Education

Critical thinking: a post-truth remedy

Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi   | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

“I’m sorry, Jeannie, your answer was correct, but Kevin shouted his incorrect answer over yours, so he gets the points,” says the quiz master to a group of participants, in a cartoon with the caption “Facts don’t matter.” The cartoon gives a clear picture of the post-truth and surreal world. Oxford Dictionaries (OD) announced post-truth as its 2016 International Word of the Year. Post-truth “relates to or denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Coincidentally, the word ‘surreal’, which refers to something marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream, is Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2016.

In the post-truth and surreal era, we are constantly bombarded with messages that can be labeled as “half-truth” or “no-truth.” Propagandists speak in such a way that the targeted people believe and accept disinformation as information. They are successful in their mission as they are convinced that the audiences can be persuaded, manipulated and deceived. Lies that are told in a convincing way are treated as truth and result in shaping public opinion. Lies coupled with emotional appeals win the hearts of the weak who do not know how to differentiate between falsehood and truth, information and disinformation, honesty and dishonesty. We live in a world where deceit, disinformation, distortion, falsehood and fiction try to have victory over information and truth. In the post-truth era, certain lies are considered too benign to be treated as lies.

What is the role of educators in the post-truth world? The U.S.-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has identified communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking (known as 4Cs) as the skills required for 21st century education. In my view, critical thinking is the most important of the four skills in the post-truth and surreal century. There is an urgent need to foster critical thinking in students and help them distinguish between information and misinformation/disinfor-mation. Critical thinking, according to Health and Physical Education in the New Zealand Curriculum (1999), is “examining, questioning, evaluating, and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions about issues and practices”. The critical mind is the inquisitive and fact-finding mind. Critical thinkers do not take anything for granted. They question every piece of information they receive, analyse and evaluate it based on their previous knowledge and then arrive at a conclusion. They ask questions such as Who said it? What is his/her intention? Is the information authentic? Why is it important? How does it affect us? They are also able to recognise their own preconceptions.

In many ways critical thinking can be fostered in the classroom. The 4Cs are interconnected. To achieve the fourth C, that is critical thinking, the other 3Cs can be used as tools.

Communication

Teachers should encourage students to ask questions about everything they are interested in. Teachers need not be the source of knowledge always. Learners themselves can be resourceful and they can answer the questions posed by their peers. Teachers should also encourage students to question all assumptions. By celebrating students’ curiosity, teachers can develop learners’ communication as well as critical thinking skills. Teachers also should challenge the students by asking open-ended questions that will make them think creatively and critically.

Collaboration

It is important to make learners feel that they are part of a group. Teachers should encourage group activities and promote collaboration and team skills among students. When students discuss topics in groups, they get an opportunity to look at issues with different perspectives and analyse them in different ways. Group activities, if planned well, will promote collaboration rather than competition. In a collaborative group, there is room for creative and critical thinking.

Creativity

When students are engaged in problem-solving activities, they learn to think for themselves. When they are encouraged to find solutions to various problems that they encounter, they become more creative and in the process they become critical thinkers.

Here is an activity. The teacher can take any current issue and find out what students know about the issue and how they feel about it. A healthy and unbiased discussion can help the students develop their critical thinking skills. For example, let us take the issue of demonetisation. The teacher can initiate discussion based on these questions: What do you understand by the term demonetisation? Why did the government decide to demonetise 500- and 1,000-rupee notes? What is your view on demonetisation? On what basis have you formed the view? What was your initial reaction to demonetisation? Why did you react that way? How do you respond to your friends’ views on demonetisation? How did you react to political leaders’ views on demonetisation? If you were to write a letter to the editor expressing your views on demonetisation, what would you write?

Photocopies of some letters on the issue of demonetisation that appeared in various newspapers can be distributed to students and a healthy discussion can be conducted with the intention of making students become aware of the issue, analyse it, and form a judgement.

Teachers can call themselves educators only when they can help learners cultivate their thinking systematically, analyse issues objectively and form a good judgement. Do educational institutions in India help students acquire these skills? Is it not the responsibility of educators to foster these skills? Is it not important for schools and colleges to incorporate critical thinking into the curriculum?

The writer is professor of English and head, higher education at KCG College of Technology, Chennai. He can be contacted at rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 9:49:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/Critical-thinking-a-post-truth-remedy/article17108415.ece

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