C is for Critical Thinking

This is the third extract from this week’s featured Book of the Week  The A-Z  Guide to Working in Further Education by Jonathan Gravells and Susan Wallace. Today’s entry is C for Critical Thinking – a subject close to our hearts!

Thinking skills are now part of the school curriculum, and so most school-leavers who enter FE will have experience of this (although in some it may not always be apparent). Thinking skills, as a subject, usually involves problem-solving and classroom discussion, and is seen as means of developing cognitive acceleration , especially in the sciences. It may include lateral thinking exercises, such as those devised by Edward de Bono (b.1933); or an approach known as philosophy for children , developed by the American, Matthew Lipman (b.1922), where ideas and anomalies are explored through the discussion of stories. But what do we mean by critical thinking? Sarah explains to Raj and Zoe:

SARAH: You’re both going to be teaching on HE courses next term. Most of the learners will have come up through the FE route. They’ll be hardworking and motivated. They’ll have good cognitive skills. And one of the things you’ll be doing with them is to help them develop their critical thinking skills. This is about encouraging them to think not just about what, but also about how and why. It’s about being analytical, and questioning things, and looking for the possible flaws in an Argument or theory.

RAJ: That’s quite difficult, isn’t it? Because up to this point most of them have experienced a curriculum where things are either right or wrong. A right way of doing things and a wrong way. Competent or not competent. They’ve not really been required or encouraged to question things.

SARAH: That’s right.

ZOE: So that’s going to have an impact on the way we teach, isn’t it? Much more discussion, I guess. And more in-depth questioning.

RAJ: And building up their confidence to think critically. That’s going to be the big thing.

ZOE: I’m really looking forward to it.

Critical thinking, then, is really a set of skills: the ability to analyse an argument and find its strengths and weaknesses; the ability to distinguish fact from opinion and to ask questions about ‘why’ and ‘how’ rather than simply accumulate facts. It’s about having the confidence and curiosity to ask questions, weigh up alternatives, and solve problems. The largely competence-based curriculum of much FE provision does not appear on the face of it, as Raj points out, to place much emphasis on this critical and questioning approach. But critical thinking is an essential skill for practitioners and managers working within the sector,and certainly becomes an important component of higher level and professional qualifications.

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