that a scientific inquiry becomes a natural habit, an attitude? How should schools nurture a ‘tendency’ to inquire, seek evidence? The following four methods can exert a profound and pronounced influence and be pivotal in fostering CT skills. I will discuss these methods at length in my next blog.

  1. Qualitative Research: drawing on its fundamentals to encourage students to investigate in an open-minded way and revisit their stand. Piquant topics that lend themselves to research to replace Old-fangled topics like “my favorite something.”
  2. Art Education: Draw on research on art ed to reach new understandings and insights.
  3. Leveraaina the Humanities to unleash the power to be open-minded to consider options and develop multiple perspectives.
  4. Commercials: understanding of the three persuasive strategies: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos to develop metacognition and make strides in the ability to reason.

Conclusion:

The accessibility to the world, its people, happenings, opinions in the garb of facts, media’s interpretations, mightily require us to value questioning and ways of thinking. While I’m not undermining the teaching of facts and “core essentials” but the intellectual undercurrents have to be ignited through opportunities to think, scientifically. Schools need to create specific conditions where scientific attitude can thrive. Until then, the hope to have a society that reasons and reflects is miserably meager.

We expect much of our kids. But we need to stretch the scope of how we define “much.” Preparing kids to be adept in memorizing and regurgitating facts to boost test scores, get admission in prestigious colleges and ultimately, financial security, doesn’t ensure a good life that is expected out of financial security. In my next blog, I will provide an in-depth analysis to establish how the aforementioned methods can help forge critical thinking skills.

References:

National Council for Excellence in Critical thinking. (1987). Retrieved from https://www.criticalthinking.org/Pages/defining-critical-thinking/766

Richard P., & Linda E. (2008). The Miniature Guide to Critical thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundations for Critical Thinking Press).

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2018). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-thinking/

Tishman, S., Jay. E., & Perkins, D. N. (1993). Teaching thinking dispositions: from Transmission to enculturation. Theory into Practice, 32.

Warren., B. (2020). Retrieved from https://warrenberger.com/speakinR/whv-Questioning/

About me

I specialize in facilitating learning and cognition through research-based motivational techniques that enhance the learning experience of individuals in formal as well as informal settings like Museums and out of school programs.

Anu Bhatia

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