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Development of Critical Thinking via Problem-based Learning

developing-critical-thinking

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” – Albert Einstein.

Ever since the British started ruling India, and even after they departed, education in India has been based on rote learning. The ability to memorise, retain and repeat facts has traditionally been valued the most. Problem-solving was limited only to solving equations or taking one or two steps to solve a theoretical problem. Experimentation never occurred beyond the walls of science labs and always had predefined outcomes.

This type of learning has limiting effects on our development. It is the very reason that we continue to get tricked and continue to vote for the wrong politicians, year after year. It is also the reason fake news thrives. It makes an entire advertisement industry capitalise on our fears and desires to make us buy products we may not need. The important question is: do we want our children to have a superior learning experience? Can we provide them with a more aware and a better life?

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical Thinking

In simple terms, ‘it is the ability to think independently’.

Today, our children live in a world where they receive a massive flow of information from multiple sources – the internet, social networks, media, friends, etc. With this vast overload of information, it becomes an essential skill for young children to learn how to correctly evaluate what they see and hear. Children need to learn, much more now than ever before, how to separate the false ideas and superfluous thoughts so they can get to the core of the message.

It is more than just thinking rationally or clearly. It is about developing the discipline of analysis. Critical thinking is formulating one’s opinions and drawing one’s own conclusions, based on reliable facts, and not on external (often false) influences.

How to equip our children with Critical Thinking?

Intelligent parents and knowledgeable educators agree that critical thinking is one of the most important foundational skills which is crucial for our children’s success in this century. And the key questions are – How do we help our children learn it? Which are the best ways to transform learners into critical thinkers?

One of the very effective ways is PBL – Problem Based Learning.

Problem based learning

At Vega Schools we strongly believe that PBL is a powerful pedagogy that transforms learners into critical thinkers. It equips them to make thoughtful decisions and to form reasoned judgments. A PBL cycle begins with the learner, or a group of learners (that along with their teachers) comes up with a driving question which is usually about a local real-world problem that needs to be solved. For example, it can be ‘how to solve the waste recycling problem in the city of Gurgaon?”. The learners would work in groups (just as they would do in the real world), they would research, and creatively come up with new ideas and solutions and finally exhibit them in front of a large audience. The solutions could range between actually creating an innovative and low-cost waste recycling plant for the local village, RWA, community or school, to publishing a report or a book. All good, as long as their work is of high quality and of use to the world. Larry Rosenstock, The WISE laureate, 2019, and mentor Vega Schools, eloquently states that it is essential for children of this century to create new knowledge that would be of real use to the world.

This approach requires tremendous original thinking. It requires learners to think about the practical problems being faced around them and come up with carefully (and critically) thought out solutions. Solutions need to be both practical and effective. This approach is completely different from a traditional approach where a learner would come up with mostly theoretical and predetermined answers. While ‘being a part of the project cycle’ the learner would learn the following aspects of critical thinking:

  1. Fact check: Research, compare and contrast of facts is an essential ingredient of the PBL cycle. Just because a fact is available doesn’t mean it is accurate or reliable. Facts need to be cross-checked from reliable, and sometimes multiple sources so their veracity is confirmed.
  2. Beliefs vs actions: Learners are encouraged to be able to separate between beliefs and actions. Just because something has always been thought of in a certain way doesn’t mean it is reliable or true. A simple case is that of historical events wherein interpretations of certain events may differ completely depending on which part of the world the study material originates from. Learners are encouraged to develop the mindset to explore, compare and analyse until they are reasonably certain of the narrative.
  3. Preconceived notions vs personal experience: as learners are involved in the process of creating original thoughts, ideas and content they often realize their preconceived ideas may need to be re-examined and re-evaluated in light of the collaborative process where different learners in the team present, dialogue and debate their differing perspectives.
  4. Identifying misinformation and propaganda is perhaps one of the most important elements of critical thinking. Once a mindset is developed to go beyond the superficial and into root causes of things, the learners are likely to continue with the evolved mindset throughout their lives.
  5. Open-ended questions: The traditional approach towards asking closed-ended questions that have only one right answer takes away from developing a critical thinking mindset. PBL encourages open-ended questions which lead to a deeper learning experience. To answer open-ended questions the learners, have to first understand the underlying concepts. They also go beyond standardised textbooks and tap several secondary resources.

As we strive to develop this essential skill in our children, we acknowledge it will give them a significant competitive advantage over their peers. Be it in applying for a job in the future, in voting for the right leader or in not getting swayed by external forces of popular opinion, critical thinking will be the essential skill. As we step into a new decade, we know that the skills we teach our children today will help them navigate the complex and complicated tech-enabled world of tomorrow. With machines replacing human hands, and artificial intelligence outsmarting human brains – critical thinking is what will help our children stand out in the future.

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