Why our students are not critical?
Willy A Renandya, 29 June 2022
Critical thinking is a highly valued 21st century skill. Not surprisingly, critical thinking skills have now become a must-teach learning point in the L2 curriculum and other subject-curriculum (e.g., Science, Maths and Humanity subjects).
One of the key reasons is that there is so much information that students need to process, some of which is useful and accurate while the rest may be inaccurate or downright incorrect or even misleading.
So students need to learn how to sift through information, critically evaluating the source of the information, the credibility of the authors and making informed decisions about what is worth keeping and what is not.
Another important reason has to do with our survival and progress as members of the human race. Without critical thinking, we may still be stuck in the dark ages where progress was nearly impossible to take place. The many breakthroughs in Science and Technology, for example, are made possible by critical and innovative thinkers of our time who can think out of the box, so to speak, and come up with new ideas and creations. The impact of these breakthroughs has to a large extent improved the well-being of the human race.
The big question is this: Have we been successful in teaching critical thinking skills to our students? Perhaps yes, to a small extent.
Repeated empirical observations seem to suggest that we’ve still got a long way to go. The way we teach continues to be quite traditional, often characterized by the presence of an authoritative figure (the teacher) who sees their main job as that of dispensing or transmitting knowledge to their students.
A more dynamic pedagogical approach (e.g., inquiry-based learning or problem-based learning) however is rarely adopted in the classroom. Experience and research tell us that when teachers make use of this student-centred pedagogy, there is a higher chance that students may be more willing to explore ideas at a much deeper level, to ask more higher order thinking questions whose answers can’t be found in the classroom and to work collaboratively with their peers to find novel solutions to authentic problems, etc.
In other words, when students are regularly engaged in knowledge-seeking and knowledge-expanding behaviours, they might be able to fully utilize their thinking skills and with guidance from the teachers, gradually develop their critical thinking skills.
However, even before we teach critical thinking skills using a student-centred pedagogy, we need to know a few important facts about how our brains work. This will help us understand why people (you, me and our students) are, generally speaking, not terribly critical. Here are three things about our brains and what we need to do to get our brain cells on fire.
Our brains think really fast
Our brains run on auto-pilot most of the time. Research tells us that our brains are very efficient in processing information (things we see and hear). We perceive new information really fast and check it against old information we have in our head equally rapidly. We then make a lightning speed decision as to whether to give that piece of information more attention or to just ignore it. All this is done in a split second.
Can we slow down our thinking? Yes, we can. We can train our brains to process incoming information more slowly. One way to do this is to develop greater metacognitive awareness of our own thinking (i.e., that we tend to think too fast) and use simple tricks to get our brains to decelerate by asking ourselves questions such as “Am I thinking too fast? What is the text trying to say here? Is the information useful/important for me?” etc.
Our brains are ‘lazy’
Our brains don’t usually enjoy spending too much cognitive energy. In other words, they don’t enjoy hard work. Hard work as we all know is very tiring.
However, our brains start to work harder and do some serious thinking when we experience some sort of cognitive disequilibrium (e.g., something is not right here, I’ve never seen or heard anything like this before, that’s a creative way of solving a stubborn problem, etc). Or when we are genuinely curious about something (e.g., I have always wanted to learn how to write a best-selling novel, I really want to know how to learn a new language really fast, etc.).
One way to make our brains work harder and perhaps more critically is for teachers to design a lesson that sparks students’ genuine interest and curiosity. This often involves finding a nice balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Familiar topics are not very brains-friendly in the same way that unfamiliar topics may just result in total confusion. Teachers can also design their lesson using a problem-based learning principle. Tasks that require students to solve real world problems (e.g., how to reduce food wastage, how to stop school bullying) are a great way to get students to make use of their thinking skills.
Our brains become paralyzed when we are bewildered
Our brains become paralyzed when what we see and hear is incomprehensible. When we are totally confused or at a complete loss, we can’t think clearly. This often happens in a second or foreign language classrooms when students read a super difficult text where they can’t make any connections to the contents because the topic is too technical, too complex and way above their heads.
To get students to be more cognitively active, we need to use texts that are at or slightly above students’ linguistic competence. When students are not experiencing linguistic difficulties, they are more likely to focus more on the text content and process it at a deeper level.