Developing independent critical thinking

Yogesh Khosla
“Critical Thinking’’ is one of the ten core Life Skills recommended by all world bodies to be fostered in our school children right from the middle classes. It is part of the curriculum in CBSE affiliated schools. In 1986, Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion recognized Life-Skills in terms of making better health choices. In 2000, Dakar World Education Conference included Life Skills in two out of the six Education For All (EFA) goals and these skills are included in the World Development Report (2007). The essay is an advocacy attempt to create awareness and to bring urgency so that an essential, but much neglected, skill  is brought to the forefront of educational reforms. For our children the future is today already arrived.
Critical Thinking is the ability to analyse information and experiences in an objective manner. This skills can contribute to health by helping us to recognize and assess the factors that influence attitudes and behaviour, such as values, peer pressure and the media.
International Commission on Education (Delor’s Report) submitted to UNESCO says on Critical Thinking “All human beings must be enabled to develop independent critical thinking and form their own judgements in order to determine for themselves what they believe they should  do in different circumstances of life.Adolesecents can be helped to build their own system of thought and values freely, in full knowledge of facts, without succumbing blindly to dominant influences and thus acquiring greater maturity and open mindedness’’.
These are revolutionary recommendations having the potential of a big paradigm shift in how we teach in our schools and how we guide children at home. What is the position at present ? Children are conditioned to blindly accept the words, the ideas, the beliefs, the values of their parents and teachers, what is written in the books, what is said by a famous person or the suggestions of the so called gurus. There are serious implications if we allow critical thinking. All our old, cherished, distorted, structures   will start crumbling and education will not be the same again.
Perhaps the first strong advocacy for critical thought came from Gautama Buddha who warned  ‘‘Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own sense of sense.’’ How little the world has changed? On the one hand we have unprecedented technological advancement, wealth generation, economic growth and on the other hand we may not have moved an inch from Buddha to UNESCO’s recommendations to the present times on the basics of right education.
Implications of critical thought are not only social, but at an individual level also in the matter of mental health. Says, Erich Fromm, eminent psychotherapist, thinker and social commentator in “The Art of Listening’’:”Critical thinking is the only weapon and defence which man has against the dangers in life. One could write volumes  on the connection of critical thinking and mental health and neurosis and happiness. If I do not think critically, then I am subject to all errors, to all lies, to all influences and suggestions that are spread out. One cannot be free, one cannot have one’s own centre in oneself unless one is able to think critically.
Critical thinking is a faculty, it’s an approach to the world, to everything, it’s by no means critical in the sense of hostile, of negativistic, of nihilistic, but on the contrary, critical thinking stands in the service of life, in the service of removing  the obstacles to life individually and socially, which paralyze us.’’
How can we help our children in developing critical thinking? We consider four key issues here. Firstly, and perhaps the most important is the recovery of the basic and natural qualities of “true observation’’ and “active listening’’ which are facing fast erosion and decline today. Ask any teacher or any parent of young children anywhere. Majority of the children are simply not attentive in the classrooms, at home, while studying, while  playing channel surfing on television or while doing almost anything. Thus, the most important challenge is to help our children recover the quality of total attention observation without pre conceived ideas and images and listening without personal biases and prejudices.
For the learning of critical thinking, another essential is the art and skill of “questioning’’. In the classrooms and at home, we must encourage our children to ask many questions about everything and from everybody and persistently seek right answers. And not be satisfied with the answers, look for the evidence, do some research, ask for the manuscripts not the interpretations, seek authentic scientific studies. And when satisfied, be always ready to change our opinion when new facts emerge.
The great sage, philosopher and spiritual guide,  J Krishnamurti considered the  blind acceptance of the words of the so called powerful or influential or popular personalities without questioning, as the root cause of most of the human problems. During an interaction with the students and teachers at the Stanford University, USA, says Krishnamurti: “You know, it is one of the most difficult things to ask a question. But, one must ask questions, we must doubt everything on this earth: doubt our conclusions, our ideas, the opinions, the judgements doubt everything.  I can ask casually without entering into the problems, casually seeking an answer, but if I enter into the problem with my whole heart and mind, not trying to  escape from it, in the very looking into that problem lies the answer.’’ Children need to be made aware that such questioning has to be respectful and not done in a hostile, negativistic sense only to insult or embarrass somebody. It should be undertaken as a journey, a tool in search of truth.
Taking a  cue from the need for respectfulness, we need to know that “respectfulness’’ is today recognized as an essential quality in a sense different from its traditional connotation. Respectfulness, here, means appreciating others’ point of view taking into consideration the concerns of  others. Explaining about “The Respectful Mind’’, in his new influential book “Five Minds For The Future’’ says Howard Gardner, the respected Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: ‘‘A Respectful Mind is a mind that recognizes differences between individuals, groups and cultures; one that learns to appreciate a sense of “others’’. This mind requires an imaginative leap to enable us to understand others on their own terms. Unfortunately, humans exhibit a tendency to value their own groups above others and schools must do their best to mute, or overcome such proclivities. Differences need to be respected and the earlier this is achieved the better. Working together on joint projects is one way to develop respectful relationship.’’
Lastly, we need to appreciate that critical thinking has to be Independent as compared to something called as “groupthink’’ positions in terms of groups on the basis of caste or religion or nationality or profession etc. Development of critical thinking is essentially an individual journey. Groups, unless they are formed only on the strong and uncompromising commitment to the discovery of truth as compared to the interests of the “group’’, can’t have critical thinking. To put this in perspective, let’s consider some viewpoints on “groupthink’’. Madness, said Nietzsche, is the exception in individuals, but the rule in groups. With no little disdain for the ways of the crowd, Freud saw people in groups as regressing to an infantle state as a consequence of membership.
Hence, the need for inculcating Independent Critical Thinking which is based on true observation, active listening, objective analysis, persistent questioning but is highly tolerant of and respectful to others’ point of view.


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