Recently there has been renewed debate highlighting critical thinking in higher education (HE), and questions raised about the role it plays and whether universities can actually teach it (see for example Van Damme and Zahner, 2022). Others have questioned the relationship between university and the construction of knowledge and employability (Ashwin, 2020), whether higher education teaches students to think critically (Dirk Van Damme, 2022) and if there is space available for critical thinking development within current debates surrounding ‘free speech’ (Danvers, 2021).
It’s important to consider the role and place of critical thinking in Education as a discipline, or an interdisciplinary subject area together with related subjects such as Childhood and Youth and Early Childhood Studies. We believe that for students of Education, the mindset and skills of critical thinking are particularly important to enable them to engage in self-reflection, and to role model this outlook to those they may be teaching one day. Following Covid- 19, and reflecting upon our learners post-pandemic, we’ve found ourselves asking questions about critical thinking. Not so much whether we can teach it, but what are the most appropriate ways to support students’ with developing their critical thinking in these times. An outcome of the pandemic ‘lockdowns’ seems to be a hiatus in students’ learning in the UK and since we’ve been back in learning and teaching spaces, anecdotally there seems to be a drop in students’ confidence and increasing reticence to express themselves. Is it about what we teach or the opportunities for learning and spaces for critical thinking, reflection and development to support students in developing this knowledge and understanding?
For our students studying Education, we have tried to emphasise that thinking critically requires learners to approach perspectives openly, interrogate evidence and reflect upon it (Barrow and Westrup, 2018). The next steps here, in discussion with our learners, are then to be able to show and articulate this thinking, and being able to speak freely, without embarrassment or fear of coming across as politically incorrect (when learning about new ideas and concepts) or wrong. There is a balance to be struck between inclusion (which is core to the discipline) and willingness to critique and express views. This tricky area, of encouraging free speech in a tolerant and inclusive manner, of protecting and promoting academic freedom and free speech (Advance HE, 2022) adds an extra dimension to the way we must teach learners about expressing their critical thinking. A central way to develop these skills is through raising students’ awareness of critical thinking; to explicitly flag up when we are creating the environment in which they should do this, and how they can turn an abstract notion into a habitual way of being.
Education Studies is still a relatively new discipline. As Wyse (2020) points out, while in some ways education can date back to the earliest humans, Education as a subject has a ‘relatively short history’ (Wyse, 2020: 7). The combination of theoretical and applied studies, a ‘reciprocal relationship’ (Wyse, 2020: 20) together with time in placement settings requires our students to apply critical thinking and critical reflection to different learning contexts: this is a demanding personal and intellectual feat for many. Going into schools, other educational establishments (e.g. museums) and a wide variety of education- related settings (e.g. HR organisations) requires students to explicitly apply their learning and to question and consider what they observe and experience within the context. For much of their studies, students are also encouraged to continually critically reflect on their positionality and intersectionality. Looking at self and own practice critically isn’t something that tends to happen in other disciplines as extensively. Education Students are likely to hold many assets (Thompson, Higdon and Barrow, 2023), and a key part of their studies as an Education student involves this self-reflection upon these multi-faceted elements of the self. Critical self- reflection, thinking about oneself and the assets they have, enables students to understand their own positionality and intersectionality in relation to others.
In addition to the educational settings students experience on placement, the critical nature of Education courses, the topics studied and the central focus on social justice arguably encourages students to think critically, to question, debate and be creative (Morris, 2021). Education is a perfect place for the organic growth of confidence in rigorous questioning and academic debate. It is a universal experience that all learners will have memories of some type of education, and it also presents learners with the opportunity to reflect upon their current day to day practice as a student – they are constantly immersed in that which they are studying. They are also likely to progress into careers and job- roles where they will need personal and critical thinking skills to support inclusive and social justice agendas within the workplace and wider society: perhaps at the front of the classroom desperately seeking signs of critical thinking in their own learners one day.
Thinking about supporting students’ use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Chatbots has also become critical very recently. Essay and report writing, literature reviews and critiques, for example, are often used to assess Education students, and these types of assessment are particularly well suited to technological short-cuts. It’s looking like AI is here to stay and for some students we have to accept this could be a resource they use: we therefore have a responsibility to make them aware of the limitations of AI and teach them how to think critically about, analyse and evaluate the texts chatbots create. It is important to equip students to recognise the limitations and flaws of such technologies not only for themselves but crucially for others: potentially for their future learners.
We would all like the knowledge and reflections generated by our students to be developed through their critical thinking, rather than that of their online devices. The challenges faced by Education academics in teaching critical thinking may have just become a little more complex, but this poses a timely opportunity for discussion and exploration of these issues within the teaching and learning community of our discipline. To empower students, and to ensure their critical thinking permeates beyond the seminar room, assessment, or placement, we call for colleagues in Education to share their ideas and approaches to the teaching and embedding of critical thinking in Education at this time (suggestions generated by AI need not apply!).
Advance HE (2022) Advance HE statement on free speech November 2022. Higher education sector statement on promoting academic freedom and free speech | Advance HE (advance-he.ac.uk) .
Barrow, C. and Westrup, R. (2018) Writing Skills for Education Students. London: Macmillan.
Danvers, E. (2021) Prevent/Ing critical thinking? The pedagogical impacts of Prevent in UK higher education. Teaching in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1872533 .
Morris, C. (2021) ‘Working with critical reflective pedagogies at a moment of post- truth populist authoritarianism.’ Teaching in Higher Education. https://doiorg.uea.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1965568.
Thompson, D. Higdon, R. and Barrow, C. (2023) More than your Degree title: Transferable Skills, Employability and Diverse Opportunities for Education Students in Pulsford, M. Morris, R. and Purves, R. (Eds) Understanding Education Studies: Critical Issues and New Directions. London: Routledge.
Van Damme, D. and Zahner, D. (2022) Does Higher Education Teach Students to Think Critically? OECD https://www.oecd.org/publications/does-higher-education-teach-students-to-think-critically-cc9fa6aa-en.htm (20- 10- 2022)
Wyse, D. (2020) Presidential Address: The academic discipline of education. Reciprocal relationships between practical knowledge and academic knowledge British Educational Research Journal https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3597 .
About the authors
Together, the authors have collaborated and co-wrote Barrow, C. and Westrup, R. (2018) Writing Skills for Education Students. Both Charlotte and Rebecca are experienced Senior Lecturers teaching in the field of Educational Studies and Research with a commitment to the student experience and learning key skills as a core part of this. They have extensively taught academic development skills at all levels of University study (both within modules, staff development workshops and more informally, such as writing groups) and are involved with projects to support students’ learning journeys and employability (see for example https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/learner-student-graduate-toolkit-student-identity-formation-and-critical-reflection and https://www-routledge-com.uea.idm.oclc.org/Understanding-Education-Studies-Critical-Issues-and-New-Directions/Pulsford-Morris-Purves/p/book/9781032284682).