HOW CRITICAL IS OUR THINKING? FISHING FOR ANSWERS

I must confess right at the beginning that I am not a fisherman – quite a dangerous confession for someone living in Zimbabwe! It may have something to do with the fact that I do not really like eating fish but probably more to do with the fact that I was raised in Scotland where the thought of standing out in the pouring rain and freezing cold for hours on end waiting for something to happen did not exactly endear itself to me. Fishing in Zimbabwe though is different – sitting in beautiful surroundings in glorious temperatures with cool drinks and inspiring company does give a different gloss to the idea!

I raise all this because when I started teaching I recall the ‘in’ saying was very much this: “Give a man a fish and you will feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.” Of course, in the intervening years you may have come across some humorous alternative versions including some of these: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.” “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you can get rid of him for a whole weekend.” “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. Enlighten him further, he owns a chain of seafood restaurants.” “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you can sell him fishing equipment.” They all put a different slant on this important principle.

I write all this because it has been stated in recent times by various speakers and overseas universities that Zimbabwean schools do not produce the sort of youngsters that they would like to work for them. In particular, they indicated there are two areas where we fail: critical thinking and problem solving.

What then is the connection in what I have been saying so far? In short, I believe that (in general terms) we are still giving our pupils fish rather than teaching them how to fish; we are simply spoon-feeding and giving pupils answers instead of teaching them how to think for themselves. We are not encouraging, exhibiting or enhancing critical thinking.

“Why do you say that?” you may ask me, critically! On the academic side, we still operate in the manner of giving our pupils “fish” when we give our pupils marks (instead of comments and advice on how they might improve); we give our pupils handouts (instead of getting them to look for answers or getting them to think where they might find the answers); we give our pupils the answers (instead of re-phrasing the questions); we give our pupils notes (instead of letting them note what they need to remember); we give our pupils instructions in their Reports (to try harder, to revise thoroughly and the like, instead of evaluating what they have learned and not learned.)

It is the same on the sports-fields, which are an integral part of education. Here, coaches give instructions and directions from the touch-line non-stop throughout the match – “Mark”, “Tackle”, “Shoot”, “Get back”, “Pass” and so on (all of which are ridiculously obvious). They are what I call ‘Play Station Coaches’ as they are playing the game from the side-lines, moving the players around where they want. They are not helping the players to think for themselves about what is going wrong and what they should be doing. Then at half-time the coach steps in and spends the time telling the team what they were doing wrong. No critical thinking is required of the players; no learning is taking place. No thinking, no learning.

In short, what we are doing is spoon-feeding. We are giving our pupils answers so they will pass today’s (or this year’s) exam/match instead of teaching our pupils how to think so they can learn throughout their whole life. It is much easier, quicker, more fruitful, less stressful, if we give a man a fish/give a pupil the answer but it is clearly only a short-term solution. Of course, we justify it by citing pressure of examinations, the curriculum, KRAs, appraisals, Departmental schemes, percentage pass rates and the like.The problem is that if we give a man a fish/give a pupil the answer, they will expect more from the same source in the future – they will be reliant on others all
the time.

As a result of all this, our emphasis has become too much on the teaching instead of on the learning and thinking. We should be doing the asking; they should be doing the thinking, the answering (but too often we are scared of silence, of no answer, of awkward embarrassment). If they do not understand, we tend to ask the same question or give the same explanation again!

It is all short-term, easy, quick – it is the same as going to the supermarket and buying a fish there. They have not fished and so they have missed out on half the fun and they have not learnt or gained anything.

So what should we be doing? How do we teach them to think critically? We need to apply our own critical thinking to find out. I would suggest that the fishing analogy will still give us some direction. So, just as a fisherman must find the right bait, we need to know what will lure our pupils to think more deeply. If we know our pupils love and understand cricket we may be able to get them to see “Hamlet” (say, if we are studying that book) in cricketing terms – we lure them into wanting to find out more. We need to cast our line, cast the questions in the right place – as a fisherman has to think like a fish, so we need to think like our pupils (which will be very different from how we think). We need to be patient and wait in the silence, to give them a chance – pupils, like fish, do not react immediately. We must be careful how we ‘reel’ them in once they are on the line.

We are to teach our youngsters to think for themselves, to think critically. We need to help (rather than teach) them to ask questions (not to ask for the answers), to examine relevant evidence, to analyse, to summarise, to evaluate, to interpret, to apply correctly, to research, to reflect, to reason. They need to to know how to find answers, how to explore ideas, how to understand what is not said as much as what is said. In asking questions, we are teaching them how to ask questions – so what sort of questions are we asking them? We need to help and encourage them to be open-minded, without any gross assumptions, blind acceptance or deep prejudices. Where critical thinking has been defined as being “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing”, we need to ensure they are indeed active and developing these skills. We need to be confident within ourselves to allow and encourage our pupils to question and find answers for themselves – all too often we actually tend to punish pupils who question as we see it as a threat towards us, as a rebellion against us. How often do we respond to a child who asks us a question by asking what they think? Rather, we will give them the answer, there and then, rather smug that they have realised that we know the answer.

So, what do you think? How critical, do you think, is thinking? As teachers, we are likely to argue that it is our teaching that is critical, not the pupils’ thinking. We have the knowledge; we have the expertise; we have the experience – yes, in other words, we have the power! However, our teaching is useless if it is not geared to helping them to think critically. So we will do well to apply critical thinking of our own now to what has been written here, to examine our own teaching (is the emphasis more on our teaching rather than their learning?). Will we blindly accept all that is written or will we lay it alongside our current practice, considering if it describes how we teach or coach?

ATS is committed to “promoting education excellence” – critical thinking is part of the process of striving for that excellence. ATS will do what we can to assist teachers develop critical thinking in their own teaching and in the pupils’ learning. Fishing may not become an official school sport but it will be an appropriate illustration of what we must do as teachers.

Give a pupil your thoughts and he will (usually) pass the exam; teach a pupil how to think and you will equip him for life – and he can still go fishing at the weekend! So apply the right bait, cast the line in the appropriate spot and be ready to reel the ‘fish’ in.