The Critical Thinking conundrum

by | 2 June 2023

Recently, an image of the Pope wearing a puffer jacket went viral on Twitter. Most people, unfortunately including myself, didn’t bat an eyelid when the image first flashed across the screen. It was later revealed that the image was in fact AI generated. Looking back, it should have been obvious – a major wardrobe overhaul from an institution which is renowned for its conservatism. Where were the internal alarm bells? This viral moment sparked a debate about how untrained we are in distinguishing computer-generated objects from reality – and how our critical thinking is failing us.

The attitudinal divide between students and teachers on the importance of critical thinking is nothing new. ‘Students don’t think critical thinking will help with their studies. They want to focus on vocabulary and grammar which are, of course, important but they need critical thinking to improve their work. They aren’t interested.’ This is what Jessie Wai, a senior lecturer from Education University Hong Kong, shared with us. She went on to say ‘they will only spend time doing something they think is worthwhile, for example, passing an exam, completing an assignment with high scores.’

This perspective isn’t exclusive to her university. Adam Forrester, assistant Dean of the Faculty of Humanities of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, shared a similar experience. He agreed that ‘critical thinking is a more abstract skill and [students] are focused on their immediate concrete needs.’ He believes the lack of interest in developing critical thinking skills may be less of an attitudinal problem and more of a misunderstanding of what critical thinking is and what it can do.

It’s important to grasp how critical thinking, and what we must be critical of, has changed over the last generation – and how these changes are only accelerating. Students must understand that it goes beyond just interrogating texts and their sources. It is an opportunity to understand cultures and place information in a context – what Zhang (2020) describes as an ‘intercultural communicative competence’.

In the critical thinking unit of Study Skills Success, Clarity’s academic study skills program, learners are taught several critical thinking skills they apply to various contexts. For example, understanding and analysing the issue of obesity in Western countries; identifying flawed logic in the private vs public school debate; and recognising motivations and persuasion techniques in reporting. The unit provides typical source texts like blogs, news articles, audio debates and more. But beyond these more traditional topics, we wish to look at the new challenges students face: intellectual property on social media; the benefits and perils of ChatGPT and other AI tools; cultural access and respect online. Although we can’t anticipate everything students will come across, nor exactly how the digital landscape will change, it is vital to stay informed on the trajectory of change and equip learners with the tools they need to make a self-assessment of new technologies and trends.

We know that students who practise critical thinking perform better in their exams – but how can we encourage them to engage with it more? Here is what Adam Forrester had to say:
‘Students have a very busy schedule. They often think “What do I need to do to complete this assessment?” The workload is intense, especially for senior year students. But those who think about their subjects and reflect, they perform much better. It all depends on assessment design. Some assessments are poorly designed and do not require critical thinking…It depends on the design of the curriculum at school.’

To combat this lack of engagement from students, one school decided to integrate critical thinking practice into the exam curriculum. Shung Tak Catholic English College introduced Study Skills Success into their school curriculum using two methods. They started by conducting formal and informal familiarisation sessions with the program to show students they could use it anywhere on any device. They also aligned the Study Skills Success syllabus with their own so it could be formally used as supplementary materials for the students to do at home, for example, teaching the critical thinking unit in the lead up to mock and final exams. Ms Kwan, the teacher that led this project, reported an improvement in her students’ performance when they had to engage with the content as part of their mandated studies.

Like most of us, students won’t engage with something unless they have to – their resources are stretched thin. By integrating critical thinking development into their academic and personal contexts, we can demonstrate how relevant the skill is to survive in today’s world. AI is powering forwards – and nobody wants to be caught believing the Pope is trending in fashion week.

Katie Stokes, Blog Editor, ClarityEnglish

Katie Stokes, Blog Editor, ClarityEnglish