Critical thinking is not a discrete skill that you should teach separately from other school subjects for “half an hour every Wednesday afternoon”, says Courtney Cazden, a Harvard professor of education. She shares with SingTeach her take on the teaching of critical thinking in schools and more.
Gen S, or the Generation of Sheep – that’s what a Singaporean youth called his cohort in a letter to the newspaper forum, while lamenting the “appalling lack of passionate, critical thinkers” (Han, 2005) among them.
While maybe a bit harsh, perhaps the young man’s complaint is not entirely uncalled for. With the explosion of information on the Internet, this generation needs, more than ever, to be savvy and critical enough to discern facts from opinions and truth from fiction.
And this is a concern everywhere, be it in Singapore or the US.
Harvard Professor Courtney Cazden notes that US students are also seen as not being critical enough of Internet sources, as they “sort of assume that if it’s on the Web, it’s got to be valid material”.
A professor of education who has taught in primary schools for 10 years, Courtney is no stranger to Singapore’s education system. As a consultant for the Centre for Research on Pedagogy Practice (CRPP), she has been to numerous schools in Singapore to observe the teaching and learning that go on in our classrooms.
So how does she define critical thinking? It involves a sequence of analysis, and then judgment based on substantive knowledge. But for Courtney, there’s another part that’s often not mentioned: imagination, which you need to go beyond what is presented to consider other possibilities.
Critical thinking – The Wednesday special?
That critical thinking is an important educational goal is now acknowledged by many governments. But at the same time that they are promoting it in schools, Courtney believes that they should also be mindful of how it is taught.
“The danger, I think, that exists in the States and I suspect here as well, is that when we try to incorporate critical thinking as one desired outcome in pedagogy at whatever level, we think we need to add a separate, ‘Oh, I will do that half an hour every Wednesday afternoon,’” says Courtney.
“From experience in the States, it’s more apt to be the problem of getting it into the schools. It’s too easy to just say: ‘Well, we’ll do it at a certain segment in time and we’ll have a special thinking skills curriculum and we’ll fit that into the schedule somehow.’”
From Courtney’s observations of the classrooms in Singapore, the curriculum seems to be “very compartmentalised”. For her, the teaching of critical thinking should have “a sort of pervasive quality” where one doesn’t have to stop and critique what is being done every moment, but have “time to reflect back” on what was learnt at the end of a lesson or unit.
“I know teachers are squeezed in between all these demands and the danger is to just add on rather than try to rethink more coherently how it can be a part of regular teaching,” says Courtney. Still, she doesn’t want to give out formulaic “recipes” on how to teach critical thinking since there is no one right way, and much depends on the subject that is being taught.
Out of context, out of mind
This is also the reason why she has some reservation about how some generic thinking approaches are being taught to students. They “won’t take”, she says, if these approaches are taught out of context and have no relationship to the other subjects in the school curriculum.
“It remains in a little isolated part of your mind and you can answer in a test what de Bono says about the 5 steps or 4 essential skills, but it doesn’t mean that you have learnt how to do it and have that habit of mind.”
“That takes practice and reinforcement and all those old-fashioned-sounding parts of learning,” she adds. “You don’t learn critical thinking by somebody handing you some skills…. You have to use them and subject them to discussion.”
Be critical, but civil
But are Singapore’s teachers here ready to teach a roomful of critical and maybe even argumentative students who punctuate the lessons with their questions and comments?
Not everything goes in the classroom; not even when it comes to critical thinking, says Courtney. Learning to be critical in a civil manner is an important part of the learning process, and students need to learn to raise questions in a civil and responsible way.
“I don’t mean that at any moment the students ought to be able to raise their hands and say: ‘Wait a minute, teacher, I want to question the ethics of this work.’ or ‘Why should I believe what this person says?’”
For such students, Courtney thinks, the teacher should ensure that they know what it is that they are questioning: “You can say ‘We’ll get to that but for now, I want to make sure you understand what this person is saying, what their argument is and then at the end, you can raise questions about what they may not be considering in their argument.’”
Similarly, students have to learn to give and take, and to respect other people’s opinions.
“It (critical thinking) can only be useful if people really enter into it with the spirit of ‘We’re learning and thinking about this together and we will all benefit from different points of view’ and not ‘I think of something and I’m going to hog the floor and present my point of view and other people are just going to sit and listen and take in my ideas.’ That’s not what the point of it is. The point is for everyone to enlarge their ideas.”
Which is the right answer?
But if everyone has different ideas, especially in subjects such as History or Literature where answers are not always so well defined, how is a teacher to know which is the “right” idea? Or does it even exist?
“Well, I think there may not be one right answer, but there may be a best answer.” Courtney reasons. And when it comes to the issue of relativism, she believes it is often used as an excuse to argue against critical thinking.
“(They say) it just leads to relativism. Well, it doesn’t! Because there are better and worse interpretations, better and worse generalizations depending on evidence…. Students should always be asked for evidence: ‘Why do you think that?’ ‘What made you think of that idea?’”
Courtney admits that this more open-ended approach may seem “a little bit scary” when compared to the usual, well-practiced classroom drill of “One right answer, good, go on to the next question.”
But for her, both types of teaching has a place in the classroom, because getting the basics right is essential for the thinking process. “Obviously, critical thinking is not what all education should be about because even to do that, you need a lot of knowledge in the field.”
While the idea of infusing critical thinking into one’s teaching may seem like a daunting task, one can start with a few simple changes. Courtney herself, who is reluctant to be prescriptive about the teaching of critical thinking, gave her own piece of advice: “Beware”, she says, of catchy phrases such as “The fact of the matter is” or “It goes without saying that”.
“I would think we should all try and stop ourselves from saying it because it forecloses the need to follow up with the reason for why you think that’s so…teachers and we all need to (bear that in mind). It’s so easy to use and so tempting.”
Han, L. C. J. (2005, January 1). Our smart students not willing to think critically [Letter to the forum]. The Straits Times. Retrieved May 16, 2007, from LexisNexis™ Scholastic Edition database.