Friday, May 30, 2008

The critical thinking panel discussion I attended today raised an interesting issue: how do we teach critical thinking at secondary school level, and why should we even bother since the 'O' level exam doesn't actually test such an ability?

And suddenly I'm asking myself, "doesn't it?" And then I recalled that in the ten years plus I spent in primary and secondary education, I was simply fed material to memorize and got graded according to how closely I reproduced said material at the exams. Not very well, I'm afraid.

That's a fine and efficient way to ensure the kids do well when their annual results come out. After all, how else could my teachers deal with 40 screaming kids in a classroom apart from making us all sit down and shut up while she delivered the next set of predigested facts from the syllabus to a literally captive audience?

It's the same with the most revered TYS with kids faithfully practicing answering past questions as if the same questions will repeat themselves year after year. Success for them means recalling the answer closest to the answers at the back of the book, and they're satisfied that they've done the work expected of them.

Which is true: that is a lot of work, although not necessarily a lot of thinking, so the learning turns out to be somewhat limited. Then the more successful kids step up to college level and wonder why their scores for GP are scraping borderline when in sec school they were the pride and joy, the creme de la creme of their beloved alma mater. The next level for them is quite a large gap to bridge, and it's hard to convince them that their previous secrets to success were actually bad habits, and they need to trade in the old comfortable ways for new ones that are more difficult to master, but work better in the long term.

There was this couple of independently raised examples from two of our panellists: Prof Mo said that he had once observed a 7 year-old repeatedly jumping as high as he could go because he was testing a theory that his teacher had proposed to him: The Earth rotates around the sun. So, the boy reasoned that if he were to jump high enough, the earth would rotate under him and he would land in a different spot from where he had taken off. While there were certain flaws in his assumptions leading him to conclude that because he landed in the same spot every time, his teacher must be wrong, it shows that even little kids have some critical thinking ability and they already can exercise it in their observations of life around them.

Contrast this example with the one Ken raised: his 16-17 year-old students consider critical thinking and philo classes a waste of time 'cos there's no 'O' level paper on the subject. They don't like to think, they say, 'cos it's too hard. Save them time, just give them the answers and they will gladly memorize the material with the time saved.

So, what happened to turn the curious 7 year-old into the jaded, pragmatic 17 year-old? 10 years of education for the masses, perhaps? Fortunately, the fact that we are having discussions such as this one shows that the industry is making inroads into overhauling the old ways. Soon, I hope.

Oh, btw, the venue for the panel discussion brought back some good memories for me. I wandered those old corridors back then as a student. Even though that old institution has since been replaced by this current one, the campus is still mostly the same. But I wasn't there long as a student -- well, long enough to develop my first serious crushes on my girl classmates but not long enough to do anything about them. As Ben said, c'est la vie.

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