By Chia Suan Chong for EtonX | February 2019
In a previous post, I looked at what critical thinking is and what skills it entails.
The nature of education has undoubtedly evolved over the past decades. We have gradually moved away from a knowledge-transmission model and we now understand the need for experiential learning and the importance of cultivating soft skills that will stand our students in good stead when they enter the workforce.
Like most soft skills, critical thinking skills need lots of practice to develop. Showing students how to analyse arguments or how to reason is not enough. They have to be given tasks where they can put their skills into use and put in situations where they can see the consequences of their decisions.
In order to maximise limited classroom time, tasks done in pairs or groups can provide a platform for students to discuss the issues, defend their positions and see how their opinions compare to others, therefore allowing them to reflect on their own thought processes. Developmental psychologist Vygotsky, in his 1978 theory on the Zone of Proximal Development, described the benefits of collaboration, suggesting that working together with a capable partner can help the student to achieve their potential in progressing to the next level.
Here are some things we can do to provide more opportunities for our students to develop these skills. Where possible, implementing these frameworks and activities in pairs and groups could dramatically enhance their development process.
Trigger their curiosity and motivate them to research and explore
It is said that people who have a hungry mind are more likely to be more inquisitive and open to new experiences. A technique like Inquiry-based Learning promotes a conducive framework for cultivating that curiosity as it encourages students to ask questions, to collaboratively construct an understanding of an issue, and to exercise their freedom in choosing the topics they are interested in exploring. In negotiating a topic with their group members, considering the opinions of the group and exploring an issue in depth, students can see their critical thinking skills at work and are able to appreciate the value of these skills. The focus here is on the process and not just the end product of their research.
Offer practice in analysing arguments
Whether it’s a class debate, a discussion about a persuasive TED talk or an analysis of an opinionated blogpost, these activities get students questioning and prompt them to go beyond the surface to think more deeply about the way arguments are constructed.
A tool like Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats can ensure that students embrace ways of thinking that they are not used to. Here, students are offered different roles to take on (as symbolised by the different coloured hats) in a group discussion/negotiation.
The student with the white hat focuses on only the facts of the matter, while the student with the red hat is only concerned with expressing the emotions, the intuitions and the feelings regarding the issue. The red hat is the positive thinker, the black hat the devil’s advocate, the green hat the creative thinker and the blue hat the manager or chair of the whole process. By rotating the hats that the students wear, they are able to discover the advantage of different ways of thinking and learn about striking a balance between different perspectives and attitudes.
Offer practice in spotting fallacies and faulty evidence
Arguments like “You should take Miss Clark’s class because it’s really easy. I know three people who took Miss Clark’s class and they all passed!” might be commonplace but are logically flawed.Understanding fallacies in logic and being on the lookout for these fallacies and faulty evidence, will allow students to become more savvy when presented with an argument . They are less likely to buy into generalisations and sweeping statements.
Expose students to information manipulation
The way data is presented, the way photos are doctored, the way statistics are taken out of context, and the way language is used can all affect the way information is perceived.By getting students to examine ad campaigns, fake news and websites, we are not only improving their digital literacy, we are also sensitising them and raising their awareness of the stealthy strategies employed to sway their opinions and influence their judgments.
A large part of critical thinking is the ability to reflect on things that have happened and our reactions to them. It is therefore crucial that we offer our students time and space to reflect, and the guidance to understand themselves.The Critical Incident Technique used by many intercultural trainers (e.g. in Chong, 2018) is a useful tool that involves presenting students with a mini case study where a conflict exists. Students are put in groups to discuss the critical incident and how they might go about dealing with the given situation. Sometimes through discussion, students are able to discover alternative perspectives and solutions to the case at hand, and occasionally, the use of critical incidents might also trigger memories of similar situations that the students have encountered, encouraging them to share and reflect on their experience.
Critical thinking skills are essential to the way we deal with the information around us. As teachers, we certainly can and should facilitate the development of these skills. After all, in the age of the internet, intelligence is no longer about the knowledge you accumulate, but how you evaluate this knowledge and what you do with it.
Chong, C.S. (2018) Successful International Communication, Brighton: Pavilion Publishing
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.