Critical Thinking Inquiry

As education professors who have written and presented extensively on critical thinking, and as authors of a leading critical thinking text, Reason in the Balance: An Inquiry Approach to Critical Thinking, we were disappointed to read the proposed new Alberta K-6 curriculum. Our recent work with Alberta educators, including doing keynote presentations on critical thinking at the Southern Alberta Teachers’ Convention, has given us insight into the curriculum currently in place. We are strongly supportive of the emphasis it gives to critical thinking as a central goal of education and to inquiry and critical thinking as guiding ideas across the curriculum. In contrast, the new curriculum proposal, with its emphasis on factual learning, pays little serious attention to critical thinking, either as a goal or in terms of its approach to curriculum.

The proposed curriculum ignores the clear educational needs of Alberta students and Alberta society in the 21st century. Students are facing a dramatically changing information, economic and social world—a  world which requires thoughtful and innovative approaches to contemporary challenges. In order to meet these challenges, Alberta needs an education system that produces graduates who have a solid knowledge base and depth of understanding, who can think knowledgeably and carefully about this world, and who can make productive and innovative contributions to society. Alberta graduates also need to know how to acquire and assess the additional information necessary to make reasonable personal decisions about what to believe, and what career and lifestyle choices to make.  As citizens, along with understanding Canadian and world history, they need to know how to assess policy proposals and participate in an informed way in the political process. They will need, in short, to be critical thinkers, people who know how to think about complex issues and make reasonable judgments. And preparation for this cannot start too early.

This curriculum proposal seems to be based on the assumption that students need to acquire a large amount of information first before they can think. And it seems to assume that the elementary grades are the venue for the amassing of such information rather than for thinking, and that thinking will come later – if it comes at all. This is plainly mistaken and misunderstands what critical thinking is all about. It is not an extra to be added on at a later stage after students have amassed a great deal of information about a subject. Rather, critical inquiry is an approach to learning the subject matter, but with a purpose, to find things out, to seek out and evaluate the information, and to make reasoned judgments. Learning through critical inquiry is meaningful and engages students in their learning. It provides deep understanding of a subject matter as opposed to superficial acquaintance. There is also considerable evidence that it leads to retention of what is learned in contrast to a memorization approach, which often results in forgetting. (How many of us remember the vast collection of facts that we were forced to memorize in school, or even remembered them after the final exam?). And, importantly, learning through critical inquiry leads to the ability to think through issues in a careful and rigorous way, and to come up with innovative solutions to pressing problems.

Our interactions with Alberta educators in schools and at the University of Lethbridge Faculty of Education have demonstrated to us the promise of and excitement generated by an approach to teaching and curriculum that focuses on critical thinking and inquiry. In particular, we have had the pleasure of working with two impressive Alberta teachers who use an inquiry approach in their teaching with great success. 

One is a science teacher, whose work has shown that science can be taught with a critical thinking perspective and not just the memorization of formulas, or following experiment recipes, and that students can be empowered to do their own research on topics that engage and concern them. Such an educational experience gives students an understanding of important scientific facts and concepts and a basic understanding of how science works. But it also empowers them to be thoughtful consumers of the kind of scientific information which they will encounter in their lives, whether related to personal lifestyle choices or the global environment.

The other is a teacher at the kindergarten level whose practice clearly demonstrates that very young children are entirely capable of critical thinking. In inquiring into the question of what would be an appropriate pet for the class, her students learned about the characteristics of various animals, but also about school board policies regarding animals, about money in having to decide how to finance the pet acquisition and count the money they collected through their entrepreneurial efforts, and about many other topics and learnings that are part of the kindergarten curriculum. They also learned how to find information, how to weigh the pros and cons of different pet possibilities to come to a decision, and how to respectfully exchange views. In deliberating about this question, they were acquiring considerable knowledge and understanding and were also learning the skills and rules for reasonable decision making. The learning from such an engaging and rich activity will carry over not only to their future learning, but into a more thoughtful and considered life.

We strongly recommend that the education ministry retract the new proposed curriculum and redo it in light of the need for Albertan students to be able to think critically, innovate, and make well-reasoned decisions in the context of the challenges and complexities of the 21st century.

Dr. Mark Battersby
Professor Emeritus
Capilano University

Dr. Sharon Bailin
Professor Emeritus
Simon Fraser University