Far from being the latest buzzword in education, Critical Thinking is probably the most crucial skill in the information age. In this article, written by members of the TRC staff, we discuss what critical thinking is, how you can start incorporating critical thinking skills in your classroom and our IQLQT project, through which we hope to impart critical thinking skills in classrooms across Pakistan.

Critical Thinking beyond the jargon

If you are associated with the field of education, you have, in all probability heard the terms ‘Critical Thinking’ and ‘Higher Order Thinking Skills‘. You may have dwelled on what the terms really mean and if you took the time to Google them, the Internet probably threw up a host of definitions such as, critical thinking is: reasonable and reflective thinking aimed at making a decision regarding what to believe or do (Ennis, 1985) or critical thinking is the art of analysing and evaluating thoughts in order to improve. (Elder and Paul, 2008) While both these definitions are accurate, as are the many others that are floating around the Internet, we believe that the term deserves a more in-depth description.

So what exactly is critical thinking sans the jargon?

Let’s look at an example. There is a popular classroom activity that teachers often do with young children. They show the children a series of pictures that tell a story and then they ask them to predict what will happen next. If you are a teacher you may have done just such an activity. But when you got to the ‘predict what happens next’ stage, how did you expect the children to make the prediction? Did you expect them to pull out a slip of paper with an ending written on it from a random box full of suggested endings? Or did you expect them to toss a coin to decide the ending? The above methods of prediction do not classify as critical thinking.

Why? That’s because the child hasn’t really engaged in thinking at all. Critical thinking takes place when you are expecting the child to think about the ending and give a good reason for what might happen when, for example, big grey clouds start filling the sky on the day of a picnic, or when someone forgets to take the cake pan out of the oven. When a child starts to explain what he thinks will happen and builds an argument for it (instead of pulling out a random slip of paper), he is beginning to think critically. When a person thinks about how he is thinking and why he is thinking that way, he is actively engaged in the process of thinking critically.

Critical Thinking: The natural next step

At TRC, we have always been fascinated by how the human mind learns. That’s why since our inception we have been doggedly focused on replacing rote learning with active learning. The emphasis in all our workshops and in our Early Childhood Education Programmes has been to stimulate interest and understanding amongst teachers to make an effort to get children to learn by doing, as opposed to senselessly filling their minds with facts. Children lucky enough to be in an active learning environment, get the opportunity to explore their surroundings through observing, researching, listening, moving their bodies, touching, and making things happen with the objects that surround them. And we can now safely say, that in the age of Google, when obtaining facts (or a host of facts) is just a click away, our persistent focus on active learning is making more and more sense than ever before.

At TRC we have known for a long time that actively engaging children in learning, logically leads them to think actively about what they are doing. This is a key component of Critical Thinking. In a very basic sense, we can say that critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally after having weighed varied options and solutions to questions and issues. That is why, when the Open Society Foundation set out to find a partner for the IQLQT (Improving Quality of Learning through Quality of Teaching) project, TRC seemed like a natural choice.

The IQLQT project seeks to promote critical thinking in Pakistani classrooms. The aim of the project is to build a repository of lesson plans based on critical thinking across the ECE and Primary age range; we will discuss the project later on.

Traditional classrooms vs. Critical Thinking-infused learning environments

Let’s take a look at what happens when you enter a traditional classroom where teachers continue to teach according to long established methods. In such a classroom, the teacher is most likely focusing on transmitting knowledge (facts) to students who are expected to learn everything passively through the lecture. The children are probably sitting in rows and working individually, focused intently on recalling and memorising the terms and the concepts they have been taught. They only practice a few skills, such as reading, writing or numerical skills and that too in isolation.

All the students in such an environment are expected to learn the same information, at the same pace and at the same time. Both the students and teachers rely heavily on textbooks and worksheets. The students will most likely be engaged in product-oriented, closed-ended tasks, which do not require a broad range of life skills. The outcome is that students can only recall memorised facts, without a deeper understanding or application. The students are not expected to challenge anything that they are taught, in this assembly-line approach to learning. Finally all the students are assessed in the same way with specific expected responses.

On the other hand, a classroom in which a teacher has made the effort to get students to learn actively and to think critically, children are encouraged to work with concrete material or ideas and build on what they already know. They work cooperatively in pairs, groups and also individually and they raise questions to learn things more deeply. They are also encouraged to interpret the information in their own way. In such a classroom the teacher provides her students with opportunities to express and present their learning in different, creative ways and each student learns at his or her own pace and capacity.

Learning is integrated and linked to real life experiences and students rely on primary sources of information, manipulate materials and construct their own knowledge through real life situations. The students are engaged in different process-oriented tasks such as problem solving, analysing, evaluating and experiencing a wide range of life skills. Students also learn to observe, compare, analyse and evaluate facts instead of passively accepting the way they are presented. Also they are assessed in different ways, such as: individual portfolios, group projects, journal entries, self-assessment checklists and narratives and making individual or group presentations. Students challenge their own ideas and others’ ideas and ask each other thought provoking questions.

To be fair (and because we think critically and don’t just condemn) the traditional method of teaching has its uses and is very convenient and useful for passing on large chunks of knowledge and information. Teachers who teach using this method require less effort and time to prepare lessons. The method also allows them to handle and assess a large number of students.

On the other hand, when you begin to infuse critical thinking methods in a classroom, you help children develop problem-solving skills, which in turn increases their self-confidence and self-reliance.

The following examples of topics and how they are taught traditionally versus how they could be taught using critical thinking methods, should further clarify the distinction.

Measurement: In a traditional classroom, students learn different units of measurement and as an activity, measure different objects in the classroom. When critical thinking is embedded in the lesson plan, the students not only measure the objects, but also discuss the purpose of measurement, where they see it used in their day-to-day lives, the importance of standards of measurement and the various ways in which we could measure something.

Plants: The children look at the picture of the plants and learn the names of different parts and their function at a stretch. When critical thinking is incorporated in the lesson, children are engaged in observing and comparing different types of plants and their parts and their uses. They also discover through observation what plants need to grow, how plants might evolve and what we might do if we somehow found ourselves without plants in the future.

Environment: In a traditional classroom, there is a focus on the information given in a textbook. With critical thinking, the students not only identify the factors that adversely affect the environment, they also analyse their personal practices and suggest ways to create a sustainable environment and conserve natural resources.

Spark off Critical Thinking in your classroom

You can almost instantly spark off the process of thinking critically on an average day, such as today! About the only thing you need, is a curious child (read ‘all children’) and you are good to go. Here are a few tips that you can start using right away.

1. When a child seems to be struggling with something, give him or her some time to solve the problem. Do not present him with the solution to a problem immediately.

2. Support children and help them cultivate an image of themselves as observers and problem solvers. This will enable them to start asking questions and searching for answers.

3. Ask children questions that enable them to observe and also present their viewpoints.

4. Enable and help children to engage in estimating and in making and checking out their predictions.

5. Support the development of children’s self esteem so that they feel able to compare and contrast different viewpoints.

6. Teach children about the importance of research and discovery.

7. Offer various instruments for classification.

8. Offer children the opportunity to talk and discuss things amongst themselves.

9. Offer children the opportunity to brainstorm ideas.

This list is far from exhaustive and has only been put together to help you get started with incorporating critical thinking skills in the classroom.

Are you and your students thinking critically?

In order to be able to teach children to think critically and to recognise that someone is using higher-order thinking skills, teachers and parents should also be able to think critically.

The most obvious sign that someone is using higher-order thinking skills is that they rely on reason rather than emotion and they look for evidence to support what they think. Having said that, when critical thinkers embark on a quest, they do it in order to get to the correct explanation for something. They are never looking for evidence that will merely prove that they are right.

Critical thinkers also tend to be more self-aware. They are likely to consider that a study, a situation or a person might be influenced by personal motives and bias. At the same time they also recognise that they may be making assumptions, or harbouring their own prejudices and biases.

Critical thinkers also tend to be open-minded. They consider a variety of possible viewpoints or perspectives and remain open to alternative interpretations and explanations. They don’t buy into a viewpoint just because it is popular, or reject something because it is unpopular. They also avoid snap judgments.

The IQLQT Project: A Labour of Love

Since January 2014, TRC has embarked on an exciting one-year project with the Open Society Foundations (OSF). A team of Working Group members has been working hard to develop relevant teaching and learning material designed to promote critical thinking skills in the average Pakistani classroom. The exercise has been an exciting learning experience for our Working Group members themselves.

In a nutshell, we are hoping that the endeavour will ultimately reach Pakistani teachers, who in turn will be able to read through a lesson plan infused with critical thinking and understand it and implement it without the need for expensive training. They would then, hopefully fairly effortlessly, be able to impart the valuable critical thinking skills to their students. The project is currently being pretested in a selected number of private and public sector schools and modules are being developed simultaneously both in English and Urdu, before it is translated and implemented nationwide.

The blocks on the road to Critical Thinking

Even though in principle, most people would agree that learning to think critically is a good thing, it takes a huge effort to teach in this way, which is one of the most common barriers that critical thinking faces in classrooms around the world.

In a world obsessed with meeting curriculum demands, time constraints are another common barrier to teaching critical thinking skills. As is the general confusion amongst teachers and schools over what the words ‘critical thinking,’ actually mean.

In cultures such as ours, there are also other barriers to critical thinking, such as, a general tendency to discourage questioning our teachers and also elders. In such an environment developing teaching-learning resources infused with critical thinking methods, becomes an even greater challenge. However, this is a challenge that we at TRC take great pride in taking on.

Critical Thinking: The way forward

We live in a world where change is the only constant and things are changing as you read this and every day can throw up new challenges for which we often find no accurate precedence in our lives. In such a world, the old way of merely learning facts and living with them has become redundant. For now we know only too well that facts often change … remember, we once thought the earth was flat, and till quite recently we thought Pluto was a planet.

Teachers and parents now need to approach education with a critical thinking mind set in not just the obvious subjects such as math and the sciences, but also in the less obvious ones such as art and language. We need to equip our children with critical thinking skills in order to take on the challenges of unfamiliar problems, and for that we need to move well beyond crowding our children’s minds with facts. We need to focus on cultivating our children’s self-awareness and also on teaching them how to work with what they know. The benefits of adopting this approach to education will become apparent when our children have to take decisions or look for solutions in their lives.

Decisions and solutions that have been processed through a critical thinking filter will not only benefit our children, but also the people they will work with in the future and also the societies they will live in.

Contributors: (in alphabetical order)

Nighat Hasan
Shahrezad Samiuddin
Tabinda Jabeen

September 2014