Developing Critical Thinking Skills: Solid steps to start the Journey

Developing Critical Thinking Skills: Solid steps to start the Journey

We all have heard about Magellan - The Portuguese sailor credited for being the first person to circumnavigate the world.  Our encounter with Magellan mostly would be in our early school years. The expedition he made on behalf of Spain was taught to us as a proof, that earth was round. We learned that Magellan and his team started moving West and ended back at the place where they started. (Magellan had died before the ship returned)

I learned this in my early school days, may be as an eight or nine-year-old child, but I still remember the one that went up from behind my desk. One of my friends had a question. He stood up and asked. ‘Sir, how do we know that he did not lose his way and that is why he ended up in the same place?’ He was curious. I distinctly remembered the teacher’s face. It had the can-he-be-anymore-stupid emotion writ across. The teacher smirked and looked around. The meaning of the facial expression was very clear. ‘Students, hope you all heard this stupid question. Hope none of you have any more liked these.’ My friend slowly put his hand down and sat down. He knew his question was not welcome. I don’t remember him asking questions in any of the classes that I was a part of.

What do you think the teacher did?

He killed his curiosity. He lost an important opportunity to develop his critical thinking ability, not to mention the mental agony inflicted on a small child.

We have heard plenty about critical thinking as an important skill, more so recently.  How do we define critical thinking?

‘Critical thinking is the process of analyzing a topic or a problem deeply, based on relevant information.’[1]

The recent NEP (National Education Policy) also underlines the importance of critical thinking.

‘Education Policy lays particular emphasis on the development of the creative potential of each individual. It is based on the principle that education must develop not only cognitive capacities - both the ‘foundational capacities ’of literacy and numeracy and ‘higher-order’ cognitive capacities, such as critical thinking and problem solving – but also social, ethical, and emotional capacities and dispositions.’[2]

Reduction in curriculum and changes in assessment methods are noted in the same document; some practical methods would help you to help develop this skill.

As you can imagine, these steps will take time. As parents, educators and managers, do we need to wait to get started? How do we develop critical thinking skills in our kids, students and team members, Right Now?

From my experience, I am going to suggest three ways. In no way this is comprehensive, but it will give us all, a good foundation in the journey in critical thinking.

1. Encourage questions

This is very straight forward and many of us would think, ‘I have never stopped anyone from asking questions. But they just don't ask. The point here is ' What can you do better to make it happen? Create a culture of asking questions. As small children we always had questions.  Why things happen this way and why not in a different way? Somewhere down the line, we lost that curiosity.

How do you help students, children, employees or anyone you would meet ask questions?

  1.  By asking them to ask questions
  2.  By deliberately creating space, time for them to ask questions
  3.  Rewarding those who ask questions and
  4.  Reminding them that every question is valid.

Every question is an opportunity to learn, use it.

2. Ask open ended questions

From True/False and Yes/No, to questions that would create a healthy conversation.  Questions may not have the one absolute answer, which is fine. The idea is to bring out the different perspectives from your audience. What do you think would happen if India would have a presidential form of elections against the current one?

In the incident I mentioned earlier about Magellan, it is said that he just kept travelling west. One open ended question that could help students think more would be to ask – What would happen if he had decided to travel East instead of West?  Would he have reached his destination? What would have been the outcome?

As you encourage more questions, it is necessary that you answer the questions or guide them towards answers; if you don’t know the answer that is fine. Take if offline or ask the students to find it and help them with resources. This will generate more learning.

3. Devise Project based learning(PBL) approach

Teachers and managers can devise the exercises or projects in a way that help apply theory into practice through active exploration. Designing such projects help in multiple ways. Students come together, learn how to work as teams and appreciate different perspectives. Students learn more when they face practical challenges in application of their learning. PBL makes learning fun too.

The Critical Thinking Journey

In short, we may not need to wait for big changes to happen in the curriculum to help our kids and students to start developing critical thinking skills. Small steps that I mentioned above will lay a solid foundation in that journey.  Let’s take this one together.



About the Author

Sanjay Gopinath heads Marketing & Communications at MathWorks India.  He shares his experiences and learning through blogs and speaking and mentoring sessions. The author can be reached at Views expressed in this article are of the author and not the views of his employer.

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