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Teaching Critical Thinking Skills has Never Been More Important

As society becomes increasingly divided along binary lines, developing young people’s skills in rational and analytical thinking is essential, suggests Ian Stock...

  • Teaching Critical Thinking Skills has Never Been More Important

Some years ago when it still ran a print edition, The Independent adopted the strap line: Great Minds Don’t Think Alike.

I used it as the motto for the A Level critical thinking course I was running at the time.

One of the enduring contradictions of formal education is that we spend so much time promoting convergent thinking.

That quest to Get Things Right seems to be one of people’s enduring memories of school, but the rest of life is nowhere near so black-and-white.

The increasing emphasis on exam performance has only reinforced this: more and more time has been spent second-guessing marks schemes – in other words, a preordained position.

At a time when our nation has been at its most disparate for many years, I’m not sure this is entirely helpful.

The withdrawal of the critical thinking A Level in 2018 went little-noticed.

Repeatedly criticised for its supposed lack of ‘content’, it fell foul of Gove’s directive to Ofqual to focus on subject content.

Apparently this proved impossible to reconcile, so there has been no alternative but to withdraw the courses.

Know better

I have no beef with the view that people need to know things: my main subject, geography, remains fact-heavy.

But I also know that facts held in a vacuum are merely factoids: it’s what you do with them that counts.

Critical thinking provides a rationale for one’s knowledge – and other thinking – that is essential no matter what one’s other subject preferences.

Students frequently told me how useful the skills were in their wider studies.

Questions of ‘fact’ and ‘proof’ are just as relevant to scientists as they are in the humanities.

The restraint which CT develops is both intellectually prudent and more widely useful.

The ability to assess information dispassionately is not easy to acquire – but the detachment that it cultivates is valuable when passions might otherwise run high.

It is worth remembering that this is neither about cynical negativity, nor the wanton destruction of opponents.

The skills of the rational mind are equally applicable to oneself – and an appreciation of the limits of one’s ability to ‘know’ anything is a valuable form of self-restraint, that can also promote understanding when others reach different conclusions.

The Philosophy of Thought has long been an integral part of the International Baccalaureate, while many of our universities also continue to promote CT skills.

This is why I think it is tragic that the direct teaching of CT is no longer possible, just at a time when a mature civic debate is needed more than ever.

I would also dispel the perception that the subject is only relevant to the academically able.

It has been used with young offenders, for example, reportedly improving self-esteem and the ability to resist negative peer pressure and role models.

Active integration

So what is to be done? The chances of bringing back the exam subject are slim, but the value of CT can be harnessed by deploying it in other lessons.

It probably already happens, unnoticed, though that relatively few teachers seem fully aware of how CT works – so there’s a short summary of the main skill below, and an example of how they can be integrated into other teaching in the panel beneath that.

Of course, there is far more to the subject than I can hope to cover in one short article, but I hope I’ve managed to give an impression of how CT can both strengthen our ability to scrutinise arguments, and to ensure that our own are coherent.

What’s more, I’ve found that it also improves students’ use and understanding of language: it is essential to use words carefully when analysing logic, and appreciation of nuance is valuable in reaching proportionate conclusions.

Critical thinking: An overview

The main areas of focus:

  • Understanding the logic of ‘argument’ (see below).
  • Assessing the strength of the reasoning which supports arguments.
  • Understanding the flaws that can weaken arguments.
  • Forming appropriate judgements and reconciling the conflicts that are sometimes created.

Embedded in the above are some basic psychology, and a number of philosophical constructs.

Understanding the logic of argument
‘Argument’ does not mean a row, but the way in which a case is assembled with the intention of persuading us that it is correct.

CT identifies the building blocks of such logic, such as:

  • Conclusion: the single underpinning point which an argument is trying to persuade us to accept.
  • Reasons: the supporting points that are made in order to give the conclusion logical coherence that will lead to its acceptance.
  • Evidence: Real-world information drawn on in order to support reasoning. This can be in the form of examples, numerical data, diagrams, testimony, estimates, personal observations and factual claims.

There are a number of additional concepts which are used as devices to persuade, such as hypothetical reasoning and counter-argument.

The former attempts to persuade that a certain outcome is likely, therefore justifying a certain course of action or thought.

The latter is a tactical strategy, which anticipates and concedes opposing points before showing why they can be discounted.

In all cases, elements of argument can be identified by their ‘signpost’ words. In the case of conclusions, words like ‘therefore’ are a giveaway, while reasons are often prefaced by ‘because’.

Hypothetical reasoning uses ‘if-then’ structures, while counter-arguments can be seen by ‘despite…’

Critical thinking in action

A Year 8 geography course included a module on the Geography of Disease; the many dilemmas that the issue presents were ideal ground for integrating CT skills.

For example, one lesson concerned the controversy over the MMR vaccine.

The resources for the lesson consisted of sheets covering the range of opinion on this issue, in a range of formats.

The session began with a short introduction to CT skills: the notion of conflicts of opinion, some of which have severe consequences, and the fact that not all information is equally reliable.

Students had to decide whether they would give a child of their own the vaccination. They were given a sheet with a set of balancing scales drawn on it.

One side was labelled ‘for MMR’ and the other ‘against MMR’. They then had to read the various sources, and decide which side of the scales each belonged on.

Once they had done this, they were required to weight each piece of evidence with a mark out of five, depending on how ‘strong’ they considered it to be. (They were given short coaching on ‘credibility of evidence’ before beginning).

The final step was to add the scores to find the stronger case. This was of course simplistic, but it created scope for a fruitful whole-class discussion on whether their conclusions were to be trusted, in which the prior activities gave learner an ability methodically to draw on evidence with which to support their views.

The result was a more considered conclusion than if the students had made their usual ‘dash’ for their preferred points.

Ian Stock taught geography for 30 years in Brentwood, Essex. His book The Great Exception was published in February 2018.

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