Wide angle Education

Be a Socratic thinker

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Recently, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal made references to the focus on critical thinking in the National Education Policy 2020. While the term is mentioned eight times in the document, nowhere can we find the definition.

It is stated that “education must develop students’ cognitive capacities such as critical thinking and problem solving” (page 4); critical thinking is “one of the fundamental principles that will guide both the education system at large, as well as the individual institutions within it” (page 5) and that there will be “definitive shifts in school education to a more play and discovery based style of learning with emphasis on the scientific method and critical thinking.” (p-47) What is critical thinking? Do policy makers have a clear understanding of it? What are the characteristics of critical thinkers? Do teachers have the freedom to teach and the power to exercise their critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not a new concept. ‘Socratic questioning’ or the ‘Socratic teaching’ technique is considered the foundation of critical thinking. A Socratic teacher does not believe in spoon-feeding or providing answers, but is trained to ask questions and make students think. In India too, some great teachers have practised it for centuries.


A simple definition of critical thinking is “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skilfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.” (Source: criticalthinking.org)

The characteristics of good critical thinkers include open-mindedness, inquisitiveness, objectivity, analytical reasoning, awareness of logical fallacies, ability to identify biases, willingness to raise vital questions, desire to change the status quo, intellectual courage, and intellectual humility.

In my view, the ultimate aim of teaching critical thinking is to help students become real intellectuals who show their intellectual courage whenever needed. Such people have “a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs or viewpoints toward which one has strong negative emotions”. They demonstrate their intellectual courage by looking at issues, prevailing ideas and policies of the government objectively, expressing their views on such issues boldly and taking a principled stand. The opposite of intellectual courage is submissiveness or acquiescence.

Critical thinking skills are vital for reformation and social change. What happens when teachers and students become good critical thinkers? They become informed citizens, start looking at things critically, question the status quo, and dissent. Critical thinking and dissent go together.

Now, at a time when dissent is treated as treason, questioning the integrity of judges is considered contempt of court, those who question the status quo are branded rebels, those who exercise their freedom of speech are targeted, everyone is scared of applying their critical thinking. In this unconducive environment, is it possible to foster critical thinking in students? Is the nation ready to face the consequences?

The writer is an academic, columnist and teacher educator. rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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Printable version | Dec 1, 2020 11:42:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/critical-thinking-will-help-students-show-their-intellectual-courage/article32703134.ece

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