Schools and teachers have a tremendously influential role in shaping society. At a time when the world is changing at an unprecedented pace, education systems all over the globe are grappling with defining the knowledge, skills and competencies that will be most important, and the teaching and assessment practices that will best prepare young people for the future.
We want our schools to help create thoughtful, capable, caring and resilient young people. We want students to be personally and socially responsible and to grow into engaged global citizens. We want students to be effective communicators in a wide range of mediums. We want students to be knowledgeable, active learners; to be creative, and to be able to think critically. Some would add characteristics like collaborative, entrepreneurial and adaptive. Few would disagree with any of these important competencies and certainly they are interconnected, yet as educators we may be better at compiling lists (and making posters) than setting clear priorities. What really is most important in our world today?
While schools celebrate kindness and inclusiveness and condemn bullying, and encourage characteristics such as open-mindedness, integrity, honesty and responsibility, our world is brimming with hypocrisy. Corporate and government leaders and decision makers frequently model aggression, greed, bullying and deceit. Several of the planet's most influential nations forcibly suppress dissident thought. Others, including Canada, eagerly trade with nations that engage in systemic human rights violations, aggression and cheating in business, in athletics and in international relations. The Cold War supposedly ended in 1991 yet American and Russian relations are as illusory and strained as ever. The most powerful democracy on earth has elected a leader who uses social media daily to harass, rant and ridicule. A president who rails against the "fake news" media, openly questions the veracity of science and climate change and has created an environment where divisiveness, prejudice and closed-mindedness have all gained momentum. In many parts of the world, desperately needed global collaboration is being shunned for wall building and self-serving nationalism. If the economy is strong, nothing else matters.
At the same time, the Internet is the place where people all over the world get 'news' and exchange ideas and the volume of information that is uploaded every day is almost incomprehensible. "Over the last two years alone, 90% of the data in the world was generated. There are 5 billion Internet searches every day and almost half of all searches are conducted on a mobile phone." Even more mind-boggling is the advancement of artificial intelligence and the impact this will have on society. AI will disrupt the future. 'Smart' devices and robots are in our homes now, facial and voice recognition are evolving rapidly and machine learning algorithms are getting smarter. AI will take over all repetitive human tasks and that is only the beginning. AI will read human emotions, predict and mimic human voices and behaviours and most significantly, learn. The looming possibilities of quantum computing are infinite and so are the consequences. So what is real, what is fake, what is important, and how do we know?
In this context, it seems to me that the most compelling competency we need to build in all students is the ability to think critically. All humans think; it is our nature to do so; however, much of our thinking can be biased, incomplete, uninformed and even prejudiced. Yet the quality of our lives and of our world will depend precisely on the quality of our thought.
I am not sure how much thinking students are required to do in school and at what level of sophistication, and this would include students achieving the highest grades. As teachers and educators, can we readily describe how we teach thinking? Are we explicitly building critical thinking and questioning strategies in all of our learners? Perhaps embedding inquiry, thinking and research skills and strategies across all curricula is the answer? Alternatively, perhaps we need to include explicit teaching on thinking, similar to the Theory of Knowledge curriculum in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme? Students need to be taught to thoughtfully gather and assess information, recognize personal, cultural and ideological biases, and to be aware of themselves as thinkers. Students need regular opportunities to reflect on and defend their thinking and what they know, consider their own biases and to research and present alternate beliefs and ideas.
In the end, students' abilities to be personally and socially engaged, to communicate effectively, to be collaborative and creative, indeed, to be effective global citizens, will be directly dependent on the quality of their thinking.
Are we doing this well? What do you think?
The Critical Thinking Consortium https://tc2.ca
The Foundation for Critical Thinking https://www.criticalthinking.org