The critical lack of critical thinking
Analysis. Interpretation. Inference. Explanation. Self-regulation. Open-mindedness. Problem-solving. These are the seven skills inherent in critical thinking.
However, rote learning or memorization is used most often in schools in the U.S. and throughout Micronesia.
According to a 2021 survey conducted by the Paris-based Reboot Foundation titled “Teaching Critical Thinking in K-12: When There’s a Will but Not Always a Way,” critical thinking is a skill that is lacking.
“Employers and human resource professionals almost always put critical thinking at or near the top of the list,” the survey found. “Yet these same business leaders have long lamented a lack of critical thinking skills in the people they hire.”
Although the general public “is near unanimous in its support of critical thinking,” 95 percent of Americans “believe that critical thinking skills are important in today’s world, yet 85 percent of the respondents said critical thinking skills are lacking in the general public.”
The survey also confirmed that, due to the pervasive use of the internet and social media, “much of our public discourse takes place online, where cognitive biases can become amplified, and where groupthink and filter bubbles proliferate. Meanwhile, face-to-face conversations—which can dissolve misunderstandings and help us recognize the shared humanity of those we disagree with—go missing.” Enter the rise of conspiracy theories.
I witnessed the result of challenging students to think critically when I flew to Yap’s outer island of Woleai a few years ago to record the delivery of robotics kits to the public high school by the Habele Outer Island Education Fund, a nonprofit organization established in 2006 by former Peace Corps volunteers who served in the FSM.
Forming into teams, the students eagerly opened the boxes that contained raw parts to build their own programmable robots. Working in complete absorption for several hours, they examined the parts, read the instructions, and began to design and make small, metal, wheeled carts by applying basic science, technology, engineering and math or STEM skills. Once assembled, the teams engaged in contests to test their ability in controlling the battery-operated devices with remote controls. I was pleased that many of the girls took on the lead role of the teams to solve complex and open-ended problems from start to finish.
Conceptual learning like this helps students gain a deeper understanding of a subject, while rote learning only provides the minimum information that can be quickly recalled.
Rote learning has its place like when children learn their ABCs and numbers. But students who are encouraged to use critical thinking throughout their school years do better in life, college and on the job. Those who lack critical thinking skills often feel lost when they enter institutions of higher learning and the workforce.
In Micronesia where rote memorization is employed across all grade levels, there is a common theme of students consistently being behind their grade-level benchmarks. Teachers must choose to either re-teach prior grade-level benchmarks before moving on to their actual standards or plow forward through their standards attempting to patch some holes as they go. That is, if the teacher is trained in critical thinking techniques and tools.
College professors grumble about the quality of high school education; high school teachers complain about the upper elementary schools’ lack of preparation; and the baton of blame gets passed around. The result is students graduating only to be met with the rude awakening of testing into remedial math and English reading and composition courses in college.
Again, this is not unique to Micronesia. In the U.S., English, social studies and electives like art and music have gone the way of the dodo bird. The result is a lack of basic grammar, writing and math skills and a significant lack of knowledge about history, culture, government and civics.
Rote learning discourages asking questions, engaging in discussions with teachers and fellow classmates, conducting research to test theories and points-of-view.
Due to the lack of qualified teachers in public schools and cursory reviews of their teaching methods and success rates, that type of teaching is often overlooked since recruiting qualified teachers at minimal salaries is a challenge.
There is little to no opportunity for advancement in the public sector jobs that make up the bulk of the job market in Micronesia, and the top jobs are usually held by those who were educated in private schools like Xavier High School in Chuuk and went on to universities in the U.S. while many never returned to their home islands, thus joining the brain drain that has decimated the population.
I once taught a workshop in Yap about how to use a search engine. The adults who attended had some experience with computers. With coaching and encouragement, by the time the workshop ended they were reveling in their newfound knowledge and comparing the results of different search engines – skills that they took back to their jobs.
Another factor that limits the ability of students and workers from the islands to think critically is the mandate in traditional cultures that children are to be seen but not heard. Conformism is encouraged and decision-making is left to the chiefs. The belief that elders are not to be questioned quashes a child’s curiosity.
Critical thinking does not mean that you are challenging someone’s work or telling them that they are wrong, but encourages a deeper understanding, a consideration of alternative views, and engagement in thought, discourse or research that informs your independent judgment.
The teachers must be trained to teach critical thinking in the classroom, while parents are well advised to do the same. Like the robotics program that is now in more than two dozen schools throughout the FSM and the Marshall Islands, children will look forward to going to school.
“Ultimately,” the Reboot Foundation notes, “someone who is well practiced in critical thinking skills is better equipped to make the best decisions in their personal lives – be it healthcare choices, voting, selecting news sources, social engagement, or when making financial decisions such as financing a home purchase or managing debt. Thus, forming the building blocks of good critical thinking habits in K-12 can foster life-changing results that benefit each individual as well as society as a whole.”
After a long career as a senior marketing executive, Joyce McClure traded the island of Manhattan for the island Yap as a Peace Corps response volunteer in 2016. She is now a freelance writer and photographer living in Guam. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org