Critical thinking – A vital skill in the age of the machines

Cartoon illustration of young woman and humanoid robot both using laptops, representing critical thinking

Chris Griffths reflects on why critical thinking is the skill that today’s students need the most if they’re to thrive in a post-AI future…

Chris Griffiths
by Chris Griffiths

In science fiction, humans and machines haven’t always gotten along.

Most media depictions of artificial intelligence tend to revolve around killer robots and dystopian futures. And yet, like it or not, real AI is already entering our everyday lives. And it will continue to do so at incredible speed.

The good news is that the AI we’re currently dealing with in the real world isn’t likely to come in the form of vengeful robots any time soon. But it certainly will change how teachers teach and learners learn.

Given the revolutionary shifts to come, it’s important that we’re able to think creatively and openly about what skills will best equip students for a future we can’t quite fully imagine yet.

That means arriving at a balanced view of what AI actually is. Alongside this, we need to foster the crucial human skills – particularly critical thinking and creativity – that will serve students best when it comes to working with these new technologies.

So without further ado, here’s how we can teach students to question the machines, and develop the kind of critical thinking skills required to do so effectively.

The robots are coming

Without doubt, the AI technology that has generated most attention this past year is OpenAI’s machine learning tool, ChatGPT. This is a chatbot trained on a vast amount of data, which enables it to answer queries, provide information and even spit out high level academic essays.

Given the latter point, it’s hardly surprising that this particular manifestation of AI has caused quite the stir in education circles. While the issue of AI-enabled plagiarism is perhaps one for another day, from a big picture perspective we should not only look at what tools are available today, but also at what will be available in the near future.

In the absence of a crystal ball, no one can say definitively what will happen in the coming decades. But there are some aspects of AI which we can expect to progress rapidly. These include advanced machine learning tools, like ChatGPT and its ilk, becoming more accurate, efficient and increasingly context-aware.

Another area to watch is the development of ‘hybrid AI’. This seeks to blend two aspects of existing AI technology. This results in tools that can aid queries requiring both data analytics and reasoning skills. In other words, an improved, even more in-depth version of what we already have.

Bespoke learning

However, the areas of AI development we should perhaps be paying most attention to are:

  • Neuromorphic Computing (NC)
  • Reinforcement Learning (RL)

NC will see a move towards a type of AI functioning that more closely mimics the human brain. This allows for increased efficiency and decreased power demands. This is something that will make AI integration ever more seamless and accessible.

RL, on the other hand, refers to AI that’s specifically designed to be agile and adjustable when working with individuals, usually with a specific goal in mind. There is a wide range of potential applications for this type of AI, given its scope. It could be used for recreational purposes, such as personalised video gaming, but also to help students learn.

With the AI able to identify areas of weakness and adjust accordingly, it would be well-equipped to offer a bespoke learning experience.

Important critical thinking skills

So what does all this mean? In simple terms, that we will see AI get bigger, faster and more integrated within our daily lives. This might unfold in a way comparable to the adoption of mobile phones, or it may be even more dramatic.

Some have even suggested that the ushering in of the AI era will be comparable to the invention of the steam engine.
Part of being ready for these changes means admitting that we can’t know everything. This is one reason why lifelong learning will be crucial for the next generation.

In a world where AI is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, the capability to demonstrate resilience and flexibility will be more essential than ever.

Those students who are aware they can never know everything, but who enjoy the pursuit of knowledge regardless`, are the ones who will flourish most.

Within that there will be specific areas we need to consider, ranging from digital literacy to the development of strong communication skills and empathetic faculties. Critical thinking is perhaps the most important of all these skills, though even that may change in a post-AI world.

Speaking the language

At present, we can understand critical thinking, in simple terms at least, as the ability to evaluate, question and contextualise a concept in order to engage with it fully.

Given that AI is able to store vast quantities of data in ways humans aren’t capable of, the emphasis of critical thinking in future will likely relate more to emotional perspectives, idea creation and decision making.

All being well, the next generation will benefit from working in collaboration with AI, rather than by trying to compete with it.

That said, it’s important to note that AI is certainly not infallible, and very much capable of making mistakes. In fact, there’s evidence showing that it could replicate human biases.

There’s also the possibility for AI to be used by bad actors for malign purposes, such as aiding the spread of misinformation.

In the here and now, however, educators can help to prepare pupils by talking frankly about AI in the classroom. Highlight both its benefits and limitations, and encourage open discussion about the ethics that underpin it.
Debate, problem solving, and the stoking of curiosity – these will all be essential here.

Indeed, we could witness a change in the very nature of pedagogy in our lifetimes, given that the attainment of information in itself won’t be enough for success in future. Instead, it will be how a person engages with information that really matters.

Creative power

Critical thinking, as we understand it, will start to encompass modes of communication between AI and humans. Currently, the prompts a user inputs into a tool like ChatGPT will affect how helpful its output is. As AI gets increasingly smarter and more personal in terms of how it interfaces with us, this won’t apply as much.

Instead, AI will learn how to adapt to us as individuals. This is why we must encourage students not to become complacent, but be active in their engagement with both AI and the world around them.

“This is why we must encourage students not to become complacent”

Pupils who grow to know their own values, and who come to believe in their own creative power, will be able to make the most of themselves in a world where AI as become much more dominant.

It can feel scary to be an educator at a time of great cultural upheaval. But their role has become more important than ever.

The skills that today’s pupils will need in this new era are the same ones that teachers themselves will need in order to nurture them.

That means moving beyond a black and white curriculum, and operating with greater flexibility, resilience and an open mind. We must learn to question the machines, but also remain curious and alert to their potential for augmenting – rather than eradicating – human ability.

Chris Griffths is founder of the AI-powered mind mapping app Ayoa, a keynote speaker and co-author with Caragh Medlicott of The Creative Thinking Handbook (£16.99, Kogan Page)

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