Fair Access and Participation to Critical Thinking

‘Critical thinking.’ Two significant buzzwords in the Higher and Further Education sector, but are we paying enough attention to them? Are we giving our students who may be new to the university system enough information on developing their critical thinking skills? Is it our place to do this? (Fahim and Shakouri, 2012). I argue in this short article that we need to be doing more to raise awareness about critical thinking for student success and some tips to support its development. Over the last decade, there has been an increase in the amount of ‘facetime’ received on the topic of critical thinking but are we doing the phrase justice in the world we are embarking on? The variety in the student body by age, background, and socio-economic status is on the rise. As a result, the support provided needs to mould itself to mirror this change.
WONKHE and Adobe conducted and published results from a survey that highlighted academics’ perceptions of student skills development. The survey results demonstrate that critical thinking is the second highest skill valued by academics to ensure student future success. This view is internationally supported by The World Economic Forum, who emphasise critical thinking as a globally attractive skill. This perhaps does not come as a surprise but the lack of attention to detail on the concept of critical thinking is perplexing. It is probably safe to say we as an educational collective can give a broad definition of critical thinking and get by with mentioning it in our assessments (and we may be forgiven given the lack of clarity surrounding a definitive definition (Brookfield, 1987). However, given the worldwide importance of this skill, I believe we should want more for our students. In my professional experience, students of all academic backgrounds can find critical thinking challenging. I particularly worry about our students who may be the first in their family attending university. They may have not studied traditional subjects prior to embarking on their university journey, therefore are likely to walk an even steeper path to learn what is expected of them. With the focus on life-wide learning, many students are returning to FE colleges or Universities with a career change route with the aim of re-training. To support these students, there are experiences we need to be carefully mindful of. Their lived experiences may differ from the majority (depending on the institution). With this in mind, you may be thinking, what can we do? I believe there are five steps we can follow to support our students.

1. Clarity springs to mind.

It may sound simple, but it warrants some thought. If we in our own departments and between colleagues are not clear in our own shared understanding of critical thinking, how can we expect our students to be? Starting with communities of practice or departmental teaching and learning days can offer a space to bring colleagues together to discuss shared meaning, ideas, and creative thoughts.

2. Student appraisal

Secondly, having students assess their own appraisal of their critical thinking skills can be powerful. This gives students the autonomy to explain the extent of their understanding. I have worked on an audit system for a few years and this has been replicated and adapted across colleges across the UK with success.

3. A helping hand

Third, a specialised support system by way of learning development coaches. (HE is finally catching up with FE on this one which I am glad to see and myself be a part of). This support is more than an ‘additional add-on.’ Learning Development Coaches are able to get to the root of challenges that students may not necessarily reveal in the day-to-day lectures or group-based sessions.

4. Subject Specific

Having mentioned the developmental progress, offering subject-specific context is also key. I believe that the stand-alone session can only stretch a student so far. Subject-specific application has the potential for growth, richness in debate, and deeper learning practices which can be better aligned to the subject areas.

5. Critical thinking expertise

It may seem excessive (and I may be biased as a critical-thinking advocate myself) but each course would benefit from an analysis of their programme to see what is already working and what can be enhanced further for the next generation of critical thinkers.

In this fast-paced world where change is a constant, it’s time to give critical thinking the attention it deserves to help all our students to thrive.

By Kelly Trivedy

Independent Academic Consultant & Tutor

You can hear more from Kelly here on her podcast ‘Talking CriticalEd.’ She also sends out a newsletter twice a month delving deeper into topics covered in the podcast. Visit Kelly’s website to find out more and sign up for any updates.
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