Why do we and our learners need to be critical thinkers? Let’s begin by discussing the living and learning skills teachers today believe that every student should foster in their school years and beyond them. Each time we’ve spoken to educators in our work around the world, we have asked them what they feel are the most important skills students need above all others. The answers that we’ve received most often are:
This skills list is purposefully embedded within the Essential Fluencies, and the 10 Shifts of Practice . However, every one of these skills also falls under the broader umbrella of critical thinking capacity. Let’s take a closer look:
The following excerpt is from the World Economic Forum report Future of Jobs published in 2016:
These are all acceptable conclusions, but they still don’t define what critical thinking really is. However, if you look closely you’ll see a common thread among them: they all support the notion that thinking critically requires discipline.
“The Fourth Industrial Revolution, which includes developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence and machine-learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3-D printing, and genetics and biotechnology, will cause widespread disruption not only to business models but also to labour markets over the next five years, with enormous change predicted in the skill sets needed to thrive in the new landscape.”
Our world is changing fast, but then again it always has. There have been many times in the past where humanity was convinced that everything that could be invented had been invented. Even later on when computers were just beginning to become household items, there was a time when having a 56K modem was considered screaming fast, and 200 MB of storage was immense. When would we possibly ever need any more than that?
We know from how much things have changed between then and now that both bandwidth and many other aspects of modern life will continue to grow and transform radically. This is why a strong well-developed critical thinking capacity serves us in all facets of life. To adapt to and thrive in the face of such changes requires the kind of resilience only critical thinking can build.
Reflect back to how we thought about what was necessary to our survival and success 50, 30, or even 20 years ago. Are the same things important to us now as they once were? How has communication and the sharing of ideas transformed? How has doing business in a global marketplace and consuming goods and services changed? And what new problems and challenges will these and future innovations bring that require a certain capacity for critical thinking in order to manage them in our lives?
Let’s note that effective critical thinkers function by way of different thought processes in different circumstances. After all, figuring out how to make it to work on time when your car breaks down in rush hour traffic requires critical thinking just as much as negotiating world peace does. Both scenarios facilitate critical thinking skills in far different settings, and with different stakes and outcomes, but they call upon these thinking skills nonetheless.
As teachers, we don’t just want our learners to do their work well when they’re in the classroom. Arguably the fundamental purpose of education is to foster a desire to learn well beyond students’ school years. You know it as lifelong learning, and critical thinkers are also lifelong learners.
If we’re going to talk about how critical thinking ties into lifelong learning, we should start with the basics. Simply put, lifelong learning is a self-motivated interest in learning that continues throughout one’s entire lifetime. However, what would possibly make someone want to be a learner for that long? It has to be more than a matter of being forced to learn for survival or success.
Ultimately fostering lifelong learning skills means ensuring the process of learning always has relevance, purpose, and real-world connection that retains our interest. For example, which of the following have you done either recently or in the past?
You know what all these things have in common? They’re exactly the actions a critical thinker who is also a lifelong learner might take to solve a problem or answer a question. To one who thinks critically there are no pathways to knowledge that are off the table. The ability to recognize potential in any avenue for learning is what both critical thinking and lifelong learning share as inherent qualities.
Lifelong learning manifests itself in a number of different ways, and the above examples are just a few of them. We also learn through conversation and interaction, by experience (either ours or someone else’s), by observation, and by making mistakes—just like critical thinkers do. Thus, fostering lifelong learning skills through critical thinking gives us the tools we need to make the most out of each of these situations as they occur in our lives.