The psychologist Margaret Mead once said, ‘Children must be taught how to think, not what to think’.
We are living in a world where children are using the internet at an increasingly young age and the media is becoming ever more powerful, so the ability of young people to think carefully about the world around them and to be able to critically assess the information they receive is important. The ‘Critical Thinking’ course in Year 7 and Year 8 aims to introduce King’s pupils to some of the key ideas in critical thinking to help them to be able to evaluate the information they are given as well as to formulate and express their own opinions.
The Critical Thinking course is unusual in that there is no subject content; instead, it is about developing the pupils’ abilities as thinkers. According to Robert Ennis, Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois, the ideal critical thinker is someone who is clear, focused and precise in their thinking. They always look for reasons and fact to support their opinions and behaviour, as well as considering alternatives. They are open-minded and reasonable and make decisions based on fact and reason rather than on assumptions or prejudices. The critical thinking lessons are designed to encourage these ways of thinking, by presenting the pupils with a series of challenging stimulus materials and tasks, often working collaboratively. There is little in the way of conventional ‘schoolwork’: lessons tend to be active and discussion-based, often involving debates where the pupils’ views and opinions are valued as much as the teacher’s. There is also a great deal of creative thinking. Pupils really enjoy the lessons because there is rarely a ‘right answer’, they find the debate energising and they have the opportunity to work on collaborative projects.
This year, critical thinking lessons have involved a range of activities including, in Year 7, working as groups to create their own country, complete with its own currency, language and national produce. This encourages pupils to think deeply and discuss issues of nationality, culture, identity and democracy. They also created their own political parties within school with their own manifesto and slogan. Debates at various points in the year have included topics on the role of the monarchy, the value of the internet and whether Christmas should be banned. Pupils have also had the opportunity to consider texts about injustice, for example extracts from Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, and to reflect on how they can be active citizens to prevent injustice in the world around them.
Critical Thinking lessons also introduce pupils to situations where they need to weigh up likely guilt and culpability, based on evidence – and pupils really enjoy the chance to create their own courtroom! In doing so, they are introduced to important ideas about credibility of evidence and people, and why some people may be less credible than others. They also look at bias in the media, such as newspapers, so that they understand that they should definitely not believe everything that they read. We want our pupils to question accepted truths and to be both open-minded but also sceptical where relevant, which in a world of ‘fake news’ is becoming ever more important.