How about introducing critical thinking in academics?

Last Updated : 17 July 2023, 07:16 IST
Last Updated : 17 July 2023, 07:16 IST

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Imagine a student in Class 8 who is a talented cricket player. Let’s call him Ravi. Ravi’s sports teacher has told him that if he practices well and sharpens his skills, he has a great chance of making it to the state cricket team. Sincere and hardworking, he practices at least an hour every day and three hours every Saturday and Sunday.

But imagine now that while practising his batting, Ravi is only bowled balls of one type – slow, short-pitched and pitched just outside the off stump. Ravi masters playing these kinds of balls! His average score becomes impressive.

But what happens to his overall cricket skills?

For one, his ability to play any other kind of ball - especially the more challenging, faster balls - declines over time. He is not able to adjust to a real-life bowler who varies his line and length continuously.

What are Ravi’s chances of making it to the state team?

Students in our Indian school system are like the talented Ravi, but the questions they are posed in various exams are largely of just one type – textbookish, recall-based and based on definitions or standard procedures.

Tuition classes in India know this and simply make students repeatedly solve questions similar to the ones at the back of the textbook chapter. The students seem to score extremely well in both school tests and Board Exams. But what happens when these students are given an international test not limited to just these types of questions?

Rote learning a major problem

When Indian students of Class 10 from Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh were given the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test in 2010, they were stumped by the type of questions they were asked. They were specifically chosen to take the test as they were thought to be among the best in the country.

However, their performance in PISA with a ranking of 72 out of 73 countries in the world – scoring ahead of only Kyrgyzstan, highlighted the problem of rote memorisation in Indian classrooms and how familiar textbookish questions had further deepened the gap in learning with conceptual clarity.

The skills students develop are significantly dependent on the types of questions and projects they are exposed to. Exposing them to rote and recall questions makes even the most hardworking students lose the ability to think critically and creatively.

Challenge them

On the other hand, if students are exposed to questions unfamiliar in form or context which require them to think critically and deeply, challenge their understanding, require them to synthesise information from multiple written sources, analyse data or require them to make a case persuasively, they would be able to develop advanced skills that would allow them to navigate the challenges of the future workforce.

For example, when children in Class 8 or 9 are asked about the chemical form of pure steam, they have to think about it before they answer. Most textbooks do not mention any chemical formula for steam, so this is not an easy recall question. Students have to remember that steam is water heated beyond its boiling point and that boiling is a physical change, not a chemical one.

Yet when asked this, more than 50% students of in these classes say that steam does not have a chemical formula!

Questions that are carefully developed and require students to think, develop critical thinking in students. High-quality questions (which some call competency-based questions) develop critical thinking skills in students. Our exams at every level need to have more of these types of questions. Research suggests that 40-60% of questions in exams should be of this type.

Many parents share two concerns – one, whether our teachers will be able to develop such questions; and two, if students will score lesser if exams shift from rote-recall questions to understanding and thought-based questions.

The answer: Teachers should be supported both with question banks that aim to evaluate the level of conceptual clarity and understanding and the right training to develop the skill to frame such questions. Then they will be able to rise to the occasion.

The marks, on the other hand, will come down to realistic levels thereby reducing college cut-offs – this will have a positive impact in reducing pressure and stress on students along with shifting the focus to true understanding and critical thinking instead of just scoring marks by memorising.

To emerge as a global powerhouse of knowledge and innovation, India needs individuals equipped with non-routine analytical and interpersonal skills. This will only come from teaching students to think critically and learn with conceptual clarity.

(The author is a co-founder of an ed-tech company)

Published 26 June 2023, 15:40 IST

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