Are you a critical thinker – and can you teach critical thinking to students?
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To form mature citizens, education systems recognise the importance of strengthening students’ capacity to think critically, with the aim of exercising judgement using fact-based knowledge on the one hand and adopting an open and inquiring mindset on the other. To achieve this, however, schools need to better integrate critical thinking into their curricula.
A key 21st-century challenge is that critical thinking is needed more than ever in a world of multiple communication channels and new jobs geared towards innovation. Although it is widely accepted that improving students’ critical thinking is an important educational goal, pupils’ ability to perform it from primary school up is lacking. In fact, in formal education, students appear to be insufficiently guided when evaluating, processing and critically reflecting on information. Educational school curricula often place too much emphasis on “what to think” instead of “how to learn to think”. This change requires a major shift in thinking about instructional paradigms, public investments, and policy reforms across school curricula.
Image: Vrije University Brussel (VUB) – Etterbeek Campus, Belgium
In school curricula, on the one hand, critical thinking is often explicitly mentioned as a fundamental set of skills to be developed (such as interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation and self-regulation); on the other hand, it is not very well defined. Thus, first, an explicit reference to the definition of critical thinking should be added to make this goal more visible in each school curriculum. Students perform most effectively as critical thinkers when they have some explicit instruction on critical thinking skills.
The didactic principles of all syllabi should be pupil-centred and based on active learning, so that students can gradually become responsible for their own learning process. Additionally, most curricula should describe the role of the teacher as a facilitator of students’ learning process. However, in a few classroom environments, there is still a teacher-centred orientation based on the transmission of content through traditional lessons organised around the assigned textbook or the set school curriculum, with little regard for students’ input, feedback and discussion.
Nowadays, there is still a gap between teaching practices and the designed school curriculum. More explicit instruction needs to be infused into all school syllabi to make critical thinking visible and create a critical thinking habit among our students. Furthermore, some subjects (e.g., Language 1 and 2, History, Geography, Music, Art, Religious and Ethics Education) contribute most to developing students’ critical thinking, although the skills of interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation and self-regulation can be embedded across the school curriculum, even in places such as the physical education syllabus. This means that the school curriculum offers support to critical thinking, but it should be implemented in a structured manner across all syllabi.
Regarding the approaches to critical thinking outlined in school curricula, it is useful to design a holistic approach across all disciplines. Specifically, critical thinking instruction should be provided in the context of specific subject matter, where the content is related to discipline-specific knowledge, and not with a separate course on critical thinking. I agree with the promotion of critical thinking incorporated in all subjects, across the whole school curriculum.
Lastly, even if there is general knowledge about critical thinking approaches among teachers (e.g., mapping of reasoning, debates, project-based learning, philosophy for children, group discussion, active learning), there is still a need for additional support through teacher professional development in this area (e.g., specific articles, books, workshops, seminars, peer learning, the exchange of best practices). In other words, teachers need to be better prepared in how to teach critical thinking through existing practices, so they can promote and develop it across the school curriculum.
Loredana Lombardi is a Ph.D. researcher at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). Her work focuses on identifying the determinants for promoting critical thinking in educational processes. The aim is to inform educational policy to support teachers in the implementation of critical thinking in the school context. She is a member of the Brussels research centre on Innovation in Learning & Diversity at VUB.