South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Paul Stapleton says that teaching young children to think critically could help them become better at accepting a diversity of views
In education circles, the term “critical thinking” has become one of the buzzwords of our times. More often than not, the term is used to lament the lack of good-quality thinking among the current generation of students. Usually, it is the education system that takes the blame for this.
The typical refrain is our system of education focuses too much on rote memorisation to prepare students for exams.
It may come as a surprise then that our youngsters do indeed have critical capacities, and they can even express these in their second language, English, if they are given appropriate contexts and training.
In a recent study at a primary school in Tai Po, three teachers and I gave two weeks of instruction in counterarguing to 80 Primary Six students.
At first, the students struggled with the idea of putting themselves in another’s shoes. With some training, however, they began to enjoy generating opinions and reasons contrary to their own.
The topics we chose included: “Is having to wear a school uniform a good idea?”, “Is being an only child better?” and “Is it a good idea to allow students to have mobile phones at school?”
After several classes, our 11-year-olds began to really get their teeth into these topics. In their essays, first they expressed and supported their own points of view, something all local students of their age can do easily. But then they were also able to generate arguments that were opposite to their own, and go on to support those alternative opinions with a wide variety of reasons and evidence.
This, of course, is what critical thinking is all about, i.e., having an open mind to other possibilities, and judging them on their merits, rather than taking a stand and sticking to it.
For the final topic, students wrote about why Hong Kong was (or was not) a good place to live. About two-thirds liked Hong Kong, while the remainder didn’t. Some of the common reasons supporting Hong Kong as a place to live (good food, safety and transportation), and against it (humid, polluted and, sadly, too many mainlanders), were largely predictable. But many were quite original. One student who claimed Hong Kong was not a good place to live conceded that at least the tax rate is low.
The point here is that each and every essay written by the 80 students included a counterargument. The students, with just a bit of training, could put themselves in the shoes of others and produce reasonable arguments against their own.
These findings reveal a bigger picture. Humans have a remarkable capacity to imagine what others are thinking. Experiments show that this “theory of mind” is acquired around the age of four years. This wonderful ability allows us to formulate instant responses to those with whom we both agree and disagree. Too often, however, we become so invested in our own beliefs that we fail to use our critical reasoning capacity to seriously entertain the merits of those we disagree with.
We need to bring critical thinking practices into the classroom early when the brains of our youth are still malleable. If this is done properly, we may find that the next generation can bring a more reasoned approach to the types of intractable issues that we are presently facing.
Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education