Critical thinking in the curriculum9 min read


I read today about the resignation of renowned Classicist Professor Edith Hall from Royal Holloway due to the shrinking of budgets for the Humanities and what she described as having been pushed beyond her ‘tipping point’. It was fairly unremarkable Guardian article in these tough financial times, lamenting the continued squeezing of budgets for subjects like Classics, considered by many to be elitist, entirely academic, or irrelevant in today’s society. What I did enjoy, however, was the debate in the comments below the article, where people from all walks of (Guardian readership) life discussed the issue of worth when it comes to skills & employability.

One reader echoed the feelings of Louise Handley, an intellectual property lawyer who gave an excellent presentation to students in my last school, that a career in law shouldn’t necessarily start with an A level in it:

Education used to be about mastery of content and the language(s) in which to express it. Instead of comparative law with Public and Private International Law heavily featured to broaden understanding of the context within which English law operates, today’s students go through a narrow training course designed to make them more employable. The results are the difference between a lawyer and a technician.

A generalisation I’m not sure I’d be happy with if I were a young barrister, but the point is a good one. A successful education is one that not only produces employable students, but ones that have that mastery of content, and language skills needed to express it.

I’m coming to the realisation in my time here that St Helena is a microcosmic representation of Britain. Learners here are extremely passive (more so than in the UK), rarely question received wisdom, and as a result don’t truly understand it. There are the same claims made in the staff room here as they are in every staff room I’ve ever known, that students need “spoon feeding” – not a helpful observation, in my opinion. There is no shortage of intelligence among the students here, but independence is a different skill, and one that stems from the culture of learning students experience from an early age.

I am teaching Enterprise here, with the tacit understanding that entrepreneurial spirit is a key focus of the school. Due to the islands geographical isolation, youngsters are being encouraged to set up their own businesses with funding from the St Helena Development Agency. This is an incredible opportunity for young entrepreneurs – one few get in the UK – but at the moment students do not have the independence to be at the top of the tree, running their own business. It almost feels like the aim of many is to be middle management.

As a result of this, one of the fundamental questions I find myself asking in my curriculum review is ‘how do we get the kids to think?’ – students will rarely question received wisdom. They instead accept it and want to move on to what’s next. There is a real lack of critical thinking across the curriculum.

Progress of a kind

On Friday of this week I had the best lesson thus far in terms of behaviour with my year ten IGCSE set. It was a theory lesson introducing network topologies, and my computer room had been double-booked by English. I took the class down to the English room and proceeded to conduct the lesson in the traditional chalk & talk fashion. Up until this point in theory lessons I had introduced the topic with the class together, then encouraging them to find out the rest, with the result being low-level disruption throughout combined with rampant copying & pasting from websites. Suffice it to say results in my theory tests rarely got higher than 80%, as the final 20% came from questions requiring a judgment based on their understanding of the topic. The ones who had done the work could recite facts, figures and some definitions back to me, but few could explain their value, think laterally or suggest alternatives.

None of this is particularly surprising – I hadn’t gauged the activity properly, so not everyone was progressing in line with their ability, which had a knock-on effect on behaviour. In last Friday’s lesson, behaviour was universally excellent. The class was attentive, hung on my every word, and wrote a comprehensive series of notes on networking. It felt like a win.

 Image from an interesting post on rating teaching by UPD Consulting: For whom the bell curves

The issue is that I have another test scheduled for next Friday, and I don’t expect the top results to be any better than those from previous weeks, if I use the same model of 80% lower order, recall-based questions & 20% higher order, judgement-based questions. I feel confident that the bell curve of results will be skewed to the right and be a little thinner as the lowest results will be a few notches higher, but students who should be working towards an A* will still plateau at a B due to the lack of being able to think critically. Gifted & talented students are not benefiting from the more traditional teaching method I employed last week.

So what do I do?

It strikes me that there is no quick fix. Teasing out intellectual curiosity & critical thinking takes significant amounts of time & effort. I’m not going to see any massive change in that bell curve by Christmas, but I’m determined to see some by the time my year 10 students sit their exams next year.

What I want to get across to these students is that without being critical of something’s value, you cannot truly understand its value.

I stumbled upon this wonderful animation of Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which he posits the idea of prisoners being chained in a cave facing a wall. Behind them is a fire, and between that fire and the prisoners is a walkway which people & animals cross every day, casting shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. The shadows & echoing noises of the people shuffling across the walkway are as close as the prisoners can get to viewing reality. A prisoner released from the cave would not recognise the things that had cast the shadows, and may believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he now sees. After time, however, the prisoner would acclimate to the light beyond the cave, and eventually see more and more things. He would come to understand that his understanding of reality in the cave was limited, and, eager to share this revelation with his friends he would return to the cave & shout this new-found truth from the walkway, but his friends having only ever seen & heard him up close would not recognise his shadow or the strange echo cast by his voice from the walkway, and they would remain unaware of the reality their friend had experienced.

While I don’t necessarily believe every young person needs to read The Republic, they should be critical of what they are told. As one of the commenters from the Guardian article earlier said of people who say subjects like Classics & Philosophy are useless:

I reply that such people are rather like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave: they reject something not because they have weighed it up and found it to have no value, but because they don’t have the conceptual resources to understand what its value is to begin with.

It will come as a surprise to no-one that I believe strongly in the value of subjects like Classics, and that it belongs at the core of any curriculum designed to encourage curiosity, but if as some argue it is outdated, and unpopular for a reason, is the void left in thinking skills filled by other subjects, or even outside the classroom? Perhaps it is in your school, but in mine it isn’t.

ICT to the rescue?

I had quite a few funny looks from assembled subject leaders at an SSAT conference last year when I put forth the idea of ICT going some way to filling this role by blurring the lines between it and other subjects. There was considerable scepticism, and rightly so – suggesting ICT is the new Classics isn’t quite what I’m getting at… but there are opportunities open to us in the ICT room that we ought to capitalise upon. I discussed this idea almost a year ago to the day, that at least a part of the role of ICT in the curriculum should be as the setting for other subjects to be brought together; the resulting work is likelier to be of a higher standard than if it had been completed in isolated chunks in separate lessons.

I don’t believe creativity, independence & criticality can be crowbarred in. You cannot be taught how to tap your creativity, you have to discover it for yourself – but you can be helped along the way to making that discovery. A couple of thoughts I’ve had in order to encourage these things are:

  • Buying half a dozen Minecraft licenses, have a server set up on the school network, provide the kids with two or three introductory videos, then leave them alone to play in order to figure out the rest, then sharing their understanding of the way the game works with others.
  • Setting up blogs for the three primary schools, establishing quadblog links with other schools around the world to widen students’ views of the world, and provide them with a wider audience to appreciate the quality of their work.
  • No modern languages are taught here, which isn’t hugely surprising when you consider the isolation of the island, but as Goethe said, “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” With the impending influx of South African contractors to work on the airport, Afrikaans would be a possible (tough!) option.
  • My teacher training programme is going to focus on non-traditional teaching methods, with very few lectures & more reflective activities to consider how to improve their practice.

I’ve spent a good deal of my time teaching ICT asking myself why I picked it as a specialism, and whether or not it’s valuable. Only by considering the answers to these questions can I consider myself suitably informed to give a decent answer. “It’s important because it’s everywhere” doesn’t cut it… that’s merely acceptance of a norm. You need to dig a little deeper in order to get to the real crux.

Steve Wheeler said in an excellent blog post on Thursday that he thinks the teacher’s worst enemy is bad theory:

Bad theory, when accepted without challenge, can lead to bad practice. It’s insidious, because bad theory that is accepted as fact without a full understanding of its implications, results in bad teaching, and ultimately, learners will suffer.

If I could lay out my plan for what I want to leave behind me whenever I leave this spectacular place, it would be for imparted wisdom in all its forms to be questioned, scrutinised and challenged by students and staff.

That would be a far longer-lasting legacy than a revamped scheme of work.

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  • You’re right to say that there is no quick fix and that creativity cannot be taught in a lesson. It is for this reason that I think you’ve got your bullet pointed list the wrong way round – teacher training must be at the forefront of development, not planning student interventions. It is the quality of relationship between teacher and student that develops students thinking skills. When challenged by great thinking in great teaching, students respond by thinking better for themselves.

  • Thanks for the comment, Steve. I agree completely – from next Wednesday I’ll be starting with my teacher training sessions. Should have ordered my list better.

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