Critical thinking

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am

Education reform in the past decade has raised many unanswered questions and possibly caused significant damage to Hong Kong's language training and academic standards for many years to come. Other than the controversial mother-tongue policy and the introduction of 'integrated humanities' and 'liberal studies' curriculums for secondary-school students, one area which has attracted less criticism - but which is no less problematic - is the introduction of 'critical thinking skills' as one of the nine generic skills promoted by the Education and Manpower Bureau - now the Education Bureau.

Critical thinking skills are defined by the authorities as those that 'help students to draw out meaning from given data or statements, generate and evaluate arguments and make their own judgment'. That's all well and good but there are at least two problems. The first concern is the Chinese translation of the term. For some strange reason, it is rendered in Chinese as skills 'in the mode of levelling criticism'. The Chinese translation is, in fact, so suggestive of Cultural-Revolution-style finger-pointing that any uninitiated person would interpret it as directed at challenging the authorities or establishment.

Any person with a reasonably good understanding of English would know that 'critical' does not only pertain to levelling criticism. The adjective 'critical' has different meanings in different contexts, depending on whether we are talking about a 'critical mass', a 'critical path' or the 'diagnostic critical reading' component of the new SAT 1 test.

In the case of the SAT 1 critical reading test, it is designed to examine a student's ability 'to recognise the meaning of a word as used in context; interpret specific information presented in the passage; analyse information in one part of the passage in terms of information in another; and evaluate the author's assumption or identify the logical structure of the passage'. Nowhere does its design suggest that the critical reading component tests the student's ability to criticise.

Similarly, North American study guides in critical thinking and effective communication aim to train students to do basic issue analysis or problem-solving in a structured, formulated manner. Such exercises are never intended to be concerned solely with criticism, whether towards others or oneself. I can only conclude that a mistake was made in translating the concept of 'critical thinking' into Chinese, with dire consequences for students. It is regrettable that the Chinese translation has created the impression that students are encouraged to criticise, instead of schooling themselves in rigorous issue analysis, nuanced thinking and structured formulation.

The second problem arising from this educational objective is: how do you teach students critical thinking? Do you just throw a few fancy concepts at them, such as dualism, relativism or reflectionism, as one educationist has suggested to me?

In my view, it is far more productive to teach critical thinking through something - whether it be the analysis of an issue, a literary work or a philosophical subject - rather than to teach it in the abstract. One prestigious California high school teaches critical thinking by forcing students to increase their understanding of their obligations and responsibilities through exploring global cultures and belief systems and the geopolitical, social and environmental challenges of the 21st century. Another leading prep school uses a literature course which examines such issues as what makes a short story immortal and when behaviour is evil, immoral or against the rules.

In all these courses, students are urged to practise close-reading skills, do in-depth analysis of masterpieces, develop perspectives and debate issues before reaching their conclusions.

To what extent are our teachers equipped to teach 'critical thinking skills' to a high standard of intellectual analysis? Whose fault is it if our students end up becoming schooled in levelling criticism but incapable of rigorous thinking?

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is chairperson of the Savantas Policy Institute