The freedom to think independently, and allowing others the same freedom, is central to our democracy (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)
In the global educational domain there has been, for several years already, a pronounced focus on developing critical thinking in schools and learning institutions. Although there’s wide consensus that critical thinking can enhance the learner’s general performance levels effectively, approaches towards that end by no means have been the same.
Here are some accustomed, though quite dissimilar, models.
On the one hand it is reasoned that the learner’s critical thinking levels can be raised with specific pedagogical approaches. Hence, instructional and often subject-specific teaching/learning strategies are deemed important for meeting this goal. In order to raise learners’ performance in mathematics or languages or the sciences, for example, their critical thinking faculties need to be developed in those explicit or respective learning areas. This is by far the most popular approach in neoliberal, Westernised schooling systems today.
On the other hand, renowned scholars such as Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren have taken their cue from Paulo Freire, the distinguished Brazilian thinker and practitioner, who essentially argued that education is tied up with social systems. As such, critical thinking should be seen as a crucial tool to raise students’ social awareness and commitment to social justice.
For Freire, Giroux, McLaren and others, critical thinking should empower younger generations not merely to perceive, understand and recognise social wrongs, but also to overcome them. Here it is reasoned that the student’s very induction into various learning areas serves as a basis for him or her to employ knowledge to bring about meaningful social change. In this view, education should not serve narrow ends, but carry a social duty.
Either way, for Richard Paul, the globally celebrated educational scholar and theorist, critical thinking is not an aim of education, but the aim.
But what is critical thinking? And who may qualify as a critical thinker?
Let’s look at the classroom situation and see whether we can detect the presence of that distinguishing feature, one that’s become, regrettably, a rarity in many public schools today.
Let’s pose the question thus: Who is more inclined to be a critical thinker — the clever schoolchild, the intelligent schoolchild or the creative schoolchild? (This in no way implies that schoolchildren neatly fit into a distinct category of erudition. These are used purely for ease of reference.)
Clever schoolchildren generally work consistently and, as attentive and co-operative participants in class, usually excel in building up good memory skills. They can more easily call up data, facts and figures. As they grow and mature at school they learn to take notes prudently and thereby manage to keep their schoolbooks up to date. They end up performing comparatively well in class and throughout their grades. But all of this does not necessarily make them critical thinkers.
Intelligent schoolchildren generally are sensible, rational, wise, perceptive and level-headed. They have good reasoning skills, are more practical, coherent and convincing.
These attributes bring us much closer to critical thinking. But, without the actual knowledge of the subject matter at hand, even the “most intelligent” schoolchild may fail hopelessly at thinking critically. In other words, this child may be able to think more critically, but only in some respects or in specific instances.
Creative schoolchildren are somewhat harder to pin down. Although one child may seem preoccupied and distant, another could stand out quite noticeably. Whereas one student may come across as lonely and quiet, another could be trendy and well liked on account of her “artistic sensibilities”.
Either way, they may surprise the teacher now and then with a stimulating comment or wonderful piece of writing. When conditions are created for them to excel, such as during an analysis of a poem or novel, their peers may be left out in the cold. These students are often unpredictable, unprepared or even disorganised.
On the whole, though, creative children have great potential to become critical thinkers, or may already display a natural affinity with critical-mindedness. Certain scholars believe some are born that way.
They often consider more probing questions, often of a philosophical nature (without even being aware of it), and this, in itself, sets the basis for them to engage in higher-order thinking. Based on their critical, more in-depth perception and application of creative concepts and ideas, these students could actively influence and even shape their environments at school and/or at home.
The aforementioned passages still do not say much about what critical thinking entails, so, what is it in theory and in practice?
The critical mind is customarily enquiring, inquisitive and probing. But it could, equally and at the same time, be attentive, engaged and interested. The student here typically is exposed to and involved in processes that are speculative, investigative, searching, intrusive, penetrating and explorative in nature. And this, in turn, may cause them to feel unsatisfied, uncertain, unconvinced or even troubled (until such time that clearer solutions or more fulfilling answers are found). There’s nothing new or unique here, because many of these qualities, in varying degrees, are perceptible among young children who learn, live and operate in stimulating, inspiring and generally healthy and interesting environments.
Accordingly, and as a quick digression, what does this say about South African schoolchildren overall? And what implications or conclusions can be drawn about their terribly poor performance in core areas such as maths, science and language?
The above notwithstanding, in essence critical thinking involves the search for more meaningful and truer answers, to those that are inconclusive, irrational, misleading, dishonest, fictitious, inaccurate, delusionary, and so forth. The more critically minded individual therefore characteristically seeks to go to the root of the issue in question.
The critical thinker moreover typically contemplates and evaluates commonly accepted knowledge, viewpoints, even norms and standards, and may very well end up questioning the positions and standpoints of authority figures (parents, teachers, principals, lecturers, scholars, employers, politicians, social commentators, media reporters, religious leaders, sporting coaches, stage show judges or movie reviewers). And it is this factor, as we perhaps know too well, that may pose an enormous dilemma for authority figures themselves. Inasmuch as there’s universal consensus on the great rewards that can ensue from thinking critically, there is no uniformity on how far it should be pursued.
Finally, how can critical thinking actually be developed during the learning/teaching process? Here are some tried and trusted recommendations and guidelines as conceived by leading global experts.
Brown and his colleagues have argued that, rather than simply having learners discuss ideas provided to them, have them brainstorm their own ideas and argue among themselves about possible solutions to issues they have raised. Here real-life problems are helpful.
Learners should be asked routinely to express their own points of view on a diversity of issues, concepts and ideas. Also, they should be given tasks that call upon them to develop their own categories and modes of classification, rather than the teacher providing such possibilities in advance.
Whereas Paul likewise reasoned that students learn best when their thinking involves extended points of view and frames of reference, Brown cautioned, quite logically, that we cannot expect learners to advance their thinking capacities without having something concrete to think about. Classes in which the emphasis is on collaboration and less on grades were more likely to engage learners in more contemplative thinking.
Smith, on the other hand, highlighted simple things like teacher encouragement and praise, because this could raise learner self-image, crucial to getting them to think more confidently and thereby communicate more effectively and convincingly.
Turning their gaze to higher education, Dennick and Exley found that activities such as focused discussions and student-led seminars can advance more useful and efficient thinking. Delaney drew attention to the benefits of small-group discussions and small-group teaching, and Tsui saw essay exams, rather than multiple-choice assessments, as valuable in raising more productive thinking at post-school level.
Courses where emphasis falls on student feedback, reflection and debate — such as with student presentations with discussion following afterwards — can potentially raise not only the student’s thinking levels, but also their speaking, writing and listening skills.
Quite interestingly, Tsui found that, generally, students who took up writing, history, science and music courses or studies in ethnography, anthropology or interdisciplinary fields are more constructively involved in raising their thinking aptitudes. Informal interviews, leading group discussions, the compilation of questionnaires, the planning of projects, the analysis of findings and their arrangement, and the writing up of reports can all meaningfully accelerate what Paul believed is the ultimate and conclusive aim of education.
Dr Clive W Kronenberg is the recipient of the 2015 Contribution to the Cuban University award. He is a transdisciplinary research scholar, documentary film producer and lead co-ordinator of the South-South Educational Collaboration and Knowledge Interchange Initiative (Africa-Latin America-Caribbean region)