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Critical Thinking: The heart, spine and soul of quality education [Pt 1]

BY: Anis Haffar
Education of teachers in critical thinking abilities

Happy New Year to all readers. May the year 2016 shower the nation with the blessings of superior ideas, and the courage to act on those ideas for the good of all. Amen!

This brave new world of prosperity, cleanliness, good health, and quality of life are open to all nations and not just to a few. The bigger challenge, as shown on CNN all through 2015, is to “Make, Create, Innovate”.

Of the titles produced over the years in this column, the pieces on Critical Thinking include those that have elicited readers’ interests and sensitivities the most, and hence the need to revisit selected observations for this month, January.

Certain schools have posted some Critical Thinking pieces on the bulletin boards in their libraries, common rooms, hallways, and classrooms as guides to relevant education in the 21st century.

Key questions are as follows:

Of what use is education if it does not help learners and their teachers to think fresh thoughts consistently? Of what use are the new ideas themselves if those thoughts are not acted upon to improve the quality of life? 

How long will it take Ghana, and other poor African countries to leave the depraved Third World status into the First World as our contemporaries did from the 1960s? What is it about Africa’s leadership that have – over the years - caused so much depravity and pain for the majority of the people? Can education help?

Adding value to Ghana’s natural resources
From the Gold coast era to the present Ghana – the passive education taught pupils to draw the map of the country in exercise books, and insert the mineral wealth of the country there. Pupils were required to memorise and identify the various regions where gold, diamond, bauxite, manganese, and all the other riches were found.

This task was done dutifully by the youth, and in terminal exams the best papers were awarded 10/10, with the satisfactory remark, “Very Good”. That was how our education started and ended with certificates. Today, the docile model continues.

Little did we know that while we were memorising and copying the idea of gold naively in exercise books, places such as Australia, South Africa, and California had been busy adding value to the precious metal, and growing top class cities with top quality roads, water supplies, hospitals, housing, excellent schools, and the rest.

Applied Education
I am often reminded of an experience at one of the leading universities in Ghana where I attempted to use a washroom. The pile in the toilet bowl was such that with no water running through the pipes, the whole area was stinking.

But out on the walkway, a large pipe in a water chamber was broken, and continued to gush out good water endlessly. But, right across the road was a sign that read, “Faculty of Applied Sciences”. When will the science be applied to fix broken pipes? How much science, research, and theory does one need to know that harvesting rainwater or investing in boreholes can keep the toilets clean all year round in everybody’s interest?

Affective competencies
The linear type of decadent education is exactly the type that skips what I’d call “The Affective Competencies”: curiosity, initiative, creativity, perseverance, audacity: the sort of competencies that moulded some of the most powerful game changers in the world: Jay Zee (entrepreneur), Mark Zuckerberg (a social media icon) Charles Branson (the Virgin brand), the Wright brothers (aviation), and the great icon, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple computers.

It is bad enough to be obsolete and not know it; but it is worse when the youth are persistently afflicted by some dull tutor’s ingrown inhibitions and stale state of mind.

Respecting learners’ ideas
These days, how the learners’ own ideas can be induced and applied – as a celebrated achievement – is the essence of true education. Even with the best intentions, unless instructional objectives are designed with students’ hands-on applications in mind, the best efforts are likely to be wasted.

Meaningful projects that fit the youth’s interests are therapeutic; they affirm the person’s confidence for greater things to come. Also, they rescue the youth from the trenches of boredom in the classrooms, sitting, listening and copying. A good project prevents education from the danger of paling into insignificance.

Shared responsibility in teaching and learning prevents the frustration of misplaced effort which often results in outbreaks of mass incompetence. Ghana, with a huge student population – has yet to realise the immense potential of the youth.

Empowering the youth
Quality education boils down to empowering the youth to chart experiential paths, knowing that geniuses are supported and encouraged that way. The days of merely sitting, memorising stuff – filling in the blanks or ticking off multiple choice and true/false questions – are fast receding into oblivion.

As those petty chores pale off (and they must), they have to be replaced by bold initiatives that bring out the authentic abilities of the youth; and they may be measured by “Authentic Assessments” of live accomplishments.

If ever there were a trend in modern education to seek out the outliers, it was to support the youth to be innovative, to work in teams as collaborators, to hypothesise, to follow their own curiosities, to discover their authentic selves and to prevail. The progressive world is moving in that direction, and Ghana must join the move.

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