Nicola Walsh emphasises the need to develop critical thinking in youngsters

We hear so much about the four ‘C’s in education: communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. As former US President Barack Obama explained in his speech to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March 2009, these are the skills we must ensure our children learn.

He said: “I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs, to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem solving, critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity.”

So how do we develop these skills in our children and teachers?

Communication, collaboration and creativity are relatively easy to facilitate in a classroom. However, the development of critical thinking as a skill requires careful consideration not least because there is a variety of different interpretations of what this term actually means.

According to an article published on pearson.com titled ‘Skills for Today – What We Know about Teaching and Assessing Collaboration,’ instructors still struggle with what critical thinking actually means.

Further, promoters of the importance of critical thinking cannot agree on the relative merits of background knowledge.

Some argue that without a basic mastery of the subject knowledge, it’s impossible to be able to think critically. Conversely, others believe that the disposition required for critical thinking can be acquired with limited banks of knowledge.

Is it a disposition or skill? There is no strong consensus of opinion.

Nonetheless, there are elements common to all definitions. Simply put, we need to be creating learners who can ask questions of the information they’re given, use the knowledge they have to think beyond the task and work independently. They need to be critical about the sources of knowledge and check them routinely, before making judgements and taking decisions.

Robert Fisher – who is a leading expert in developing children’s thinking skills – says that thinking is not a natural function like sleeping, walking and talking. Thinking is a skill that needs to be developed, he stresses. Children need to be explicitly taught to think; teachers need to train children to think.

In a modern classroom, teachers must allocate time for thinking and model it themselves. Therefore, understanding how we learn skills through metacognition is important in helping this process go forward. Skills such as resilience, reciprocity, resourcefulness and reflectivity also need to be developed.

Concentration can be developed through practice. Board games, sports, learning a musical instrument, reading and puzzles at the right level of ability can extend a learner’s ability to focus.

Questioning is key to developing an enquiring mind in a child, which is why children should be encouraged to ask questions. Adults who ask children questions that they themselves don’t know can recognise the value of a child’s thinking. The child can see that the adult is taking him seriously. Questions such as ‘How are we going to do this?’ or ‘What’s the best way to solve this problem?’ include the children in finding answers.

Developing a curious mind in students should be the aim of a good teacher. We must ensure that teachers develop a critical attitude to knowledge within learners. They need to routinely question the reliability of evidence – for example, ‘Are you sure?’ and ‘How do you know that’s true?’

Teachers must model critical attitudes to knowledge so that learners know to consider the source and reliability of evidence. They should learn to evaluate claims in the context of evidence before making an informed judgement or decision.

Good teachers can facilitate critical attitudes to new information and develop thinking as a skill. Both are more important than the subject through which they’re taught. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 95 percent of the chief academic officers from 433 higher education institutions rated critical thinking as one of the most important skills that students should possess.

In the 21st century, subject knowledge can be easily sourced, and it is the job of a teacher to use the content to facilitate critical attitudes and thinking skills. Learners should be encouraged to reason effectively, think of systems as part of a whole, make judgements, take decisions and solve problems. Students must be able to see the bigger picture and connect the purpose of learning to real life.

As former US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said: “We cannot build the future for our youth but we can build our youth for the future.”

We too need to start building our youth and teachers too.