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Proof that schools think they teach well - but don't

In today's world, never has the need for teaching thinking and producing critical thinkers been so necessary or obvious

In the complexity of today's world, in which the economy is becoming more and more driven by the production, use and dissemination of information, never has the need for teaching thinking and producing critical thinkers been so necessary or obvious.

Critical thinking is thinking that has a purpose. How do students become critical thinkers? How do they learn to conceptualise problems, find solutions, and manage complex situations? To begin with, they have to learn much more than they used to and, most importantly, they must learn to use their knowledge to think logically, critically and consciously. So they need to be motivated to learn and must develop a positive disposition towards thinking.

To achieve these goals, teachers are supposed to communicate specific concepts, principles and ideas, and teach analytic methods. Then they have to help their students comprehend them. At the same time, teachers should impart their love of learning and knowledge, their willingness to work hard, and their ability to think imaginatively. They need to trigger a positive attitude towards critical thinking, an enthusiasm that makes students want to be the kind of person who asks "why", "how", "what if?" A superior teacher guides students towards important questions, gives them the tools they need to inquire, and inspires them to continue exploring for themselves.

Recently, we conducted a research project in a public school to find out how critical thinking was being taught here in the UAE. As a first step we surveyed the school leaders and teachers. All said they were committed to this goal and used specific curricula and methods to achieve it. They were unanimous in their conviction that they were teaching thinking. Then we sat in on more than a dozen classes in different subjects to determine the degree to which critical thinking was being taught. The results were eye-opening: rarely did the observed teachers use "if/then" language or "what if/suppose that" questions, nor did they ask open-ended questions that could have multiple answers to encourage students to think and conclude. They did not seek evidence from students for their stated claims, nor did they ask students to justify and explain their thoughts or responses. We didn't hear them ask: "Why do you think so?"

Nor did the teachers give students time to consider different points of view or encourage them to explore alternative possibilities. Most worryingly, they did not encourage students to ask questions, participate in discussions, or express their thoughts in any way. Of the 30 categories in the internationally-standardised observation chart we were using, 17 produced a 100 per cent failure. What we observed instead was mainly rote memorisation, low expectations of success, much concern about grades, and the use of threats. Repetition was the most common practice used.

Some teachers even memorised their entire lessons, repeating them word for word in different classes, without adding or relating information to students' previous knowledge. Science should be the most exciting subject for students, especially in the fourth and fifth grades when they start to discover, analyse, practise and conclude by themselves. But the subject was taught just like History or Arabic - through repetitive memorisation.

The teacher explained the students' distraction and lack of enthusiasm in her classes by saying that the subject was difficult and there was no fun in learning it. She was convinced her students were not capable of fully comprehending the subject much less demonstrating critical thinking. All the teachers emphasised the importance of getting high grades instead of academic effort. Grades were mentioned in every lesson, as a means to draw students' attention or to remind them to memorise important information. When grades take precedence over learning to think, the goal of schooling is to achieve good grades not to learn, even less to enjoy learning. Besides sitting in on classes, we also spoke to students.

They all said that memorisation is the only way they are encouraged to study and prepare for exams. Getting high grades by writing the exact same words, using model answers, and memorising textbook content without analysing it were their main objectives. They were all convinced that if they couldn't comprehend a subject it was because of their failure to memorise properly. One student said: "Many times I lost good grades for not writing exactly like the answer in the book. I hate to get low grades, but I don't understand why I always forget what I memorise."

But the most surprising and worrying finding of our research was the failure of teachers to realise the contradiction between what they say they do and what they actually do. All of the teachers and the school principal forcefully stated that teaching thinking was a major goal, yet in the classroom rote memorisation dominated. To know and not to act accordingly is to not know. Although we only studied one school, it may be reasonable to assume that it is typical of the majority of public (and even private) schools in the nation. That would mean that one of the most important educational goals of the country is not being achieved. And the main perpetrators seem totally unaware of what is going on.

Dr Clifton Chadwick is a senior lecturer and Roeia Thabet is a research assistant in the Faculty of Education at the British University in Dubai.

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