Thinking Critically – Part II

An Ever Present Lens

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi

A lens that was ever present in pursuit of the truth by educators, students and citizens (who chose to use it) was Critical Thinking. The theory was always there before it became the cornerstone of 21st Century Education and Skills. The concept became the overarching foundation regarding students addressing knowledge, skills, work ethic, and character traits believed by educators, school reformers, college professors and employers to be required.

Critical Thinking was said to be critically important – required in order to succeed in today’s ever changing world. Curricula and their mapping were reconstructed by the tenets of criticality impacting every subject and age from kindergarten to graduate students. It was still ok to succeed by way of memorization and standardized tests, but students were now asked to move beyond rote learning by thinking critically, provide data, probe research, compare and contrast findings, use logic and substantiate thinking. Filling in little circles replaced by extended critical essays, debate and collaborative multi-media presentations. Critical Thinking was not a matter of just expediting assigned homework and taking a test on it. Students were asked to address epistemology – the very nature of the knowledge with benevolent skepticism, imagination and creativity.

Throughout the 1990s public, faith-based, gender-based, independent, private and home-schooling was being bombarded by the unequivocal reality that America’s student population was seriously lagging behind the world in student performance and skills. This was a critical call to arms as our students were falling dramatically behind as to the acquisition and application of knowledge. A reality that would eventually impact jobs – lest we forget CITIZENSHIP.

Schools had more than enough findings from the Pew Research Center, Education Research Center, National Center for Education Research, US News and World Reports, plus every College of Education across the country affirming that the USA was not number 1 in educating its children and citizens – it had fallen into the 20s.  

Schools decided to catch up and address the shameful reality of American students falling further behind the world in a host of subjects. Educators were faced with stark realities that politicians only admitted every four years – America was not educating its children – its citizenry in order to keep up with the 21st century. This ever present fact was affirmed by The International Education Database that serves as a public center to survey, evaluate, and report the progress of the educational goals of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal Initiative (2015 to 2030). It ranked the USA 26th out of 201 countries in the education of its children. The rankings for Math, Science were as deplorable for a country often pointing the finger to the sky as Number 1.

Ironically, 21st Century Skills were already part and parcel of the International Baccalaureate (IB Program) founded in 1968 that fostered and interwove Critical Thinking in all of its required subjects – providing the jewel of the program – The Theory of Knowledge. Wow, students were being challenged to address epistemology – knowledge itself was under the microscope.

Unfortunately, not many schools in the USA made the effort to inquire about the IB curriculum, its international tenets, the requirements and training of teachers, its ideology to prepare students as problem solvers, how critical thinking underscored all teaching and leaning processes, how teaching was not about dumping content into the brain and students regurgitating memorized language but rather how to use knowledge to solve worldwide critical issues. The same problems that still threaten us today in America.  

The IB began at Lower Schools starting at the age of 3 – no reason to wait to begin thinking critically. Middle School and High School IB students were introduced to an inquiry-led transdisciplinary framework challenging students to critically probe, research, think for themselves, collaborate with others and take responsibility for their learning as they explore local/global issues in real time, in real-life contexts and deal with problem solving. Imagination and creativity were made part of criticality’s journey along with experiential experiences and community service. It was a challenging curriculum focused on students becoming astute international/universal students – and better yet – responsible global citizens and human beings. Homework was about researching, comparing, contrasting, communicating with a fellow student across state lines and oceans.

A shift took place in 2000s with most public schools emphasizing 21st Century Skills and Critical Thinking. Tools such as observation, processing, analyzing, comparing/contrasting, synthesizing and evaluating and solving real life social issues. Educators and students faced a world that had dramatically changed before their very eyes. A positive outcome of critical thinking skills would be to produce generations of responsible citizens and voters who would pursue the amplification of democracy, social justice, equity and inclusivity. Fear and ignorance about others and difference would be replaced by knowledge, historical reexamination,  counterstories, logic, compassion, empathy – moving beyond tolerance by choice and with reason.

21st Century students would now be equipped with the criticality needed to pursue truth wherever it would lead. But there was a major national glitch – a paradox. Students found themselves on one end of a tug of war. While 21 Century students were scrutinizing social issues with problem solving tools, they witnessed adults – some of their parents, grandparents and neighbors (labeled the Greatest Generation) using absolute antiquated tools of obstruction, deregulation, institutional incest, attending rallies to justify fears, bitterness and anger screaming to “Make America Great Again!” “Wanting Their America Back!”

Hold on, there was a major glitch! Adults were supposed to be respected, admired and depended upon for their knowledge, demeanor, mentorship, honesty and citizenship. Why did such adults and their leaders blame, accuse, deny and degrade others for their otherness and differences? Students were conflicted – what and who to believe. Fortunately, 21st Century students had critical tools to provide some clarity. They wanted more than the droning of ear-splitting contrived talking points. They would have to continue walking into the 21st Century on their own.

21st Century students were also scrutinizing politicians financially supported by special interest groups that prioritized power and control ahead of global quality of life issues. 21st Century students realized that they had been sold out and had to be the ones to change their country regarding their planet, health care, 21st century jobs, education, gun control, social justice, equity, voting rights and focus on authenticating and amplifying the tenets of democracy – unlike prior generations – live the examined life.

There is a deafening dictum attributed to Socrates that perhaps the producers at Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and PBS should consider – just one chyron scrolling at the bottom of every TV in HD – 24/7 – regardless of the host, pundits and breaking news…

“An unexamined life is not worth living.” … “An unexamined life is not worth living.” … “An unexamined life is not worth living.” … “An unexamined life is not worth living.”