“Critical Thinking—Still A Priority”

Dr. Ahmed Majdoubeh, Director of the Office of International Relations at the University of Jordan, contributed the following opinion piece to The Jordan Times on July 20, 2007. Dr. Majdoubeh argues that Jordan’s education system must transform from one that still emphasizes rote learning to a system that prioritizes the development of students’ critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking—still a priority

Ahmad Y. Majdoubeh How much attention do we devote to critical thinking in our schools and universities? I am not asking here about how much we say we “need” to employ critical thinking in our approaches or how much we “say” we do employ. My question is about how much really goes on in the actual learning/teaching process.

My answer to the question, based on my close observations, is not much. And this is a problem.

You may find, of course, an exception here and there. Some colleagues and I, for example, make critical thinking a priority in the courses we teach. Similarly, some teachers in some of our public and private schools do pay attention to this crucial matter. Furthermore, some schools, especially in the private sector, have courses and activities that both build and foster critical thinking.

The overall picture, however, is far from satisfactory. Most students, at both school and university levels, still learn the way I learnt 30 or 40 years ago: rote learning. This is how they study not just math, chemistry and biology, but also Arabic, English, history, geography, sociology and all other disciplines.

My son, who is in sixth grade, is learning all of the above-mentioned subjects the way I learned when I was in sixth grade 41 years ago.

Look at the worksheets teachers of science, math, social studies, Arabic, English and others give students. You would think that a worksheet is to foster skills higher than memorisation and understanding, i.e., problem solving, application and critical thinking. No, not at all! Worksheets are essentially summaries of information already available in the main textbook.

You would think, having forgotten about higher skills, that a worksheet is a good summary of a textbook. Again no! A worksheet summarises in points (1, 2, 3 or a, b, c) information already explained very well in textbook. Are such summaries helpful? Not at all! In fact, they are added hassle, even torture, to students and their parents. If they serve any purpose at all, they serve to foster memorisation, which is a killer in our school and university education.I am not saying that worksheets per se are negative. Far from it! Worksheets can be used to make learning more fun and more useful, and they can be used to develop critical thinking. What I am saying, rather, is that in our schools, worksheets are generally used in ways that do not serve higher skills (or any skills whatsoever), including critical thinking.

The same happens at our universities. Aside from the exceptions, for university exams students give teachers back what they have recorded in their notes, which are dictated or told by the professors in the first place. Recently, we have introduced the idea of presentations, reports and short-term papers (in principle an excellent idea). What do students submit in these? Primarily, cut-and-paste material from the Internet or reference books.

Rote learning, regurgitation, call it what you will, is still a big problem in our educational system.

We live in a world in which despite huge leaps in the media and science spheres, knowing the “fact” or “truth” about what goes on in essentially all contexts is not easy. How many reports do you hear or read, for example, about the situation in Iraq or Palestine (from CNN, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiyah, BBC, etc.; and from hundreds of newspapers and news agencies in our region and around the world)?

Are we any more knowledgeable or wiser about the situation than we were 10 or 15 years ago? Do you think that the more news reports or news agencies we have the more understanding we become of issues? Not really! In fact, the more we see or hear the more complicated it becomes. There is not one single news agency or satellite station (with due respect) which is objective or reliable. The more we watch and the more we read the more complicated, foggy and confusing matters become.

In the absence of objectivity and reliability, we need individuals with good critical-thinking skills, individuals who are able to listen, think, compare, assess, sift through and construct their own facts and truths. And we expect our educational institutions to help achieve this important, priority goal.

Are our educational institutions helping? Not much! How can they help? The matter is not easy, because nothing short of a total restructuring of our approaches is needed. Old habits die hard. We need to reeducate the educators themselves. We need strategies, action plans, workshops, training sessions for teachers, etc. This takes time; and we have to guarantee the willingness and the will. Until this happens, however, we teachers and professors can do a lot. We can start, for example, simply and humbly by making it a point, whenever we are presenting or discussing any issue with any of our students in any of our classes, by asking a simple question: what do you think?Think about it, fellow teachers and professors, before we talk about new curricula, new workshops, new laptops, new theories of learning and teaching, new experts from abroad. How many of you ask your students: what do you think?

Critical thinking is a priority, and there is a lot schools and universities can do without big reform and innovation plans. We can also start by doing something about our useless “worksheets” and pointless “reports” and “term papers”. Nobody prevents us from starting at these humble levels. Let’s push for big reforms, but let’s also start at many humble, but crucial, levels.

Friday-Saturday, July 20-21, 2007.

Article posted with permission by the author.