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Critical Thinking: Fostering curiosity and questioning skills in African schools

Thu, 10 Dec 2020 Source: Leo Igwe

Can critical thinking be taught in primary schools? Is it possible to get children at early stages of their education to exercise their critical faculties? In this piece, I answer in the affirmative.

I try to illustrate how critical reasoning skills can be nurtured in primary school pupils in a way that adds value to education. Children are curious by nature. They are gifted with the thirst to learn, and inquire, to know and understand. But in most cases the school system fails them.

Schooling slowly kills or dampens their sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness. Critical thinking skills are too important to be ignored or overlooked especially by developing countries.

If Africa must realize its full potentials. African countries must take critical thinking seriously. African nations must become critical thinking societies. Africa must invest in critical thinking programs. Africans must begin very early to nurture these skills and values in their children.

African countries need to make the subject of critical reasoning a part of the school curriculum. The World Economic Forum has noted the importance of critical reasoning to human development. It identified critical thinking as one of the most important job skills for the global economy. So it is pertinent to find ways of fostering this important skill in children and other young persons.

Incidentally, the definition of critical thinking does not make the task of teaching the subject in primary schools easier. Critical thinking is defined in ways that appear to make the subject elusive, and inaccessible to school pupils especially those in African countries where English is spoken as a second language or not spoken at all. And this has to change. Students from all cultural backgrounds should learn and imbibe the culture of critical reasoning starting from the primary school level.

Critical thinking is defined as the ability to conceptualize, analyze, synthesize and evaluate information. It is the tendency to think clearly and rationally about one's action, experience and belief. But the question remains: how does one communicate this value to primary school pupils? How does one nurture this ability in children who are from non English speaking cultures?

After examining the various definitions, I operationalized critical thinking in terms of asking questions or ability to ask questions. Surely, there is more to critical thinking than interrogation of ideas. But generation of questions provides an elementary understanding of critical reasoning that pupils could relate to. It makes critical thinking teachable and deliverable in primary schools.

Thus critical reasoning is a subject that nurtures the capacity of pupils to generate questions from whatever they see, hear, touch, smell or taste. It gets pupils to regard anything that they see, hear, touch, smell or taste as an object of curiosity. Now in primary schools, there are already programs that foster verbal and quantitative reasoning. So how does critical reasoning relate or differ from these reasoning modules? And what value does critical thinking add to other subjects?

Like verbal and quantitative aptitude programs, critical reasoning aims to nurture the minds of pupils and nourish their intellect. It provides them the competences that they need to meaningfully navigate the world and make sense of their everyday life and experiences. While quantitative reasoning inculcates basic mathematical skills, verbal reasoning nurtures the ability of pupils to read texts, form sentences, write and comprehend written passages.

Whilst critical reasoning fosters the ability of pupils to question and interrogate issues.

Now questions feature in subjects that are taught in schools. Don't they? Of course, they do. So what is unique and of interest in questions and questioning within the framework of critical reasoning? Look, in other subjects questions are used to test knowledge of subject matters and materials.

Questions are asked to examine and assess the comprehension of a subject or a topic. Simply put, questions are asked to elicit and extract answers or solutions. But in critical reasoning, questioning is the main activity and exercise. Questions are asked for questions' sake.

In fact, questions are answers and answers are questions. While other subjects impart knowledge about nature, culture, society, science and technology, critical reasoning raise questions about the knowledge claims that these disciplines make and present.

It is pertinent to note that critical reasoning makes a case for a different understanding of the mind and the learning process. The school system is predominantly guided by the idea that the mind is a Lockean tabula rasa, a blank slate, where knowledge and information through the senses are registered or stored. So the mind is a memory box, a storehouse of information.

Learning is a process of acquisition and reproduction of knowledge and information. Teaching entails making available as much information as possible to students and pupils who are expected to store them up in their minds and reproduce them during examinations.

In critical reasoning, the mind is seen as an active processor not a passive receptor or register of information. The mind engages what is presented to it. It does not merely absorbs things, it faults and scrutinizes them. Learning happens through examination, interrogation and evaluation not mere memorization of information received. Critical thinking is opposed to rote learning because pupils are encouraged to actively apply their minds to whatever they are told or taught.

Now there have been some concerns about the critical reasoning text/subject. Some have said that critical reasoning is verbal reasoning in another name. This is not the case. As I have earlier noted the main focus of critical reasoning is to generate questions, not statements, and to identify gaps in received information including verbal reasoning texts.

In critical reasoning books, there is very little text and a lot of space for exercises. This is deliberate. The limited texts and ample spaces for exercise are meant to discourage memorization and to induce active application of the mind to the various tasks. Some have asked if the texts are a form of workbook. Yes, they are workbooks but not strictly so. The texts are workbooks with special focus on getting pupils to cultivate the habit of generating questions.

Also some have inquired if critical reasoning texts are copy or writing books because several pages of the lower primary editions are devoted to copying and recopying of examples. No, the texts are not copy books even though there are provisions for pupils to recopy and rewrite questions. Critical reasoning is a distinct subject, not an extension of verbal reasoning.

It complements verbal reasoning. Other subjects that are offered in primary schools are heavily text based and require pupils to memorize, and demonstrate understanding by answering specific questions. Critical reasoning departs from this model of teaching and learning by making generation of questions, not answering questions or reproduction of memorized texts, the true test of knowledge.

Columnist: Leo Igwe