Critical Crisis

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

Deciding what should be taught in our educational institutions is a key role of educational leaders – and governments. When schooling became ‘a thing’ this decision was reasonably straight forward – the generally un-educated population of young people needed basic literacy and numeracy skills to function well in the industrial settings that were emerging at the time.

In addition, decisions about how teaching occurs is also a key decision. Our industrial-age fore-bears were adamant that young learners were to required to be docile, punctual and sober – as the factories they were being prepared to work in required such dispositions and would not tolerate any deviation from the strict processes being followed. Certainly not places that valued creativity, innovative thinking or individualism of any kind.

But that’s in the past (isn’t it?) – a history we are all familiar with (we assume!). Certainly, if one examines the educational rhetoric of governments and ministries of education around the world, together with the vision statements on school websites, we are assured that the operation of our modern education system has transformed to reflect the demands of our modern world – now and into the future.

We now see evidence of a more holistic approach to teaching and learning, with an emphasis on skill development alongside knowledge, of competencies and dispositions alongside subjects and disciplines, and of social and emotional health alongside cognitive development.

Consider the following from the introduction to British Columbia’s curriculum redesign page:

Today we live in a state of constant change. It is a technology-rich world, where communication is instant and information is immediately accessible. The way we interact with each other personally, socially, and at work has changed forever. Knowledge is growing at exponential rates in many domains, creating new information and possibilities. This is the world our students are entering.

This statement resonates with me – apart from the final sentence. This is not simply a description of the world our students are entering – it’s a pretty accurate description of the world we are immersed in right now!

While it may be seen as splitting hairs, my concern is about the binary mindset this sort of statement can subtly convey. By thinking that this is a description of some ‘future state’ that our students will grow into, we can subconsciously end up separating out the lived reality of those responsible for nurturing these young minds – the teachers and parents – and thus ‘excuse’ them for not yet demonstrating the sorts of capabilities that enable them to thrive right now in this present reality.

How often do we hear things like, “AI doesn’t really affect my life, but it will be important for my students/child.” or “I stick with reliable news sources such as the newspaper and TV, but am concerned about what it will be like for my kids who get theirs on social media”. etc. We cannot divorce ourselves from this idea of what the world is going to be like for our kids – it’s here now!”

My pondering here was prompted by two recent events. First, I listened in the past week to presentations about the intent behind the NZ Curriculum refresh, and the design of the NZ Histories curriculum as a part of that. In each I was struck by the emphasis given to shifting from a mindset of the curriculum being simply ‘stuff’ that needs to be learned, to include far more critical engagement with that ‘stuff’, be able to see things from multiple perspectives and to demonstrate skills of empathy and collaboration in finding common ground in complex issues etc. As important as learning about specific events is in history, for example, we need also fo focus on the ability learned through critical engagement with these facts to be able to think like an historian (or scientist etc.) Through all of the ensuing discussion, it was the highlighted need for critical thinking that resonated most.

Secondly, I read this morning the latest discussion paper from CSE’s Leading Education Series Paper 03 “Assessing countries’ competencies. The 4D index: ranking of skills, character and meta-learning” by Charles Fadel.

This report provides a fairly comprehensive overview of how 51 jurisdictions (including New Zealand) are addressing the education of competencies. The competencies defined here are the 12 competencies identified as part of the 4D Learning Framework for the goals of education.

The thing that caught my attention in this report is the placing of New Zealand, relative to the other countries. Overall, for all 12 competencies combined, NZ comes out reasonably well, in the top 50%, as shown in the graph below:

Areas that NZ did particularly well in were mindfulness, ethics, metacognition, growth mindset, curiosity and resilience. Other areas we were nearer the centre, hovering around the mid point on these graphs. Two areas however were markedly low – critical thinking and communication – see graphs below:

As I ponder the significance of these graphs my mind is drawn to a number of questions. What definition of these competencies being used, and whose definition is it? What data was used to inform this survey? How valid was it as a measure of our countries performance? And so on.

But then there’s another thought. If the measures here truly are representative of NZ’s performance in teaching these competency areas, then why is it that these two in particular rate so low?

And, considering critical thinking in particular, if this is indeed one of, if not the most important cognitive capability we need to see developed in our young people, then were are needing to focus more attention into the future? What must we be doing to improve this fundamental capability through the design and implementation of our school curriculum?

Some big questions circulating in my mind then are:

  • what are we currently doing to develop critical thinking and communication skills in our programmes of learning in school?
  • how is these being demonstrated? How are they being reinforced and encouraged?
  • how is critical thinking demonstrated among the teachers in your context? i.e. in relation to programme design? In ways of working with students? In staffroom discussions about the introduction of innovative practices?

One thought on “Critical Crisis

  1. As well as the undoubted importance of critical thinking, Michael Hewitt-Gleeson, the still active Australian founder of the School of Thinking in 1979, together with the late Edward de Bono, would add and emphasise the importance of lateral thinking in an age of change and innovation. This is quite a different process. It is teachable and allows individuals and teams to first escape from their present mindset before employing other cognitive tools, including but not only critical thinking, in the pursuit of meaningful goals.

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