Written by Aisling Burke and Marinela Andric
A great man named Nelson Mandela once said: ‘’Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’’ Since there are a lot of weapons, there are also many educational systems. Their quality depends on whether they will develop the Hydrogen Bomb or the FP-45 Liberator gun. Now, we all know what the consequences of thermonuclear weapons are. Equally, the consequences of education depend on the quality of the educational system. So, the question arises – to which extent does education develop critical thinking among youth?
What are critical thinking skills?
To begin, we will cite several definitions of critical thinking that we consider to be significant. To think critically means to think rationally in order to determine what to believe or what to do (Ennis, 2013). This includes self-correcting, context awareness, and intellectual empowerment (Lipman, 2003). A student who thinks critically will have reasoning skills and will be able to make an interpretation, a decision, and then formulate a solution (Finken & Ennis, 1993). S/he will also be able to collect and justify relevant information, use abstract ideas, have an open mind, and communicate effectively with other people (Duron et al., 2006).
Why are critical thinking skills necessary for youth?
As demonstrated above, it is essential that youth are able to think critically in order to be able to evaluate real-world problems, make rational decisions, and solve problems. However, it is even more vital in today’s society- where information is hurled at youth from a multitude of sources every second of the day- that youth can navigate this material.
For example, Ray Raphael, in his book ‘Founding Myths: Stories that Hide our Patriotic Past’ (2004), reviewed various educational textbooks from elementary school to high school, comparing the mythologies of the American Revolution discussed in his book with those examined in the school texts. The results were alarming, with most texts displaying serious bias towards Native American presence in the Revolution and although African American participation is mentioned, it is focused solely on those who sided with the Americans. One would assume that textbooks would be among the most credible sources of information but apparently, this is not the case, demonstrating the importance of youth having the ability to ingest material, interpret it and form their own opinion based on all sources of information they have access to. Similarly, Daniel Willingham (ResearchEd, 2020) in his recent conference, discussed the challenges of youth and their ability to navigate information on the internet. He explains that contradictive to the popular opinion that youth today are ‘Digital natives’, research shows that 60% of middle and high school teachers do not believe that technology makes it harder for students to find credible information. Willingham further explains that one study showed that, when students were asked to decipher if a website was a reliable source of information, 96% failed to identify it wasn’t reliable, and 66% of students misidentified an advertisement as a news article. Additionally, further research showed that only 10% of students check website authors/credentials, and no students verified the credentials. Evidently, the ability to think critically about information, is, undeniably, a necessary skill for youth today.
How are critical thinking skills at present integrated into our education system?
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a test conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tests 15-year-old students’ critical thinking skills
in math, science, and reading (OECD, 2019). These questions are not based on the ability to recall facts and information but on problem-solving skills and drawing on real-world situations. The PISA 2018 results did not show promising results for our educations systems, with only 10% of students mastering complex reading tasks, which comprised of distinguishing between fact and opinion (OECD, 2019). One in four students experienced difficultly in basic areas of reading such as combining pieces of information from different sources and recognizing the main theme in a text. Other countries, such as Switzerland (see figure A), who are investing significantly in education, are in fact seeing a rapid decline in PISA results.
Following on from the PISA results, we can look to Ireland as a case study and its absence of critical thinking skills in its education system. The Leaving Certificate exam in Ireland is the final year exam taken by 16-18 years old’s when they leave high school. Students are required to take six subjects for this exam. Entry into higher education or university is fully dependent on results from these exams so they carry high stakes and are highly important in the lives of youth in Ireland. The Leaving Certificate exam is widely criticized for its reliance on memory recall and ‘rote learning’ and an absence of critical thinking-based assessments in the examination papers (Smyth et al, 2011; Burns et al, 2019). Burns et al. (2019) found that student’s main method of exam preparation was focused on predicting what questions would come up on the paper and learning prepared answers off by heart. This strongly questions whether these exams are even appropriate for the developmental stage of youth aged 16-18.
In turn, this causes issues for students entering higher education, university, and eventually the workplace. Employers are consistently looking for graduates with the ability to analyze, evaluate evidence, and make judgments (McMahon, 2017). Universities must then try to undo this way of learning and encourage students to approach assignments with a critical analysis, which can cause issues for students whose main learning style has been rote learning (McMahon, 2017). There are proposals for Leaving Certificate reform, although no action has been taken yet, it is the hope that future generations will be assessed on their ability to think critically and solve problems.
Implications for practice
This evidence issues urgent call for every teacher, professor, educator, and school systems to start implementing critical thinking skills into their practice and make it an essential part of education, with one of its priorities being, to equip students to make more sense of the vast amount of information that is available to them. Although critical thinking is often mentioned and considered as one of the main goals of education throughout history, as the PISA results show, we still have a long way to go. It is essential that countries prioritize the development of this skill in their education systems, which nowadays could be considered the most important survival skill for youth, in the ocean full of information they are presented with on a daily basis. Because at present, one cannot deny, critical thinking youth are slowly vanishing.
- Burns, D., Devitt, A., McNamara, G., O’Hara, J., & Brown, M. (2018). Is it all memory recall? An empirical investigation of intellectual skill requirements in Leaving Certificate examination papers in Ireland. Irish Educational Studies, 37(3), 351-372. doi: 10.1080/03323315.2018.1484300
- Smyth, E., Banks, J., & Calvert, E. (2011). From leaving certificate to leaving school. Dublin: Liffey Press in association with the Economic and Social Research Institute.
- McMahon, A. (2017). Can we turn ‘spoonfed’ students into critical thinkers? The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/can-we-turn-spoonfed-students-into-critical-thinkers-1.3078353
- Ennis, R. (2013). Critical thinking across the curriculum (CTAC). OSSA Conference Archive
- Lipman, M. (2003). Critical thinking: What can it be? In A.C. Ornstein et.al. (Eds.), Contemporary Issues in Curriculum, pp. 149-156. New York: Pearson.
- Finken, M. & Ennis, R. H. (1993). Illinois Critical Thinking Essay Test. Illinois Critical Thinking Project. Departement of Educational Policy Studies University of Illinois. Retrieved 18 October, 2016 from http://www.criticalthinking.net/IllCTEssayTestFinkenEnnis12-1993LowR.pdf.
- Duron, R., Limbach, B., & Waugh, W. (2006). Critical Thinking Framework for Any Discipline. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 17(2), 160-166
- PISA results 2018 https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA-results_ENGLISH.png
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2019). PISA results 2018 Combined Executive Summary. OECD.
- Willingham, D. (2020). Helping Students to Think Critically about Internet Sources. Presentation, ResearchedEd Home.