Critical thinking – A crucial skill
As a soon-to-be teacher the phenomenon of university students not being able to express their opinions on everyday matters such as news or elections is quite frightening. It is my personal belief that this problem can possibly be derived from the years spent in school, especially high school. Unfortunately, today’s Hungarian education system is not interested in children’s personal thoughts or point of views, it is only interested in scores and grades. Our teaching methods usually do not promote critical thinking.
The average situation is that the teacher talks and students listen. The teacher tells students what to believe and what to say on an exam or what to write on the exam sheet. In the worst case scenario they dictate it word by word. This experience nurtures students not to develop the ability of critical thinking, which should become a basic skill for everybody who wants to succeed on the job market and in everyday life, or an even simpler example: an oral exam. This wrong attitude of teachers could be responsible for the high number of dropouts. Most students encounter the problem of forming their own opinion about a scientific topic at their first university exam. They are used to the method of ‘studying bulimia’, which means they learn the material word by word, write it on a piece of paper, read it out loud, get an excellent grade and go home. That is not going to happen on an average university exam. In the very first minute people have to answer to questions that require the seeing of connections and the critical evaluation of the given or learned information. In many of the cases, when a professor asks a question from university students in class, they sit still and do not care enough to answer, or at least try to answer. How will these people behave on a job interview? These experiences made me decide earlier on that I want to teach my students the skill of critical thinking.
Teaching this competence requires the teacher to let students solve the problem their way. It can start with little tasks, such as answering open-ended (not yes-or-no) questions. The hardest thing would be to make students speak. It is crucial that we know what the class is able to answer to and to make the class believe that we are interested in their opinion.
On the other hand we need to take the subject into consideration. In a biology lesson it is hard to let children interpret the information their way, but they could find some parts of the information themselves and evaluate whether their source is valid. But the teacher could still manage to give them tasks that involve critical thinking. For example making a presentation on deforestation and on what kind of animals it endangers. Or create a poster about his/her favourite topic in biology and present it to the class. Naturally, in the fields of literature or history the teacher has an easier job. Asking the students what they think about a certain poem or other literary work could really improve critical thinking. Many literature teachers demand their exact opinion in an exam and fail the student if he has a different approach. I believe that this era of teaching has long passed. In other fields, such as history, the question of which event led to another can frequently be asked. These way students could understand the news and political connections better, could become a more aware citizen and could learn more from their ancestor’s mistakes.
Of course, the teacher needs to be open-minded enough to accept the students’ own point of views. Additionally, he must be diligent and intuitive to develop newer and newer exercises on his subject. It could be hard at first, but the teachers can learn into it with the students together. We should let students come up with tasks of their own as well. This makes them more self-efficient and also promotes different approaches to one subject.
Many argue that elementary school students and kindergarten students cannot form opinions of their own. I refuse to believe that this is true. Children are way smarter than people think. If you ask a child, why her shirt is blue today, she is going to give you a valid explanation. Valid for the child, at least. How would it benefit a child if we said to her that you are wrong, you did not have any reason to put that blue shirt on today, you are just making things up. That child may never answer you honestly again and these experiences can grow into the problem of a whole generation.
If a child is able to express herself, than it seems that this skill fades away in later years. But why is that? Is it the parents’ or is it the teachers’ mistake? This question cannot be answered correctly. I would say both. The parents should let kids have a say in home-matters such as what should they eat, or what they would like to wear, or they could ask them more detailed questions about their day and the things of the world. Parents could also make news-watching a habit, so that children would be more aware of what is happening in the world.
The most important task of the parents and of the teachers would be not to let the skill of critical thinking disappear. Our responsibility as teachers is to let students have their own perspective, even if sometimes they have the (in our opinion) wrong side of an idea, or an attitude different from ours. Of course, they will make mistakes, many of them, but at least they will not be afraid to have an idea or to express their thoughts. We can really make a difference here. We can change the way a generation thinks. I would like to see a school system that really educates for LIFE and I believe that promoting the competence of critical thinking is the closest we can get to this ideal.