CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS.
Nina MK, Ph.D.
Many educators now believe that a curriculum aimed at developing thinking skills in general may benefit the learner, the society and the world at large. Let us look at the various ideas and stages and try to understand what critical thinking may mean for education. Every year during the entrance exams, I see the same large slogan hanging down the local university main building: “We’ll teach you how to think!” Is it indeed possible to teach students not only a certain set of skills, a volume of knowledge as specified in the national curriculum, but also to evaluate the said knowledge and to be able to apply that in real life? Moreover, can we teach them how to think about their own thinking processes?
• Stage 1 is learning how to use the critical thinking approach to oneself, the teacher. How many teachers check their own knowledge of a topic before introducing it to their students? Does it even occur to a person with several years or even decades of experience to do it? In our system, a teacher is more or less God. If a pedagogical university instructor mispronounced or misused a word, most listeners would go on into their own professional life and do the same, perpetuating the mistakes. Heaven forbid teachers are corrected at a lesson. The most powerful tool in the classroom is of course the class manual, the journal. A student may get a bad mark for “interrupting” the process; there may be a notation about “disruptive” behaviour; parents may be called. Children learn fast. A colleague made her whole class recite in a chorus, “It aches to move”. When I was a beginner teacher at the university, I was made to visit a senior colleague’s lesson. At the end of each lesson she would say with a nice smile, “And now ze last sin”. I politely tried to correct her after a session, and acquired an enemy for life. At a school Olympiad I asked a leading teacher why she counted a correct answer as a mistake and subtracted points from a very good essay. “But I’ve never seen such an expression!” My many experiences taught me a few things, and now I restrict myself to listing some glaring examples of teacher mistakes at every teacher refresher course or at a workshop, and suggest that they use a dictionary or an educational site
• Stage 2 is teaching your students to use critical thinking while learning. If you manage to give them the basics, they may use those acquired skills later in life and achieve considerable success in whatever they are doing. For instance when you start a new topic, underline all the words which have more than one meaning, and explain to your students that in English most words have more than one meaning. For instance when they learn the words which describe a face, you may tell them that nose may be used as a noun and a verb. Cheek is another word worthy of mentioning. “He/she has cheek” shows us that it is an idiom because there is no article and the singular form is used. Spend a few seconds on a game, ask your students how many cheeks they have, are they classified by size, big and small, or by sides, left and right. Proceed to the ears, elicit the responses: left and right. And then ask them if they also have left and right lips which will immediately result in laughter. Aha, but when you ask them how to denote the two lips they will flounder trying to use the familiar “up and down” notion which clearly does not apply here. Once you turn the sometimes boring process of learning the new lexis into a game it will become easier to remember the topical vocabulary.
• Stage 3. The main question children ask once they learn to speak is probably “Why”. Why do we need to learn this topic? Why should we learn those grammar rules? Why must I study English if I may never use it in my future life? The answers are many and various. True, the internet, the ability to read in at least two languages broadens up one’s horizons immensely. But let us remember that an absolute majority of school children in the world (85%) list communication with their peers as the main reason for attending school. Primary school children are often brought to school by their parents, so they come into the classroom a few minutes before the bell rings. Teenagers are quite independent. They often come to school once the building opens, sometimes a whole hour before the lessons begin. The sole motivation is often the desire to meet their friends, not necessarily from their own classes. One of the ways to motivate students and to help them develop their thinking skills is through communication. Find an international project partner, arrange a correspondence with the same age group in a different country or another region of your own country. Another way is working through an individual student’s interests and aspirations. I would bring various texts into my classroom for instance and distribute them among students to read, understand and comment upon. Thus we would all benefit by listening to a future paediatrician, a specialist in bees, and an avid car lover at the same lesson. Watching their own peers present their findings on diverse topics is good motivation for the whole class.
• Stage 4. While we may acquaint our adolescent students with the main principles of critical thinking and help them interpret, analyse, evaluate and apply their new knowledge in life, it is equally important to explain that critical does not mean criticise. Many students would refuse to speak up and express their ideas for fear of ridicule. If a teacher has a habit of scolding or making fun of a child who happens to make a mistake, then any attempt at developing critical thinking will fail. Younger children would not be able to formulate their resentment so they would keep silent. Teenagers would indeed internalise, as in they would build up whole speeches against a teacher in their heads. The feeling of resentment may only grow; it is never a good companion to successful learning.
• Stage 5. If we manage to teach our students how to think, how to approach the new data creatively and how to apply their knowledge in the future, we may produce some very productive members of any society. Consolidation will then become a life-long process of using one’s education for the greater good. It is never possible to predict which skills exactly will be most useful, as we have no way of knowing how this or that branch of science, this or that area of human activity may develop. Look at the internet and its amazing growth. The ability to think, evaluate and re-think if/when needed is a great skill which we may foster and nurture even in very young children.