Illustration: ISTOCK
Illustration: ISTOCK

Peek through the window of any South African classroom and, with minor variations, you will see the same dull routines from one day to the next. The teacher stands in front of the class, speaks for much of the period and then dismisses the pupils to continue to the next lesson with a reminder of the homework due the next day. One policy reform after another has tried to change this situation (remember Curriculum 2005?) and failed dismally. The sage-on-the-stage never did become the-guide-on-the-side.

Teachers have a ready explanation for the status quo — the pressure of curriculum coverage. In other words, there is too little time to be creative and allow for discussion because there is too much content to be covered. That of course is the problem: they “cover” or conceal the content under the relentless pressure to complete a packed curriculum and prepare children for examinations. The primary problem, however, is not coverage; it is simply habit. Delivering a lesson is not only familiar, it is also much easier to do than facilitating a complex discussion on the question, “Why would poor people vote for a political party that keeps them poor?” And then there is the question of how to do it. How does one instill critical thinking in a classroom?

This was a question senior education professionals recently asked me to address. Let's pose the question differently: What does a classroom that values creative thinking look like? To begin with, an outsider looking in would hear a buzz in the classroom as pupils pose questions about a tricky problem posed by the teacher. You would see pupils summoning evidence in making public arguments. Rival positions on a problem would be scrutinised. Such a classroom would tolerate ambiguity — the pupils would feel comfortable with uncertainty as they ponder a puzzle or dilemma. The teacher, ever the Socrates, would take what pupils say and nudge them deeper in their thinking towards possible solutions. A really confident teacher might even acknowledge that she does not know something, and refer the pupils to other sources.

Of course this seldom happens, but what can teachers do to create critical-thinking classrooms? To begin with, you cannot teach what you are not. This means you need to model critical thought in your everyday practice. If you insist that there is one way to solve a quadratic equation or that there are four reasons for the Great Trek, you are stifling critical dispositions among your learners. If you are fearful of pupils leading discussions, or asking uncomfortable questions, then rest assured they will become like you. A dogmatic and self-assured adult who knows all the answers, whether a parent or teacher or priest, creates the deep furrows along which young minds travel.

It happens all the time. “Why must I make up my bed?” asks your child and you respond: “Because I said so!” Bad answer. “Why is sex before marriage wrong?” asks the teenager, to which the Christian leader responds: “Because the Bible says so.” Terrible reply. “Why must I vote for the ruling party?” The party operative replies, “Because it's cold outside.” In short, you cannot sustain a critical classroom environment inside an uncritical society.

Like all bad habits, they only change when replaced with something new. Practice problem-posing questions, from mathematics and physical science, to literature and history. Learn the habit of asking why-questions, not only what- and how-questions. Seize on everyday conundrums such as whether a white disabled woman from a poor family should benefit from employment equity over an able-bodied black man from a middle-class family. Watch the sparks fly.

Teach pupils the value of reason by giving them the tools of reasoning. Here's a tough question: Why are there more black players in the national cricket side than in the Springbok rugby team? Tease out issues of race and class with an analysis of which schools the players in the two sporting codes attended. Moderate emotions and reward logic and restraint. Lay emphasis on listening and respect for contrarian opinions. Have young people memorise the famous quote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In the process you will be building a counter-cultural classroom and not only a critical- thinking environment. But you must do this as a habit of practice every single day. By building such democratic habits into the course of the mainstream curriculum it becomes part of everyday teaching and learning and not something added on under the guise of what is sometimes called “enrichment”.

But for this approach to learning and living to work, it will require buy-in from all teachers, not only those in schools.

- The Times

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