November 2, 2020

Thinking critically

A classmate asked the following questions during one of my tutorial last week:

  • What is critical thinking?
  • How do we learn to think critically?
  • And if it can’t be taught in the traditional way of knowledge transfer, then how can educators teach it?

Those were interesting questions, especially given the complexity of our world now.

Critical thinking is an important skill for everyone. Not just to excel in our jobs, as important as that may be. But also to be able to cut through all the noise surrounding any given topic.

For almost any issue you can think of, you will be able to find different perspectives. Some will tell you that Option A is better. Others will tell you that Option B is better than Option A. Still, others will even ask you to consider Option C.

How then, do we take our stand? And to come to a conclusion for ourselves?

I think this is when critical thinking comes in.

You need to come to your own conclusion. Not to take someone else’s opinion, perspective or conclusion for granted. Even if the person might be a well-respected figure.

So I think learning how to think critically starts when you refuse to take for granted any perspective regarding any issue without first exploring the nuances on all sides of the debate. We then start the process of learning how to think critically by examining the different sides of the debate for ourselves.

As we reason, we also have to question the sources that we read. Are they from well-trusted sources? Even if they are from well-trusted sources, what’s the motive behind the source? Is there any hidden agenda?

I think I’ve had more time this year to read up, listen and watch things about different complex issues of our day due to lockdowns. And I realised that there is more to the issues than meets the eye. I’ve learnt not to take any article or content for granted. And I think the mainstream view might not always be the right one. Well, that’s controversial, perhaps.

But my stance on the issues is not important.

What’s more important is that you come to conclusions for yourself. Read widely. Listen to people with different perspectives and background. Examine their motives. Then think about the issue yourself and ask yourself where you stand.

I think that’s why critical thinking can’t exactly be taught. As educators, we could remind students to read widely. We can remind them to keep exploring other perspectives that are different from theirs.

But by attempting to teach critical thinking directly, we fall into the danger of trying to push our perspective on students. That would have contradicted the whole purpose of critical thinking.

So yes, we can’t teach critical thinking. But we can encourage and help build an atmosphere that supports healthy debate and arguments from different perspectives. And agree to disagree with each other when there’s a need to.

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