Ministry of Education, Guyana

Overcoming Obstacles to Critical Thinking

The ability to think critically will benefit students throughout their lives. Here are a few tips on how to get started teaching it.

The ability to think critically is one skill separating innovators from followers. It combats the power of advertisers, unmasks the unscrupulous and pretentious, and exposes unsupported arguments. Students enjoy learning the skill because they immediately see how it gives them more control. Yet critical thinking is simple: It is merely the ability to understand why things are they way they are and to understand the potential consequences of actions.

Devastating Consequences, Tremendous Opportunities
Young people—without significant life experience and anxious to fit in—are especially vulnerable to surface appeal. Sometimes that appeal actively discourages analysis, as is the case with the targeted advertising that affects buying and eating habits. Students may choose friends for the wrong reasons, leading to heartache. Later on, decisions about joining the military or pursuing another career or about becoming a parent will have indelible effects on their lives.

Every educator is in a position to teach students how to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions, and think for themselves. Because critical thinking is so important, some believe that every educator has the obligation to incorporate the application of critical thinking into his or her subject area. This helps students evaluate prepackaged conclusions and clears a path for original thoughts. Practicing critical thinking in the classroom may mean discussing the quality of a textbook, considering whether traditional beliefs about a subject are accurate, or even discussing the teacher’s instructional style.

Making a Start in Teaching Critical Thinking

The first step in teaching critical thinking is to help students recognize how easily false ideas can creep into their belief systems. For example:

  •  People believe stories because they are the ones available. Most people identify Thomas Edison as the inventor of the incandescent light bulb. Although Edison perfected a commercially successful design, he was preceded in the experimentation by British inventors Frederick de Moleyns and Joseph Swan, and by American J. W. Starr. Sometimes stories become accepted because they are simple, sensational, entertaining, or already popular. But just because a story is available doesn’t mean it’s accurate.

Students can be reminded that companies advertising products take advantage of our desires; they don’t describe the benefits of their competitors’ products any more than a man asking a woman to marry him encourages her to date other men before deciding. It’s a social reality that people encourage one another to make important decisions with limited facts.

When students are shown how to gather information, question what appears obvious, and think through possible consequences, they’ll be able to make decisions based on facts, not myths or propaganda. Years later, students may forget some details of a subject, but they’ll never forget the teacher who taught them how to think more effectively.


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