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Students’ poor critical thinking: Debate as a way out

NWO-promovendus Abid El Majidi schreef deze week een vakdidactische blog over het nut van debatteren bij het ontwikkelen van kritisch denken bij leerlingen.

How often have you told your students that their reasoning in an essay was poor and flawed or that they failed to present their arguments in a structured, clear, consistent and well-reasoned way. How often have you heard teachers complain about the critical thinking abilities of their students. My guess is: quite often, and rightly so.

Thinking critically is arguably one of the most essential skills underlying success in all aspects of life and work as well as in academia.

Sophisticated levels of critical thinking are essential more than ever due to the humongous amount information we receive each day that needs evaluation of some sort: online news, emails, e-messages, Facebook posts, and so on. Good thinking skills are indispensable for a successful academic and professional life since they empower us to verify and filter incoming information, evaluate the strength of evidence, present a well-founded point of view and consider alternative viewpoints. The ability to produce well-crafted and reasoned arguments and successfully evaluating them lie at the heart of many learning activities at school (e.g. writing essays, motivating answers, make informed decisions, interpretations, judgments and choices, etc.)

Yet, many scholars have voiced their concern about the impoverished critical thinking of our students. Our students seem to absorb the information they encounter without critically reflecting upon it in a logical, consistent and reasoned way.

Who should be blamed for the poor critical thinking skills of students?

This is a very pertinent question that requires due contemplation. The educational system does recognize critical thinking as one of the core objectives. So, that is not the problem. Who should we blame then? Teachers for not instructing critical thinking effectively? Publishers for not giving critical thinking enough attention in their textbooks? Or the students themselves maybe?

I don’t think teachers should be blamed because although the current educational system has accentuated the importance of critical thinking, it has not provided a practical and workable framework that would enable them to help their students improve their critical thinking skills. It seems that publishers haven’t given enough attention to these skills and accordingly students have been made scapegoats.

It’s high time we took the bull by the horns and adopted a new approach to upgrade students’ critical thinking skills. We need to revise our curricula and provide critical thinking a prominent place. Importantly, we should provide teachers with multiple research-based pedagogical tools that aid them to promote critical thinking.

One feasible route that may help foster critical thinking skills is debating. Research has provided empirical evidence that debating substantially enhances these skills. The debate environment and processes are believed to offer some of the best mechanisms for operationalizing and applying the principles of critical thinking. In addition, students admire debates. Students’ positive attitude towards debating is likely to lead to high cognitive engagement in the learning process, thereby leveraging the reasoning potential offered by the debate experience.

Debating also offers some additional benefits. Studies have shown that students improve their writing and speaking skills too when they take part in classroom debates regularly. So, there is more than one reason to engage students in debates.

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