Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. It can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behaviour. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills (“as an exercise”) without acceptance of their results. (Michael Scriven & Richard Paul)
In the primary classroom
Children in the primary classrooms bring with them all the ingredients that a teacher requires to nurture the art of critical thinking. They are highly motivated, eager to explore the world, enthusiastic about everything around them and like a sponge, ready to absorb anything you choose to give them.
There is a misconception among many teachers that critical thinking cannot be developed in the early years. But, nothing is farther from truth. Even a simple story, like that of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, lends itself to critical thinking. It depends on what kind of questions the teacher asks at the end of the story. If she asks the name of the girl in the story, then probably no thinking would be required. But if she asks the students to give the story a different ending or if it was right on the part of Goldilocks to enter a stranger’s house and touch the things inside which did not belong to her, children will think of new and unusual ways of responding to them. The students could role play one of the characters and let other children question them on different aspects of the story. In either case, they will be compelled to think differently and critically on issues like ‘right and wrong’, ‘justice’, ‘empathy’, ‘kindness’, etc., without necessarily knowing these terms.
Stories, simple experiments, games that children play – all of these are fertile grounds for critical questioning and thinking, provided the teacher pre-empts, sees those questions coming and places them before the children.
That brings us to several critical questions with regard to our education system.
Does our system allow for such expressions?
Are we too bound to syllabus and curriculum, even in the primary years?
Are our teachers critical thinkers themselves?
The last question is perhaps, the most crucial. Because no matter what the system or syllabus, there is always room to bring in thoughts and ideas that are not stereotypical in nature. There is always scope to make a subject or a situation exciting and interesting.
But, are our teachers critical thinkers? For, it is implicit that a person, who cannot think critically, who cannot question the status quo, who does not read, who takes things for what they are, cannot arouse critical thinking in others.
Most teachers in traditional schools do not push themselves into moving up the ladder of thinking skills nor is there any compulsion from the system to do so. The ‘strait-jacket’ ideas of imparting education, inflexibility in the prescribed curriculum, scarcity of resources, poor access to technology and lack of training and time add to the difficulties in acquiring these skills.
Therefore, it boils down to the individual teacher. If the teacher is evolved in her thinking, has understood the true meaning of education, is willing to take intellectual risks and constantly pushes herself out of the comfort zone, updates herself with innovative ideas, she manages to make her classrooms vibrant, thought-provoking and ensures meaningful learning – both for herself and her students.
Yet, it is imperative that this process becomes widespread among teachers. It is important that schools create a platform for teachers to get together, have discussions on subjects and topics that matter, offer resources like books and access to internet where a wealth of ideas can be found. Above all, the teacher must have an inclination to do more than just the job of teaching; she must critically think about the purpose of education and explore ideas that make the world more interesting and consequently, present ideas interestingly in her classrooms.
Correspondingly, the teacher has to design creative lesson plans with tasks and situations that lead the children to think analytically and creatively. Also, thinking of a discipline in isolation limits thought. Teachers have to find ways to connect different subjects with each other. Like, geography with math, science with English. Critical thinking empowers a teacher to make such connections.
Here is one project in which I got groups of children to think critically and give us some unusual and heartening outcomes of learning.
I worked for an organization where we supported the government school children with meaningful education in collaboration with the schools they were in. One such group of children wanted to work around the theme of water. The process started with a problem question – why were the girls more frequently absent from school than boys?Exploration began with the group going out and making a survey of the amount of water used in the family for different purposes beginning with their own homes and then in the village. They studied the various sources they got water from. The girls were given the job of fetching water from these sources on certain days and these took hours. Forcing them to skip school. The group discussed solutions, brainstormed ways of saving water in their own homes, visited a popular Rain Harvesting Agency, saw how people could save rainwater and use it for domestic purposes. The group designed and set up a mini rainwater harvesting model at their learning centre. They studied water as part of their subject and built a 3-D model of the water cycle, the design of which was lauded by many teachers, educators, and visitors.
A documentary on my village
A group of 10 to 12-year olds were discussing maps with me. These children had not used a map in class ever. The process of understanding maps began. I asked them to draw a route map from the learning center to their home. We checked for accuracy of the maps, direction, distance, and everything was subjected to discussion and questioning. One child then asked if the village had a map. The map hunt ended with finding a map stuck on the wall of the village panchayat office. Since it could not be brought down, the outline was laboriously traced over three days. Children tried to identify the lake, the fields, and other physical landmarks and decided to create a 3-D map made of water, fiber and clay. One group went about the village taking pictures of important spaces in the village including lifestyles and occupations of people to create a powerpoint presentation. The cream of an idea came when one of the children suggested making a movie on the village. They filmed different areas in the village, talking to people, capturing moments and situations. The 30 hours of footage was then down loaded on the computer, edited, given music and narration, subtitled and crunched into a 12 minute documentary! All this by children, with me and other volunteers merely facilitating the process. One of the children, after the project, said, ‘Earlier, to me, my village meant my school and my home. Now I know that the lake, the market, the roads and the fields, the people, they are all very important part of my village and I care for it all.’
These children did not just learn the subjects but felt it, critically questioned ideas and learnt in a manner that gave them lifelong learning skills. Art, theater, music, film making, all became a part of their learning; and critical thinking and questioning was integral in their learning process.
Teachers need to get out of the existing mould and create new thinking for themselves first, and children next. Our obsession with getting only the right answers has led to the death of thinking in our schools. Eleanor Duckworth has said, “Virtues involved in not knowing are the ones that count in the long run. What students do about what they do not know, will in the final analysis determine what they will ultimately know’.
Critical thinking, with its consistent attempt to help us live rationally, reasonably, empathically, embodies the Socratic principle: The unexamined life is not worth living, because we realize that many unexamined lives together result in an uncritical, unjust, dangerous world.
I am often amazed by the questions children ask and the thought process they carry out to answer some of ours. Their responses are innocent, humorous, yet often profound and thought-provoking. Though spontaneous, these answers make you wonder how the child arrived at an answer which sounds so right. What the child displays is what we call ‘critical thinking’ – a quality that every human is born with, but somehow doesn’t flower to its full potential in spite of the years of education we put the child through.
Let me give a gist of a few of my countless such tête-à-têtes.
World is colourless
My two sons (then, 10 and 7) and I were toying around with a prism in the balcony of our house one night. It gave us a massive thrill to look at the streetlights through the prism and see light split into different hues. As a consequence, questions followed – why do we see so many colours through the prism? Why are we unable to see the split colours with our eyes without the prism? Are the colours really there? There were a lot of questions and a lot of explanations and the conversation veered to the subject of light. Without my giving them the ‘right’ answers there was a discussion on the role of light in our ability to ‘see’ the world around us and all the colours in it. Just then the lights went out, thanks to the power cut, and everything was plunged into darkness. And in the dark, after a minute of silence, I heard my son’s amazed voice saying, ‘the world is colourless!’
Death is like sleep
Children’s questions on life and death sometimes unnerve you, especially when you are the parent and you wonder why your children talk of such ‘dark’ subjects. So when the dreaded question came to me – what is it like to die – and I pondered on how best to answer the question without expressing fear, my younger son, then 8, who heard the query, said, “Death is like sleep at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. If a bomb were dropped you wouldn’t know. That’s how it is. It’s like sleep!” I wondered at the wisdom in that idea of death. So simple. So true!
A glass of water
As a teacher, I have come across different kinds of students and just as many ways of thinking. In one of my geography classes, we were discussing tides. They were 11-year olds and I had popped a question that made them think. The question was – Why did the water rise equally on the opposite side of the earth when the pull was on one side, when ideally, water should rise only on the side of the pull? I had drawn the tide diagram on the board. I asked the children to think of any wild reason for this. There were absurd and funny explanations that gave rise to bursts of laughter. One response was that all the fish in the waters at the side it was being pulled fell to the other side and made the waters rise on the other side! At last, one boy (who had never fared too well in any of the subjects) said that it was like having a glass of water that is full. If I jerked the glass down, the water would get thrown up. That is probably what is happening to the water on the other side of earth. As a teacher, I could never have thought of such a simple, beautiful, and relevant explanation to that query myself!
It is not unusual for adults, who have great expectations from children, to be unable to understand the meaning of their own ideas. For instance, we expect students to respect us. But can we define respect in our own words? More often than not, we have borrowed ideas and principles which we have not examined and analyzed ourselves. At best, we preach them – without thought. Here is one definition of respect I received from an 8th grade girl, “Respect means understanding the concept behind someone else’s beliefs; not necessarily agreeing or following, but understanding and feeling compatibility”.
These instances show that children have an innate ability to ‘reason’, to examine varied and complicated ideas and situations and express them in simple terms and language. The explanations may not always be logical or scientifically accurate, but they ‘make sense’ and are not entirely ‘wrong’ either.
Surprisingly, we find that these responses come out only in informal conversations. The response given in the classroom was under non-threatening circumstances, where even the most absurd responses were accepted as outcomes of a good imagination. However, in normal, daily classrooms, children barely express such ideas. The reason being they barely encounter critical, thought provoking questions that fire their imagination and force them to reason or arrive at a logical response.
The author is currently a faculty member at Indus International Training and Research Institute, Bangalore. She has taught Social Sciences and English at primary and high school and has been involved in designing and conducting teacher training modules. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is a republished article that first appeared in Teacher Plus in August 2011.