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The Imperative of Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

Devonshire House Experts’ Talks Series


Nurturing Future Leaders: The Imperative of Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

By Henry Keighley-Elstub, Head of Devonshire House Preparatory School

Henry Keighley-Elstub, Head of Devonshire House Preparatory School

In an era dominated by soundbites and social media posts, the fallacy persists that life’s profound questions can be neatly encapsulated on a billboard or a tweet. Yet, as the Head of a distinguished prep school, I contend that the intricacies of life demand a depth of understanding that transcends simplistic slogans and binary thinking. The essence of critical thinking lies in navigating the complexity and nuance that define our existence—a skill set that extends far beyond the brevity of a catchy phrase or a fleeting social media moment.

I find myself at the intersection of tradition and progress, grappling with the question of how to prepare our students not only for academic success but also for the complex challenges they will inevitably face as future leaders.

Critical thinking, in its essence, is the ability to analyse a diverse range of material and arrive at a reasoned judgement in a dispassionate manner. It involves understanding that emotional responses can often act as barriers to reasoned thinking—a realisation that becomes increasingly relevant when navigating topics rooted in differing value systems.

Across the broader education system, critical thinking is not always valued, as it demands uncomfortable open conversations and can be perceived as messy. The national curriculum, while comprehensive in many aspects, often falls short in placing due emphasis on this crucial skill.

But how do we teach critical thinking? It begins with a deliberate focus on study skills, especially in humanities. Our approach at the prep school involves integrating study skills into various aspects of the curriculum, including Personal, Social, Health, and Economic (PSHE) education, current affairs, and an exploration of how the country is governed. From an early age, children are encouraged to understand the concept of service and to question their own roles within a broader societal context.

The teaching process involves posing challenging questions that require students to think beyond surface-level responses. For example, within a medieval history class examining Edward I, students are prompted to evaluate the merits of his reign. This inquiry serves as a gateway to discussions encompassing diverse perspectives from various members of society from peasants to nobility. For nobles, the desire is often for a king adept at triumphing in warfare. Unravelling further, we delve into the reasons behind this preference, establishing that military prowess translates to territorial expansion. This, in turn, prompts the question of why land acquisition holds significance, leading students to recognise its correlation with increased agricultural productivity and subsequent prosperity.

Following this historical journey, students are then guided to contemplate contemporary notions of wealth. Drawing parallels to figures like Elon Musk, they are encouraged to discern whether land holds comparable importance in the modern context. Does Musk, for instance, place significance on land, and if not, what distinguishes this contemporary perspective from medieval times? This layered exploration serves as an exercise in connecting historical lessons with present-day realities, fostering a holistic understanding of the factors influencing societal perceptions of wealth and power.

So, how do we as teachers measure critical thinking skills? Assessment involves examining both written and oral evidence. Written outcomes often reveal the depth of a student’s critical thinking, as seen in their ability to answer summative questions. However, the real measure lies in the quality of oral responses and the ability to link subjects seamlessly. By breaking down the silos of individual subjects, we aim to build research skills through collaborative projects that encourage higher-order thinking.

The question remains: why is teaching critical thinking so crucial? The answer lies in recognising that our students are the future leaders who will grapple with the most important and complex issues. They must be equipped to tackle the nuanced realities of the world, steering away from simplistic views that dominate current discourse.

In a society increasingly polarised by ideology, critical thinking acts as a safeguard against simplistic thinking. It encourages scepticism, an appreciation for the complexity of life, and the strength to admit when you are confused and ill-equipped to make informed decisions. We need our future leaders to embrace moral ambivalence, understanding that the world is not black and white, and that social media often perpetuates binary thinking.

From a prep school perspective, the encouraging news is that children are inherently capable of nuanced and thoughtful engagement with complex topics. Views are open and varied, providing fertile ground for the cultivation of intellectual and deep thinking. However, the challenge lies in aligning the metrics for measuring educational success with the needs of the workforce.

Our educational system must undergo a reevaluation. It’s not merely about accumulating knowledge but using it to make informed decisions. Success should be measured not only by academic achievements but also by the development of reasoning, resilience, and emotional intelligence—qualities that are increasingly valued in the modern workplace.

In my 26 years in prep education, I have witnessed the transformative power of messy discussions that instil confidence in students to think critically. It’s about more than just picking up a pencil; it’s about keeping the ball of inquiry in the air and fostering oral and aural interaction. Parents, rightfully concerned about what their children are being taught, must recognise that education is not about indoctrination but about arming students with the tools to think critically, reason, and question.

As we navigate the complexities of the 21st century, the imperative of teaching critical thinking skills becomes ever clearer. It’s not just a skill for the classroom; it’s a lifelong asset that equips our future leaders to navigate the uncertainties and challenges that lie ahead. Education, at its core, should be about preparing individuals to thrive in a world that demands not just what to think but how to think.

Interested in Forest School at Devonshire House? Come and meet us at one of our Open Mornings and we will be happy to answer your questions.

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