One of the most desirable characteristics of school graduates is that they can think critically. This helps them individually and also helps the societies in which they will play a role. It’s a game in which no one loses. So why is it so difficult to achieve?
Teaching critical thinking is not something that teachers are explicitly trained to do – in fact very few people are. Nor does the curriculum generally demand it. Too often an instructing syllabus focuses on the recall of content, and this in turn forms the basis for assessment.
In standardised assessment in particular it is simply cheaper and quicker to algorithmically mark multiple-choice questions than it is to read and assess nuanced responses showing an advanced use of cognitive skills.
South Africa has a standardised system including a highly regulated matriculation programme and national testing that together act as the barometer of good schooling. But there is some debate as to how effectively these kinds of tests measure the outcomes of an education in critical thinking, let alone their value as an educational device.
People often define a rigorous course as one that is heavy in content. This is misleading. Intellectual rigour lies in the sophisticated use of a range of cognitive critical thinking skills such as analysis, justification, synthesis and evaluation. Recalling content or demonstrating algorithmic procedures makes up only a small part of this.
The desire to teach to the test at the expense of skills not measured by them is a universal characteristic of standardised testing. The danger is that if critical thinking is not explicitly assessed, it will not be valued and therefore not taught.
The South African context
None of this is unique to South Africa, but several things make the problem more acute.
Attendance in South African schools is generally high but some schools are struggling to provide continuity of learning because of problems with student attendance and engagement.
A stated objective of the relatively new CAPS curriculum in South Africa is to develop critical thinking. This is an important step in the right direction, though a strategy needs to be developed for how this can be achieved.
I recently spoke to a number of schools throughout the country as a guest of Thinking Schools South Africa (TSSA), a non-profit organisation encouraging and resourcing the teaching of effective thinking in schools.
Faced with these problems, TSSA has developed several principles that seem, to this international observer, quite effective. These principles (the phrasing is mine) include:
a commitment to work collaboratively with local and international universities, academics, schools, teachers, communities and other relevant bodies including government organisations;
adopting a broad theoretical approach that is informed by and inclusive of existing successful practice;
- driving systemic change that makes learning visible and goes beyond the “tips and tricks” mentality found too often in educational environments; and,
- a commitment to teachers and schools that includes ongoing training and resourcing over a well defined developmental cycle.
This is intended to produce sustainable, whole-school transformation through globally tried and tested methodologies involving local communities of practice. TSSA-affiliated schools and teachers become part of the TSSA Network to support and train others.
There are many advantages available to students who can think critically. One significant but overlooked advantage is that it develops resilience.
Students who have an ability to think their way through problems, a confidence in their ability to do so, and who can apply critical thinking skills to understand their circumstances and explore options open to them are more likely to successfully navigate through their school years.
Within the context of South Africa’s complex social and economic challenges and opportunities, resilience is likely to be a vital virtue.
Teaching critical thinking
There are a variety of approaches to developing courses in critical thinking though it’s preferable that critical thinking pedagogies are used in the delivery of all subjects. In this comprehensive model, students are taught the explicit skills of thinking as they learn their discipline knowledge.
But as teaching Mathematics, Science or English is not just about knowing the subject matter but knowing how to teach that subject matter (called pedagogical content knowledge), so too the teaching of critical thinking is about more than just knowing some useful thinking tools.
It’s not enough to know about critical thinking, you have to know how to teach for it. It’s difficult to create students who are critical thinkers without teachers who are critical thinkers.
Teaching someone to surf by just handing them a surfboard seems less than optimal, as does teaching students to think by simply delivering worksheets. Without knowing what to do with them, without an insight into their purpose and function, goals falls short of being realised.
In the case of surfing, it also helps to have a beach. In critical thinking, it’s about the community - social, educational and institutional.
This is the advantage of the TSSA approach, and all approaches that focus on working collaboratively and inclusively to build capacity in schools, teachers and communities for sustainable and effective teaching and learning.
Like a language, critical thinking is not something you can learn alone. The best way to produce a critically thinking student is from within a critical thinking community.