Recently, life as we know it was 'put on hold' in the face of a global pandemic. Social distancing measures caused people to rely on digital sources of information more than ever before. Every day we are exposed to masses of one-sided or 'fake' news, so it comes as no surprise that people often find it difficult to judge the credibility of media and other information sources.
Bearing this in mind, it is clear that critical thinking has become an essential skill in today's society.
Wellington College China places great importance on cultivating the ability to think critically among its pupils. One of the five characteristics of the Wellington Identity, Intellectual, represents our aspirations to enable critical thinking and deep learning among pupils. By encouraging our pupils to be Intellectual, we hope they will grow into global citizens with international perspectives.
A few months ago, one of our Grade 13 pupils at Wellington College Bilingual Tianjin A Level Centre, Ezra, won the National Honor Award during the ASDAN Critical Thinking Challenge (co-organised by Educational Testing Service Global and Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network China). Ezra also received the Advanced Certificate of Achievement for the HEIghten Critical Thinking Assessment – an excellent example of a pupil’s Intellectual identity trait serving them well.
In this article we will investigate the history of critical thinking education and its role in the modern-day classroom. Toward the end of this investigation, we have also included a short list of resources that will provide educators with a few strategies to help them incorporate critical thinking education in the classroom.
Before we continue, let us give a brief overview of the origin and definition of critical thinking.
Socratic questioning, named after the classical philosopher Socrates, is often regarded as an early predecessor of what we now know as critical thinking. American philosopher John Dewey was a huge advocate for reflective thinking during the mid-20th century, going so far as to write about it in his 1910 book How We Think. His definition of ‘reflective thought' is as follows:
“Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought.”
Yuval Noah Harari argued in his 2018 book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century that, “humans have always lived in the age of post-truth.” When people are faced with a constant ‘information explosion’ they tend to believe the facts, or the versions of facts, that align with their own personal values and beliefs.
As a post-truth species, people often pay more attention to news pieces for their emotional appeal rather than the objective facts they carry. Because of this, we often regard biased and provocative discourses as the ‘truth’. In contrast, critical thinking encourages people to value the facts more than anything else.
To this day there is no universally agreed upon definition of critical thinking. Despite this, most academics would agree that at its core critical thinking is very much in line with the reflective thinking philosophies John Dewey promoted alomost 100 years ago.
Critical thinking helps us rethink any objective fact; it is a conceptual skill and habit that reflects a person’s deeper level of thinking and broader worldview.
So, what does critical thinking mean in school?
In pre-industrialisation days, schools were primarily designed to train skilled workers for factories. Today’s modern schooling system has inherited several characteristics from the large-scale industrial production that was prevalent back then – mass quantity, standardised production, unified specifications and quality, to name a few. Schools during the pre-industrial and industrial days often regarded the transfer of knowledge as their primary purpose, which is why this approach to education is commonly referred to as knowledge-orientated.
To date, humanity has progressed from the industrial age through to what Yuval Noah Harari would call the "age of information explosion." As such, our mission as educators has also changed – the focus has shifted from training skilled workers to cultivating ‘good thinkers’. It is only when we become good thinkers that we can discern fact from fiction and be responsible global citizens.
A systematic model of critical thinking in education has become more highly valued than ever; it is an undeniably important element of modern education reform.
In 1941, American education psychologist Edward Glaser suggested making critical thinking a key part of the United States’ future education curriculum/s. Evidently, many people agreed with this idea; in the years that followed, basic and higher education institutes all over the world began to incorporate critical thinking education into their curriculums.
Today, critical thinking is often regarded as an essential skill by international education institutes. In the Basic Framework of Core Qualities Development for Chinese Pupils published by the Ministry of Education of China, critical thinking is defined as one of the key skills that should be cultivated among pupils. Consequently, an increasing number of schools in China are now committed to providing critical thinking education in their curriculums.
Most schools teach critical thinking using one of the following two approaches:
The first approach is integration.
The integration approach seeks to integrate critical thinking into other disciplines at school. Advocators believe each subject can reinforce critical thinking among children in its own unique way and that educators should integrate critical thinking skills, strategies and practices into the basis of all classroom teaching.
The integration approach has many advantages. A school utilising this approach does not have to significantly alter its curriculum, and the knowledge pupils learn during class can also help them understand and practice critical thinking in their everyday life. Because of this, most schools adopt the integration approach when teaching critical thinking.
The integration approach does come with a disadvantage – it regards critical thinking as an addition to regular classroom content, meaning that exploration of it may be limited to a surface level only.
The second approach is to teach critical thinking as a separate subject.
A separation approach means that critical thinking is taught as its own separate class. This approach places greater emphasis on the transferability of the skill across different disciplines.
Supporters of the separation approach believe that educators should illustrate critical thinking with as many everyday examples as possible and reduce reliance on theoretical knowledge. Using this approach, it is believed pupils will be able to receive more comprehensive critical thinking education. Because of this, a separate curriculum is needed to teach pupils using a learning framework that is specifically designed to achieve critical thinking.
The downside to the separation approach is that pupils may find learning by means of an abstract conceptual framework to be quite complicated. When teaching critical thinking using this approach an educator must pay close attention to the level of difficulty and progress of each pupil in their class. As such, it is rather rare for schools in China to teach critical thinking in separate classes.
It is worth noting that a reasonable number of countries and international education organisations have established critical thinking as a subject of its own, such as the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) curriculum offered through the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) and the Critical Thinking subject in the General Certificate of Education Advanced Level (GCE A-Level) programme.
The IBDP and the GCE A-Level programmes are immensely popular curriculums for schools all around the world. Both of these programmes have been adopted as curriculums for senior pupils in Wellington College China’s schools.
We have listed a few examples of how critical thinking is taught in our schools here:
The TOK curriculum in the IBDP programme
The IBDP programme places great importance on critical thinking – Thinkers and Reflective are two of the ten attributes detailed in the IB Learner Profile. Not only does the IBDP programme seek to teach critical thinking indirectly through everyday classes, but directly through its compulsory TOK curriculum as well.
The prototype of the TOK curriculum was formed as early as the 1960s. As an interdisciplinary curriculum it does not aim to teach subject-specific knowledge, instead it seeks to encourage pupils to think about a series of theoretical questions: What is knowledge? How do we perceive the world around us? How is knowledge developed? By asking questions, the TOK curriculum equips pupils with a more rational mindset and the skills needed to problem-solve in the future.
During a TOK class teachers will encourage pupils to explore the eight Ways of Knowing (WOKs): language, sense perception, emotion, reason, imagination, intuition, memory and faith. After a great deal of discussion and analysis pupils come to understand that none of these WOKs are perfect; they are all different and they are all – to a certain extent – flawed.
The TOK curriculum also values the exploration of eight different Areas of Knowledge (AOKs): mathematics, arts, history, ethics, human sciences, natural sciences, religion and indigenous knowledge. Through these AOKs, the TOK curriculum guides pupils to reflect on the nature of knowledge and methods of knowledge acquisition.
During a TOK class, pupils discuss several fun and philosophical questions, such as:
· What are ethical standards?
· To what extent is science accurately describing and making assumptions about the world?
· What are the aesthetic standards of art?
The TOK curriculum encourages pupils to ask questions about existing knowledge and dissect experiences from different angles. This method of learning hopes to prevent cognitive bias and subjective assumptions from being formed, cultivating a pupil’s ability to think critically and learn across multiple disciplines.
Critical thinking in the GCE A-Level programme
Similar to the IBDP programme the British GCE A-Level programme also teaches critical thinking as a separate subject, putting a unique focus on enabling rational thinking processes among pupils. The A-Level programme achieves this by:
1. Analysing arguments
2. Judging the relevance and significance of information
3. Evaluating claims, inferences, arguments and explanations
4. Constructing clear and coherent arguments
5. Forming well-reasoned judgements and decisions
The A-Level programme advocates that critical thinking equips pupils with reasoning skills they can use in their daily lives, work experiences and further academic studies. It provides the opportunity for pupils to think deeply about issues that are key to participating in society, such as ethics, culture and personal responsibility. This programme enables pupils to make reasoned judgements that are based on evidence and argument rather than assumption and prejudice.
Both the integration and separation approaches to critical thinking education require teachers to possess a high level of critical thinking literacy. It is therefore necessary that teachers possess excellent thinking skills themselves before they can turn their pupils into ‘good thinkers’.
Here, we would like to recommend some books and resources for teachers to further their knowledge in this field:
The book is a designated textbook for the Thinking Skills Assessment Cambridge. It covers all assessment objectives and content of the Cambridge International AS and A Levels. Through this book, educators are given an overview of how the United Kingdom cultivates advanced thinking skills among children, helping them become effective thinkers.
British educationist Stella Cottrell has devoted more than 20 years of research into the field of education. Her accumulated knowledge has been published in several study skills guides for educators and learners of all ages. One of her guides, Critical Thinking Skills, is deemed a must-read for scholars and students by many internationally renowned universities. This guide aims to help readers think out-of-the-box and advance their critical thinking skills by utilising the basic human ability to listen, speak, read and write.
In this book Dr Stephen D. Brookfield draws on his accumulated 40 years of experience as a teacher to explore how students learn to think critically. Based on sets of survey results from thousands of participants, the author details the teaching methods and approaches that are most successful when teaching pupils to think, read and write with a more critical mindset.
Teaching resources recommendation
Macat is a critical thinking solutions provider in the United Kingdom. In 2016, Macat collaborated with organisations like the University of Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, initiating some of world’s largest critical thinking research that aimed to develop a training model for critical thinking.
From theoretical models to general teaching resources, Macat offers international educators a comprehensive range of resources and support.
In 2016, Stanford University launched the Civic Online Reasoning programme. By reiterating three questions the programme helps pupils brush up their critical thinking skills: Who is behind the information? What is the evidence? What do other sources say?
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at Wellington College Bilingual Tianjin
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