Critical thinking is an interesting word when it appears in translation. In English, the connotations are generally positive. It is commonly referred to as one of the key skills needed to prepare children for the 21st century, which seemed like such a long way away, but now happens to be nearly eighteen percent over. For this reason, we are no longer just preparing children for the 21st Century. We are living it. In this sense, it would probably be appropriate to be thinking about the 22nd Century, but getting ready for the hear and now; the 21st. It will be over before we know it.
As part of this preparation for a rapidly changing world, we send our children to school to learn, but learn what? They learn content that is divided roughly into academic disciplines, but as a parent, it is not so much what your child is learning that should interest you, as most of it can be Googled, rather you should be interested in what they can do with that content. How does it help them to come to understand their world?
Above the subject based content, there is a set of skills that are encountered in all subject areas. One of those is critical thinking. Critical thinking skills help to ensure that you are sensitive to the intentions behind the different information that bombards you? In its English form, the term does not have a negative connotation, yet in its Japanese form, the meaning of critical thinking does not translate so smoothly in the educational setting as the idea of looking at something ‘negatively’ comes through relatively strongly in the literal Japanese translation. It seems that this slight problem of translation between the English and Japanese usage of the term is causing mixed-feelings in the Japanese school system where moves are underway to bring a more critical perspective into approaches to teaching and learning.
Critical thinking, at least as the educational concept, is not about finding something wrong, or inherently bad. We understand that the basis of communication is intention and interpretation. Developing critical thinking skills is about discerning oftentimes subtle intentions in messages that may not be readily apparent. The portrayal of body image in the media is an example of one of these messages. Communication in all its forms is intentional to a degree, but messages are interpreted in many different ways by the audience, so if our children are going to understand their world they need to be able to think critically. As a number of Japanese schools embrace the International Baccalaureate programs, teachers and school administrators may need to revise their understanding of critical thinking and shift their deeply embedded styles of teaching and learning.
Critical thinking skills allow children to discern intent and form more independent ideas. The process does, however, necessitate students challenging the content they are exposed to, questioning the texts they use and the words of their teachers. Of course, more didactic teaching methods and content-driven, memory-based approaches to teaching and learning will not foster critical thinking. The question that confronts us is how far will school systems be willing to bend and shift in order to develop these all-important critical thinking skills? Do we really want our children to be able to question the world? If so, our school systems have some work to do.