The importance of teaching critical thinking in our schools

In the days and weeks preceding the recent UK General Election, there were moments when the frenzy of messages being communicated by the parties and the candidates led almost to overload on the part of the electorate. There were messages about what politicians and parties had done (or had not done), were doing (or were not doing) and would do (or wouldn’t do, as the case may be). Soundbites filled the airwaves, as did unquestioned assumptions; statements made were presented as unevaluated fact, and yet if everything spoken had been taken at face value, the abundance of contradictory and often diametrically opposed ‘facts’ could most probably have caused some sort of mental breakdown in the listener or observer.

How, then, was the would-be voter to sort the true from the false or the wheat from the chaff, and to unearth the kernel at the heart of the statements? How was she or he to understand the essence of the arguments and come to a judgement about their veracity or otherwise?

The first step, of course, was to pause and consider that ‘truth’ is often a complex matter. It can be a combination of perspectives, hues and nuances, many of which have been formed subtly and through experiences, often passed down through society from parents and grandparents, and marked by their (and our) particular circumstances. We all have unique journeys in life, and we all see the world slightly differently as a result – the mistake we can make sometimes is that we do not always realise this.

When we do see it, then we realise too that we have to work to understand ourselves and others if we are to be able to make appropriate judgements about the statements we hear from those who seek to lead the country. We need to unearth and question embedded assumptions, and when we do, we can begin to appreciate that issues are rarely as straightforward or as polarised as we might have imagined. There are shades of colour in everything we experience, and these shades are equally present in the perceptions of politicians. To learn how to see the shades … that is the beauty of learning how to think critically.

One of the enormous strengths of the UK education system – for which it is rightfully renowned across the world – is its focus on teaching critical thinking. As we embark on a new parliamentary session, with new decisions to be made, and new paths to be chosen, it is incumbent on all of us, from politicians to educators, to remember the value of critical thought and reflection in our great democracy. After all, we are all in this together – and if we are wise and thoughtful, together we can find a way to forge a common, shared direction, which ultimately is for the greater good.

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