Teaching critical thinking: A necessity born of diversity

Benedictus Widi Nugroho ,  Yogyakarta   |  Tue, 08/19/2008 10:43 AM  |  Opinion

Our society has a strong tendency to be intolerant and to use violence to resolve conflicts or against those who are different from them. The tendency is likely generated by differences of beliefs, values and/or principles.

The question is: What is the cause of this narrow mindset?

Why do people seem to deny the fact that differences naturally exist in the universe?

Part of the issue is probably school classroom instruction in this country, which is heavily centered on the teacher rather than students.

For decades education in Indonesia has been dominated by teacher-centered instruction and rote learning. I remember very well what my teacher would do in her history class while I was in junior high school. She would come into the classroom, sit down and begin to lecture. All students would sit, listen to the lecture and take notes.

The teacher would also ask her students to memorize all names of the ministers who had assumed office in the Cabinet. Another teacher required students to be able to name the cities where the National Sports Week had been held, including the dates and years they took place.

These examples are perhaps commonplace in most Indonesian classrooms even today.

The critical question is: Do students really learn this way?

If learning is defined as receiving tons and tons of factual information, then they probably do. But, do they develop their thinking? I doubt it.

Facts are undeniably important. We cannot develop our thinking without first knowing about facts upon which our reasoning is based.

Indonesian education curriculum has changed several times, but educational practices in this country remain unchanged. The teacher has always been center stage. Teachers are believed to be all-knowing, almost infallible, and ready to dump information into their students’ head. Students, on the other hand, are seen as blank slates that have no prior knowledge or experience whatsoever.

In teacher-centered instruction, information flows from the teacher to students, and rarely the other way around. The teacher seems to hold the authority to decide what is right or wrong for his or her students. Students probably ask a few questions, and the teacher answers them.

But open discussions, where students can challenge their teacher’s and classmate’s points of view, are very rare. An exchange of ideas between the teacher and students and among students, simply does not exist.

Here lies the problem: Students never learn how to see things from different perspectives.

Classroom instruction without doubt influences the way students think and how they view the world around them. If they are not taught how to see things from multiple perspectives, the chances are they will not. They will embrace an either/or way of thinking, or narrow-mindedness.

An either/or way of thinking suggests that if A is right, B must be wrong, or if B is right, A must be wrong. So, if you think your opinion is right, other opinions must be wrong. If you think your religion is the only true way to God, other religions must not be true.

If you think you come from the “right” ethnicity, people from other ethnic groups must be “wrong”. The list is endless. One can imagine what kind of country Indonesia will be if it is built upon either/or mindset.

Paradigm shifting in educational practice at this point becomes a critical issue. In the context of Indonesia’s pluralistic and diverse society, there is a strong need for classroom instruction emphasizing the thought process. The teacher should start to think about shifting his or her teacher-centered instruction, which is heftily focused on presentation, towards learner-centered instruction, which is greatly focused on engaging students in the thought process.

Instead of being seen as blank slates, students should be treated as living and dynamic human beings with their own way of thinking, prior knowledge and prior experience. The teacher’s responsibility is to provide instruction that will allow students to use their thinking to relate new information to their prior knowledge and experience.

Relating new material to existing ideas, knowledge and experiences is perhaps the most essential in the teaching of critical thinking. The meaningfulness theory proposed by David Ausubel in 1978 puts a great emphasis on the role of prior knowledge in creating meaningful learning.

This research-based theory holds that learning is made meaningful when a learner consciously relates new information to the existing knowledge stored in the long-term memory. Supporting this theory is the information-processing theory that suggests information that has meaning will be stored in the long-term memory.

In the case of our history class, for instance, the teacher may ask students to compare and contrast one event with another, and find the similarities and differences between the two.

The teacher may ask: “What are the similarities and differences between Sriwijaya Kingdom in Sumatra (new information) and Majapahit Kingdom in Java (existing prior knowledge)?”

Students may also be asked to make a reflection on the basis of a particular event in history: “What would I do if I were Prince Diponegoro? Would I do as he had done?”

This way, students are engaged in the thought process that makes learning meaningful.

In a pluralistic and diverse society like Indonesia, teaching critical thinking in the classroom is an absolute necessity. Critical thinking promotes tolerance and open-mindedness, teaches students to be more reflective and develops a sense of positive skepticism.

The author, a teacher at SMA Kolese De Britto, Yogyakarta, is currently attending a graduate program at Loyola University Chicago, the United States. He can be reached at widinugrohous@yahoo.com

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