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Schools and their students need to know how to think

A new school year begins in the UAE and so too does the latest effort to create world-class schools to produce graduates for a knowledge-based economy. For the country to continue to adapt, its educational system must be reformed.

A new school year begins in the UAE and so too does the latest effort to create world-class schools to produce graduates for a knowledge-based economy. For the country to continue to adapt, its educational system must be reformed. But as in years past, the current efforts for reform appear to stress the accumulation of information and being able to apply it to practical use. There is much lip service about the idea of teaching pupils how to think but very little in practice. Mark Twain's quip about the weather may describe the situation best: "Everybody talks about it but no one does anything about it."

Most schools claim that they teach thinking, and most of them may actually think that they teach thinking. But the ability of schools to analyse what they are doing in the classroom is abysmal. My researchers and I have visited schools throughout this country, the region and throughout the world. We have visited very expensive schools that offer the International Baccalaureate curriculum and claim that they teach thinking. The basic result: they teach the content of the subject and hope that somehow students will learn how to think about it on their own.

And what are the majority of schools doing? Mostly teaching children to memorise a huge pile of information in the hope that somehow this will make them competent enough to compete in the modern world. To a certain extent this is understandable: curriculums have mostly taught content for hundreds of years. The Latin root of the word curriculum means racecourse, emphasising that what a student learns is more important than how the student learns. How students use what they learn to confront the real world matters even less.

There is no doubt that learning starts with acquiring very large amounts of information about subjects such as maths, language, science, history and others. We acquire language skills at home. In school we attain a greater vocabulary and learn the rules, structure and syntax that govern language. We learn maths mostly in school. But the impeccable logic of maths students often get through osmosis or not at all.

Science teaching seems to be imbued with the primacy of experience over its inherent principles, which I find worrisome. If one learns any subject without learning its structure, one has only accumulated a lot of information, which probably will not be very useful. And that, unfortunately, is what happens in most public and private schools. So how should students learn to think? It is possible to suggest a plan for learning that will truly help students to think in five parts.

First, the student should learn something - mostly languages, maths, natural science, history and related subjects. But instead of simply memorising information, the student should learn to use cognitive strategies to facilitate the learning of the subject matter - the verbal information, concepts, rules and principles that contribute to the logic and structure of a given discipline. Second, and crucially, the student must develop certain attitudes about learning the subject, such as persistence, positiveness, mastery and self-efficacy.

Third, the student should learn a great deal about the mastery and analysis of information, such as the importance of clarity, objectivity and the subject's greater significance. In my experience, this aspect of education is simply absent from most learning that occurs in schools. Fourth, the student should learn to be aware of what and how he is learning: when and how to use certain strategies, when to review, rehearse and evaluate what is being learnt. Without understanding and applying an overall structure to what they are learning, students will have trouble applying their knowledge. This process is called meta-cognition: what you know about what you know.

Fifth, students must apply what they have learnt critically through retrospection, analysis, evaluation and synthesis to fully incorporate what they have learnt to resolve problems. Some people say that thinking is solving problems. Even if both processes are related, solving problems is different from thinking about ideas. All five elements of learning that I describe must be interactive. One cannot think without content so learning new ideas is important. If a student does not have a positive attitude about thinking, he will not be a good thinker no matter how much content he has accumulated. And a good attitude and knowledge will not be enough if the student has not learnt the rules and intellectual standards of a given subject: what is and is not credible information and logically organised. Self-awareness and applying the right cognitive strategies are also required.

These five steps can be taught in schools but rarely are. That is a tragedy. It seems that such a clear idea about how to teach thinking should be easy for teachers to adopt and apply but this is not the case. Teachers focus too much on imparting information and have too much pressure placed upon them to cover an "official" curriculum. There are few incentives for them to do anything different. Education systems in the UAE and many places throughout the world do not focus enough on how students learn to think. This is a systemic failure that impedes their improvement. Until schools in the UAE address their inability to teach thinking, the nation will not produce students and graduates for the knowledge economy it desires.

Dr Clifton Chadwick is a senior lecturer in the faculty of education at the British University in Dubai

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