Last Updated 20 Jun 2022

Critical Thinking – Taught or Caught?

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Critical thinking is defined as ‘analyzing [information], making judgment about what it means, relating it to other information, and considering how it might be valid or invalid’(Arnett, 2010). Schools are often criticized for not teaching critical thinking in their curriculum. Some people have urged for critical thinking to be taught more explicitly in the classroom while others have argued that cognitively, teenagers are not capable of critical thinking. This essay will discuss the research behind critical thinking in adolescents and compare it to a current situation in Hong Kong where liberal studies is a compulsory subject for Hong Kong public school curriculum for secondary school students (12 – 18 years old).

In Chapter 3 of the book Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood, Cognitive Foundations, Arnett (2010) discusses that as a child grows, the changes in the cognitive development means that adolescents will have a greater ability for critical thinking. According to cognitive psychologist Daniel Keating (2004, Keating & Sasse, 1996), three conditions in the development of the cognitive functions of adolescents make it possible for critical thinking. Firstly, adolescents now have a wider repertoire of information and knowledge in their long-term memory, which they can now tap on for comparison and analysis.

Secondly, the ability to analyze knowledge across spectrum at the same time has improved by adolescent years. Thirdly, more metacognitive strategies are now available and adolescents are more capable to tap into these strategies to make judgements about their own thinking. However, observers note that critical thinking skills are not taught in the American schools and rote learning is dominance in the classroom (Gruber & Borreen, 2003; Keating, 2004; Linn & Songer 1991; Stenberg 1996). Even though cognitively, adolescents are capable of critical thinking but it is often argued if they able to use this skill to make competent decision.

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and Cauffman (1996, 2001) proposed that psychosocial factors which are greater influencer of adolescents’ decision should be considered. Both the cognitive and psychosocial factors interact during the decision making process. Arnett indicates that research has shown that adolescents aged 15 and younger have lower psychosocial maturity.

With these research finding in mind, let us look into the recent protests in Hong Kong that has been largely led by young people below 18 years old. Critics have attributed the negative sentiments among the young people to the education system. One of the areas of the education system that has been fiercely debated is the necessity of having compulsory liberal arts education for secondary school students. An article in South China Morning Post (Chiu, SCMP, 23 May 2018) “Liberal studies debate traps Hong Kong students in political combat zone” reports on the issues that are fueling this debate.

The cognitive and psychological factors Steinberg and Cauffman (1996,2001) proposed are evident in this article. From a survey done, 80 per cent of 18 years old (Secondary Six) interviewed agreed that liberal studies ‘enhanced their ability to think from multi-dimensional perspectives [and] increased their awareness of the society.’ (Chiu, 2018) This shows that the adolescents appreciate that they are being challenged cognitively. They find that they are benefiting from the critical thinking skills taught in such classes as the three conditions listed by Keating are developed by this age.

The next consideration will be the psychological factors that influences adolescents in their decision making process. Adolescents’ opinions can be swayed by the opinions of a significant other or more so their peers. Early adolescent are less capable of following through the steps of the decision making process in the behavioral decision theory (Beyth-Marom & Fischoff, 1997; Byrnes, Miller, & Reynolds, 1999; Fischoff, 2005, Furby & Beyth-Marom, 1992; Jacobs & Klaczynski, 2005). However the article highlights that there are no textbooks which are designated by the Education Bureau and teachers developed their own materials based on broad curriculum guidelines by the Education Bureau. Thus, teachers delivering the lessons can be influenced by their political biasness.

The newspaper article quoted from Stephen Chiu Wing-kai, chair professor at Education University’s department of social sciences, and Trevor Lee Tsz-lok, a lecturer at Hang Seng Management College’s department of social science‘curriculum, that pedagogy of liberal studies had “relatively insignificant influence” in fostering youth political engagement”. They claimed that the subject only seeks to ‘enhance’ students’ political awareness but very few will be motived to turn their views into actions. However, studies in behavior decision theory has indicated that this motivation to take actions and escalating into protests in adolescents can be irrational as the possibility of consequences evaluated by adolescents for their actions is different from adults.

In conclusion. schools should rethink how they are infusing critical thinking into their curriculum, since adolescents are immature in the influences of psychological factors that guides their decision making. Critical thinking can be infused into Science subjects and not just the humanities. In the case of Hong Kong, a broad spectrum of topics and themes should be covered instead of narrowing confining critical thinking to only political discussion.

Critical Thinking – Taught or Caught? essay

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