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Of Critical Thinking August 12, 2007

Posted by Ned Stark in Uncategorized.

Much has been said about the Singapore Education system. While it is undeniable that this system has created a populace which is said to be strong in mathematics and the sciences, it also cannot be denied that there are some flaws in the system. Elitism, overemphasis on rote learning, too much spoon feeding to name a few.

To be fair, there have been changes to the education system, be it to foster critical thinking, use new teaching methods among other things. No doubt their efficacy is open to debate. But for the purpose of this post I shall deal with this thing called “critical thinking“.

Critical thinking is one of the essential skills one can have. We are living in an era where one can access any kind of information as long as one is willing to do so. Thus critical thinking could allow us to evaluate such information and could possibly stall a situation whereby we are “brain washed” or “self radicalised“. Critical thinking can also forestall a situation where we discard the message because of the messenger.

So how then can the system be tweaked to foster critical thinking?

To start of, let us take a look at the syllabus in secondary school. Basically you have the sciences, mathematics and humanities. And in the recent years, there have been attempts made to come up with questions to test the student’s ability to apply knowledge. While such an attempt is laudable, there are ways to get around it, namely the use of Ten Year Series. Be it the humanities, the sciences or the mathematics, it is impractical to expect examiners to come up with new questions. Thus fostering critical thinking through the use of exam questions is of limited use.

 Concerning the mathematics and the sciences, due to the nature of the two, the most practical way to foster critical thinking would be to allow the students to do their own research projects. Questions of the two at secondary level often have one and only one answer. Application often requires  working out things from basic principles. While it is true that this in itself can train the mind, the effectiveness is hampered for there is only one answer and thus the scope for working out of the box is limited. Thus giving students the ability to do research on a topic related to the syllabus and allowing them to come up with the parameters will be a more effective way to foster critical thinking. But as can be seen due to time constraints and the constraints of lab space such a course of action is not practical.

Thus I turn to the humanities. The humanities (more specifically history,literature and apparently this thing called social studies introduced some time back) by their nature do allow the student a chance to express views which may not necessarily be the mainstream. Thus the scope for critical thinking is greater than the sciences. Rather than tell students to memorise the essays of the top students, the teacher could conduct her lessons in the “Socratic Fashion“. Such a method would force students to stand up and defend their views, or attempt to play the Devil’s advocate in certain instances. Students will be forced to stay awake and may even do their own research so as to support their conclusions. And it is more cost effective than making a whole class do independent scientific research.

Thus  the humanities are one of the best avenues for the fostering of critical thinking. And secondary school is one of the best times to do so for such a skill would be of benefit during a post secondary education and for the rest of one’s life. And now I end of with an example of such a lesson which fosters creative thinking;

There was once when our teacher, X, decided to introduce a variation of the Socratic method. Of course we didn’t know what was going on that time but now we do because of hindsight. Anyway X, a history teacher, asked us which was the most important cause of World War 2. Being a big mouth, Ned declared that it was the Treaty of Versailles. What happened afterward was an hour of bombardment from the teacher. Essentially X played the role of the devil’s advocate with evident relish and this eventually resulted in one of my classmates asking her, ” (teacher’s name), everything we say is wrong! What do you want us to do?

On hindsight, I now know what was going out. And I believe that such a teaching method should be used as long as circumstances permit.



1. Michaelk - August 12, 2007

this thing called social studies introduced some time back) by their nature do allow the student a chance to express views which may not necessarily be the mainstream.

Haha. The social studies syllabus, when I went through it in 2005 and 2006, contained lots of PAP propaganda, cleverly hidden.

For example, a lot of emphasis was given to why the welfare state caused lots of problems in Britian- but few reasons and no success stories were given about the benefits of welfare states.

Additionally, it contained a chapter about “Good Governance”, where one of the “values of good governance” was “Pragmatism”. It mentioned that the government take public feedback into consideration but its decision would be final. “Idealism” was nowhere to be seen.

If you would like material to blog about, buy a social studies textbook in a nearby bookstore (try Popular), and dissect it. You will find lots of pro-establishment stuff.

2. Ned Stark - August 12, 2007


Yeah I have heard of the chapter on Good Governance. And someone did write in to the ST forum regarding the missing idealism in that chapter if memory serves correctly.

3. Michaelk - August 13, 2007

Well, then our non-idealistic and pragmatic government obviously thinks that it is good. Bah.

4. Piper - August 13, 2007

There isn’t enough time devoted to the humanities I think. I believe they get 1.5 hrs a week. If so, with the content they have to cover, there really isn’t much time to deal with critical thinking (of course, you shouldn’t cover content without critical thinking but there is a lot of pressure to finish the syllabus). At the same time, we are suffering a great lack of humanities teachers.

Apart from the humanities, I think English lessons are just as important in developing critical thinking. After all, we teach reading and reading is more than the mechanical decoding of a message. It is about thinking about the issues, the ideology etc of a piece of writing. And this provides a platform from which critical thinking can be taught.

5. Michaelk - August 13, 2007


No, they are given much more than 1.5 hours per week. About 4-5 hours, and not including any remedial sessions held.

Well, at least in my ex-secondary school

6. Piper - August 13, 2007

Really? Maybe it is more than 1.5 hours a week but I don’t remember them having as many periods as I do as an EL teacher. Perhaps it is 1.5 hours per subject so SS + Geog = 3hrs?

Anyway, it’s not that important is it? Except as proof of my failing memory. :S

7. Michaelk - August 13, 2007

Ah then you are right.

8. Ned Stark - August 13, 2007

If i remember correctly the english syllabus in secondary school involved comprehension and composition. While there was indeed an argumentative essay set as an option, teachers generally discouraged students from attempting it. I believe that an argumentative essay actually gives more scope for training the mind in terms of critical thinking; writing a story on the other hand gives the mind the chance to exercise the creative portion of the brain.

9. Michaelk - August 14, 2007

While there was indeed an argumentative essay set as an option, teachers generally discouraged students from attempting it.

Yes, but the reason they gave for it was that it was “difficult” to score in. They did give good training on this type of essay, but still insisted that many students did not do well.

It’s very easy to score in argumentative essays if you read sociopolitical blogs… just not Young PAP’s post about homosexuals.

10. Ned Stark - August 14, 2007


Perhaps times have changed. I do not recall being taught how to do an argumentative essay. Perhaps the teacher skimmed through because of syllabus constraints. Maybe not.

11. shoestring - August 14, 2007

Critical thinking need not ncessarily be subject-based. All subjects have as much potential for training in critical thinking but pedagogy will determine how much that potential is tapped.

Using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a benchmark, we can safely say that most of the time, classwork, homework, exams that students tackle demand only the first three levels – knowledge, comprehension and application. The better schools perhaps have students climbing higher to analysis or even synthesis. But rarely did I come across those who could evaluate competently. This may be a consequence of over-reliance on ten-year series and exam predictability.

And could be why our students are not good at argumentative essays (thereby leading to the assumption that they are difficult to score) and are discouraged from attempting them. But in actual fact, they do not have the skills to evaluate an issue at a profound level enough to merit a good score.

Argumentative essays and critical thinking require a certain level of maturity in order for a student to be able to view an issue from multiple perspectives objectively, which is essential for an argument to be convincing. This is also linked to what Ned has referred to – prejudices, presumptions and the like which prevents a person from thinking critically. And open-mind is a pre-requisite, so is the willingness to change one’s stand when required.

12. observer - August 14, 2007

There is only one community in the net who have the thoughtware for socratic style discourse, its the brotherhood, but even they have less than 7 who are really any where near the mark.What I think you are discounting is how does one create such an quorum? In their case, the socratic discourse developed as a direct result of practical necessity the need to sustain a virtual war economy.

All of the 7 cut their teeth abroad and honed their skills during their student days abroad.

Its a stand up command performance. No scripts nothing.

To reproduce such a setting in Singapore is tough because there is a whole lot of culture that needs to support it as well. I really cant see how this can be accomplished given the bracketed nature of discourses in Singapore. Neither do I see us reproducing much of the paranoia which compelled the brotherhood to resort to this means of reaching consensus.

What many people dont realise is the socratic debate is a no holds bar WWF – trust me, I seen it and it is bloody.

13. shima - August 14, 2007

Yes, I read their debate series and it was quite funny. Other than that, it was quite thought provoking.

14. LHL - August 15, 2007

I dunno how this can be done in Singapore. But I agree this is the best way to develop critical thinking skills only because every aspect of the skill is really tested to the fullest, so the people who stand up there have to field questions without notes etc, it develops a deep sense of confidence that we seldom even find these days in leaders.

What alot people do not seem to understand is it is not even one question, one answer style either. More like a fish market. In the socratic style the person asking the question can even say, “I am sorry, but you did not answer my question because of A,B,C etc” and it just goes on and on. So it can definitely get bloody and even confrontational.

I dont even think our own politicians are up to this, skin too thin.

B’hood. I agree have to develop this bc they deal alot with foreigners in their gaming networks and as someone rightly pointed it supports a strategic purpose, but not easy to reproduce in the absence of a setting that requires such a high type of critical discourse.

Very interesting article. Thank you.

15. Marc - August 15, 2007

A large student population equipped with critical thinking skills- somehow I don’t think this is what the MIWs would want for singapore. All they need are just a select few (the elites) who are equipped with the necessary thinking skills. A small group of people is much more easier to control and co-opt.

The rest of us are basically drones here to serve the interests of the hive. If all of a sudden people start to think for themselves, who knows what will happen. People might just start to realise the emperor is not wearing any clothes.

16. galoisien - August 16, 2007

“I believe that an argumentative essay actually gives more scope for training the mind in terms of critical thinking; writing a story on the other hand gives the mind the chance to exercise the creative portion of the brain.”

I think you’re making an unnecessary dichotomy, reminiscent of notions like “boys do better at science but girls do better at humanities”. Argument and creative writing are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, if you know the (US) Advanced Placement Language and Composition exam, you are allowed to write a narrative as a response to an argument prompt.

Constructing a narrative to form a strong argument is really difficult, but it has been done. No doubt narrative responses comprise only a small minority of the responses to the argument question. But if you manage to pull it off, the rhetorical effectiveness (and the impression it leaves on the markers!) is so great that such attempts generally get very high marks.

After all, the classic argumentative essay is often polemic, immediately divisive, and can turn quickly off the reader, even if the evidence cited and the logic used is valid. Encasing an argument in narrative form makes readers more receptive.

In fact, the argument section is the section where students often have more flexibility; the rhetorical analysis virtually requires essay format all the time because there is no other way to talk about the devices an author uses for example, while in the synthesis section (introduced this year) I’d imagine it’s nearly impossible to combine both source citation and narrative without sounding disjunct.

I mean, seeing as AP students have written narratives and scored(!) in response to argument prompts, surely it can work for other exams too?

17. galoisien - August 16, 2007

Also, I don’t think “critical thinking” and “creativity” are necessarily from different parts of the brain either. IIRC, they would both be functions of the prefrontal cortex. Aren’t they actually more like different sides of the same coin?

And after all, how many texts do we students analyse that are often both narrative (not just anecdote!) and argument all in one? When I chose to do the narrative/description question, it always contained a bit of argument, a bit of opinion, a portrayal of something, be it bravery, loyalty, issues immigrants face, persecution by authority, or whatever. In fact, I usually chose them because the prompt was set up that it was easy to transform and bend the question to my own ends.

For example, you can quickly transform a question that asks you to vividly describe the sights and sounds of a market into a scathing attack on en bloc developers, if you link the sights and sounds to emotion, and recount the narrator’s thoughts about the fact that all these sights and sounds of his estate will soon vanish to make way for some commercial development.


“And open-mind is a pre-requisite, so is the willingness to change one’s stand when required.”

The former maybe (the more things you can use in your argument, the better) but is the latter really a prerequisite for scoring well? Most markers seem to reward tenacity. If you stubbornly stick to an argument, anticipate and rebut the opposing stances you can think of, and use valid logic, etc., nothing ever requires you to change your stance.

The irony is that many of the writers often don’t believe in the stance themselves — they may have picked it because it was easier to argue. In secondary school I often held the minority view on many things, and while loyally sticking to my genuine stance worked in the classroom, this did not work so well come national exams.

18. galoisien - August 16, 2007

And as a final addition, a full description of say, a venue dearly treasured by the writer will be far more effective rhetorically than some anecdote tossed in an argumentative essay ever will.

So creative writing and argument really go together.

19. piper - August 17, 2007

Well, according to the lecturers in my “Understanding creativity” class and in many of my readings, you cannot have creativity without critical thinking. So I don’t think one can delink creativity from critical thinking.

Also, you cannot have critical thinking without knowledge so there is a need to do all the lower Bloom’s Taxonomy stuff. I agree that classes rarely move to the higher order thinking skills – maybe due to a lack of time or lack of confidence (on the part of a teacher)?

Discussions are often said to be the best way to encourage critical thinking although critical thinking skills need to be explicitly taught. I have to say that I am very reluctant to have whole-class discussions because managing 42 students in a discussion. Perhaps there is a need to equip teachers better in terms of how to teach critical thinking.

Personally, I believe that writing a good narrative requires as much critical thinking as an argumentative piece. In fact, with appropriate scaffolding, a decent argumentative piece can be a lot easier to churn out than a piece of narrative. Frankly, narratives I see aren’t always very creative.

20. Ned Stark - August 17, 2007

I would like to thank all of you for commenting in this instance. Unfortunately I am currently swamped with work and thus unable to reply to each individually.

Having said that, i acknowledge that I have made some mistakes with regards to certain issues, including and not limited to the correlation between creativity and critical thinking. I was trying to focus on the need for classes to incorporate abit of the “Socratic Method” as I believe that could, if done correctly, foster an environment of slightly more independant learning.

21. guojun - August 17, 2007

The Socratic Method? Apparently it’s very apt here, considering that ‘critical thinking’ is something which most teachers approach with caution and which most students avoid, if possible.

Don’t forget, Socrates was sentenced to death by the Athenians. What’s the use of an open mind, when we shy away from the uncomfortable facts of life? What’s the use of critical thought when our beliefs are not challenged?

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