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Critical thinking – Why do we want students to be capable of it, but not use it?

Many claim to recognise the value of teaching ‘critical thinking’, but seem less inclined to welcome any ideas that actually deviate from the consensus view, observes Harley Richardson

Harley Richardson
by Harley Richardson
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Secondary

It’s often claimed that schools don’t do nearly enough to encourage young people to be critical thinkers.

We face numerous problems on a global scale, of which the most profound may be climate change. It’s argued that we should equip future generations to solve these issues, so it follows that we need youngsters brimming with intellectual curiosity; individuals who are able to assess evidence dispassionately, fearless about asking difficult questions, open to a range of perspectives, braced with problem-solving strategies and unwilling to accept the status quo.

I wholeheartedly agree about the need for critical thinking. I also happen to think that schools do a much better job of fostering it than they’re given credit for. My bigger concern is with the culture in which young people are being raised, and how receptive it actually is to critical thinking.

Intellectual intolerance

If ‘critical thinking’ is being practised in the real world, then one might expect to see people holding opinions that diverge from received wisdom. By that logic, the recent rise of cancel culture – whereby it’s become increasingly acceptable for adults to be silenced, in one way or another, because of their views – ought to concern anyone with more than a rhetorical interest in encouraging independent thought.

What use is it to promote ‘critical thinking’ in schools if, as adults, we’re unwilling to entertain unorthodox, potentially challenging views? The long-running arguments around climate change are especially prone to the intellectual intolerance that’s come to be associated with cancel culture. While it’s entirely understandable that people are passionate about such an important issue, it’s still disappointing to see disagreements about it that often resemble a grotesque, vicious parody of what collective critical thinking should be.

Shrill accusations, mudslinging and default assumptions of bad faith do little to illuminate the issues involved.

Science versus policy

Teachers, however, are in a strong position to help young people step back from the melee, make sense of the noise around climate change and contribute in a more positive way.

At the root of much of today’s ill-tempered discourse is a conflation between ‘climate science’ and ‘climate policy’. Climate science describes physical mechanisms and their real-world impact, while climate policy concerns our response to rising temperatures.

We can see this conflation in action whenever someone claims that ‘The science tells us we should do X…’ Yes, science can tell us what is, but it cannot tell us what ought to be, or how best to get there. That is the realm of politics, in which we are all able to participate.

Teachers can help to disentangle this intellectual mess by clearly explaining the distinction between science and policy. In doing so, they will be showing their students that the former doesn’t necessarily determine the latter – that there are a range of possibilities and options flowing from the physical state of the planet, and that it’s unlikely our imaginations have already exhausted all of them.

They might consider exploring open questions, such as whether industrial development might be the cause of, or solution to our problems. Can carbon reduction policies be reconciled with the aspirations and energy needs of the developing world? Do nuclear power and fracking have a role to play in our national energy policy?

Sadly, however, this science/policy muddle has fed into the new Natural History GCSE, announced in April 2022 as part of the government’s Sustainability and Climate Change Strategy. While the DfE acknowledges there are ‘different views and opinions’ on how to address climate change, their proposals treat government policies such as sustainability and ‘Net Zero’ aspirations as axioms – assumptions on which everything else is based.

Will students of the new GCSE be encouraged, or even allowed to apply their critical minds to said assumptions during lessons? The new subject appears to treat young people as mere executors of a government plan, with critical thinking desired only for determining the best approach to implementing it.

Scared of ideas

Any students nursing doubts regarding the overall direction of travel will have likely found that raising any questions at all regarding climate policy is to risk being labelled a ‘denier’ and/or spreader of misinformation.

It’s a label that’s been promiscuously applied to everyone from advocates of outright junk science, to those who happen to have different ideas around how climate change can be meaningfully tackled. It’s become an all-too-tempting means of discrediting those one disagrees with – a form of rhetorical leverage that comes at a cost to critical thinking.

Using the authority of science to write off opinions we disagree with in this way impoverishes the range of ideas to which young people are exposed. Teachers could therefore perform a valuable service by explaining the fallacy of ad hominem arguments, encouraging students to ‘play the ball and not the man’ and reminding them that different ideas are nothing to be scared of.

Deeper insight

Professor Mike Hulme, author of Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, has previously argued that, “Our discordant conversations about climate change reveal at a deeper level all that makes for diversity, creativity and conflict within the human story – our various different attitudes to risk, technology and wellbeing; our different ethical, ideological and political beliefs; our different interpretations of the past and our competing visions of the future.”

In that spirit, teachers could encourage aspiring climate activists to engage, in an open-minded and critical fashion, with the ideas of mainstream environmentalists such as Rachel Carson, Naomi Oreskes and George Monbiot, as well as those of ‘policy deniers’ like ‘sceptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg, ‘ecomodernist’ Michael Shellenberger and ‘energy humanist’ Alex Epstein.

Grappling with the different outlooks and rationales of these authors would give young people a deeper insight into the issues at stake, and provide them with a stronger basis for developing their own ideas around the future of humanity and the environment.

Risks and benefits

With protests regarding the impact of environmental policies on ordinary people proliferating in countries as diverse as France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka and the UK, it’s more important than ever that we, as adults, apply our critical thinking abilities to the problem of climate change and debate the full range of possible solutions, in good faith and with open minds.

In doing so, we would set a positive example for young people. And if we can manage that for a topic as contentious as climate change, it would demonstrate that our claims regarding the importance of critical thinking aren’t just empty words.

Harley Richardson works in education technology, helps organise events for the Academy of Ideas Education Forum and blogs about learning through the ages at historyofeducation.net; follow him at @harleyrich

‘Climate change on the curriculum: teaching or preaching?’ is just one of over a hundred debates at this year’s Battle of Ideas festival, which takes place at Church House in Westminster on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th October. Free day passes are available for school students – for the full programme and ticket information, visit battleofideas.org.uk

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