Critical thinking in higher education

by Md Shariful Islam | Published: 00:05, Oct 15,2017 | Updated: 22:17, Oct 14,2017

 
 

In August 2014, I was hired as a teacher in the political science department at the City University, Mogadishu, Somalia. In the honours curricula, a course titled ‘critical thinking’ drew my attention. It was a course designed for freshers. It made me wonder if a critical thinking course is taught in many universities of the global south including Somalia, why not in Bangladesh? Is critical thinking less important for Bangladesh? Surprisingly, when the whole world is embracing critical thinking, it is still absent at the tertiary level education in Bangladesh.
Although the word ‘critical’ sounds negative to many, it is not. Critical thinking is basically an ‘art of reasoning’. It means discerning judgement based on standards. In this regard, Lewis Vaughn defines critical thinking as ‘the systematic evaluation or formulation of beliefs, or statements, by rational standards’. In fact, it is an important skill set that plays a crucial role in everyday life reasoning. It influences one’s thinking and decision-making. More specifically, it means ‘a set of conceptual tools with associated intellectual skills and strategies useful for making reasonable decisions about what to do or believe’, as Rudinow and Barry said.
It is undeniable fact that in this age of knowledge-based economy, there is no alternative to incorporate critical thinking course in our honours curricula. In the past year, I was a scholar with the US Institute for Scholars programme and had the opportunity to visit many American universities. Consequently, I had the privilege to talk with students and teaches and found that critical thinking was a necessary component in the course curricula of American universities.
In this regard, it is pertinent to mention that in her 2017 commencement address, Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, contends: ‘For centuries, universities have been the environments in which knowledge have been discovered, collected, studied, debated, expanded, changed, and advanced through the power of rational argument, and exchange.’ Here comes the rationale of critical thinking. In fact, it plays a crucial role in the higher education context since it helps students to develop critical analysis of contemporary social problems.
It is also argued that ‘critical thinking is a necessary part of the formation of critical citizens’, as Davies and Barnett said. Sadly, in this time of ‘marketisation of higher education’, education is regarded as ‘commodity’ and thus a ‘big businesses’. But we need to keep in mind that humans are not machines and our minds need to be nurtured to encourage the rationale of critical thinking. As for why we need to incorporate critical thinking, one can consider the following reasons.
First, we need to incorporate critical thinking into the tertiary level because in the 21st century, critical thinking skill is regarded as the most demanded skill in the workplace by the employees, even surpassing ‘innovation’ and ‘application of information technology.’ According to the World Economic Forum, in 2020, critical thinking and creativity will dominate among the top skills. In what follows, Davies and Barnett points out that ‘[a]ll educators across all the disciplines are interested-or should be interested-in critical thinking.’
Second, critical thinking is important in empowering people. In this regard, Joel Rudinow and Vincent E Barry contend that ‘critical thinking is empowering and can improve a person’s chances of success... throughout the variety of social roles each of us may be destined to play. As important as critical thinking is to individual well-being, it is equally important to us collectively as a society’. Sadly, there is no presence of critical thinking whether at our personal or societal or political level. This is not also taught or studied in higher secondary or tertiary level education in Bangladesh which merits serious attention.
Third, if one looks at the teaching and learning method of Socrates, one needs to acknowledge about the role of critical thinking. Because, Socrates basically inspired his followers to raise questions first. But today, we hardly inspire our students to raise questions, to come out from their comfort zones and thinking from ‘outside the box’. Instead, we follow conventional teaching method which motivates our students to memorise some information and facts to get good grades and nothing else.
It is, therefore, high time to rethink about our traditional chalk-and-talk teaching method which has been in currency for decades. In fact, how we teach and what we teach need to be problematised. It is high time to come out from ‘memorisation based teaching and examination system.’ In that case, we need to engage our students using the approach called ‘learning by doing’. Presentations, debates, problem-solving by the students on the assigned topics can be an important way.
Fourth, does writing matter in critical thinking? Yes, it does. It helps us to explore our critical thinking, and broaden our outlook and our depth of knowledge. There is no alternative to inspiring the students to think better and write better. In traditional teaching and learning method, students are used to write only on the exam script. The habit of not writing is also observed among many teachers although there are exceptions. During my graduation, I found that my friends and others hardly care about writings.
Our current education system is also responsible for such apathy towards writings. So, we need to problematise the current memorising system and needs to incorporate creative writing and thinking skills. In each and every university abroad, there is a ‘centre for academic writing’ or something like that but in Bangladesh, such centres are hardly found athough they are the crying need. Needless to mention, arguments, reasons, analyses among students become pertinent to become active citizens in our society. In that case, writing plays key role.
Finally, to make our students lifelong learners, critical thinking becomes important. In this regard, Deepa Idani notes that ‘[i]t [critical thinking] has a core ethical value, which has to be nurtured and harnessed among students of higher education to reach the potential to transform into lifelong learners’. Critical thinking can be used as a means to make our students lifelong learners through exploring their ‘inner potentials’. It is expected that critical thinking skill will also facilitate human resource development in the country through exploring and harnessing the untapped potentials.
In the Hollywood movie Dead Poet Society, one of the teachers called Mr Keating contends to his students that ‘we must constantly look at things differently. So, don’t just consider what the authors say. Try to consider what you think. Try to raise your own voice, no matter if it is wrong.’ This raises question that how many teachers in today’s Bangladesh, are engaged in such teaching? How many of those are able to explore the hidden as well as ‘surface potentials’ of the students? In fact, each and every student in Bangladesh is talented, but due to the absence of proper training and mentoring, their potentials remain under-explored.
It can be claimed that knowledge is transferred from generation to generation through teaching in classroom. Therefore, how we teach and what we teach, that matters as ‘[w]hat we teach our children-and how we teach them-will impact almost every aspect of society, from the quality of healthcare to industrial output; from technological advances to financial services’, as Agarwal said. And hence, it is high time to problematise our conventional teaching and learning method incorporating critical thinking.
We also need to focus on critical teaching, reading, writing as well as listening in classrooms because at the end of the day, it is critical thinking which affects everything. Therefore, to explore and harness the untapped potentials of our students, we, the academics need to incorporate critical thinking in our teaching irrespective of discipline or place. And if implemented, it is expected that this will be imperative to build a better world in general and a better Bangladesh in particular.

Md Shariful Islam is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Rajshahi.

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