Critical Thinking

Interview with Miss Olivia Power, Head of Core Critical Thinking at Sevenoaks School. Miss Power has also written the Critical Thinking module on Sevenoaks School Summer Programme and is teaching it in part of Session One. Miss Power is a graduate of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, having read Theology there.

Why is critical thinking important for teenagers in 2020?

I think teenagers in 2020 are more able than ever to access information. Furthermore, the internet and smartphone technology has really democratised how people access facts and news. I think that often what we don't do is actually help teenagers to develop critical skills to be able to evaluate those facts and evaluate that information. So I think critical thinking is predominantly important for the reason that it gives students the ability to actually be empowered when they're trying to learn about the world around them, and they can think about fact from fiction. They can also evaluate ideas. We often think about fact vs fiction but that's quite a simplistic way of looking at it so critical thinking helps students to actually think about their own opinions and also to evaluate ideas that other people pose to them.

What key skills do you think a good critical thinker possesses?

Critical thinkers need to be open-minded, they need to be willing to challenge their own and other ideas, and to think about assumptions. They also need to be resilient, because it's a hard thing when you throw everything out and say ‘OK, well what I used to think isn’t true.’ How do you build up your ideas again? Resilience is really important for that. Then in terms of specific critical thinking skills, evaluation inquiry. And the one thing that I think is really important in critical thinking is meta-analysis, not necessarily just being able to unpick ideas and say whether they're right or wrong, but actually to say why they're better or worse than others, to draw direct comparisons between the two.

How has critical thinking changed in the last ten years?

The development of the internet has a huge impact on what we think is critical thinking and why we think critical thinking is more important. When people of my generation starting applying for jobs, the skills that they were looking for were things like ‘resilience’ and ‘perseverance’ and ‘leadership’. And now, critical thinking is the key skill that employers and universities are looking for. So I think it's highlighted critical thinking’s importance and prominence but also it's changed how we go about doing it. I think a lot of the time, critical thinking was a case of looking at arguments and trying to tear them apart by using inductive or deductive reasoning. But now I think critical thinking is much more about being able to equip people to look at things which can't necessarily be categorised as much, especially in kind of a ‘Post-truth society’ or whatever we want to call ourselves. Things have become much murkier. So I think critical thinking is now less about trying to develop these really explicit skills that hopefully later you'll be able to apply to the world. Now it's a case of ‘let’s look at the world we live in, and let's try and unpick it’ and within unpicking we'll implicitly be developing these skills.

How do you think critical thinking will change in the next ten years?

As technology continues to develop, I think critical thinking is something which is going to distinguish us, and differentiate us from algorithms. I don't know what will develop in the next 10 years but I’m sure it will be in the form of Artificial Intelligence (AI), computer intelligence, machine intelligence, and so critical thinking, I think, will be much more about humans using judgment and questions regarding things like ethics and, essentially, what makes us human. Those elements, I think, will become much more important in critical thinking.

How do you think the Critical Thinking module in Sevenoaks School Summer Programme will be useful to international students?

Often, international schemes of work and curricula don't really highlight how to teach critical thinking. They will talk about critical thinking in different subjects but there often isn't scope to teach it as an independent subject. So I think Sevenoaks School Summer Programme provides a really unique opportunity by focusing on critical thinking individually. Actually, what you're doing is giving students tools that they can take back to their other subjects and say ‘OK, well we did this is on the Critical Thinking Module on the Summer programme, this is critical thinking, how can I apply this to understand biology or literature or history a bit better?’ And it’s also a really international programme, and a lot of critical thinking is about understanding different perspectives and unpicking different perspectives. Much of these different perspectives are determined by culture and the national narratives that we hear. So, sharing and voicing ideas is step one of critical thinking. And then, by all being together in a space where students can share and voice ideas, and develop the skills to actually then question each other and develop each other's ideas is incredibly useful, incredibly important.

In real life, how do you think the skills learned in this Critical Thinking module can be put into practice?

Every time you up your computer or check the news or read a newspaper, critical thinking comes in all the time. The topic that we’re covering on the Critical Thinking module of the Summer Programme looks at critical thinking and technology and so I think there are going to be lots of questions about AI, for example, regarding the impact of technology in our lives, whether it's positive or negative, and how it affects our relationships with other people, for better or worse. That, I think, is a real way of it being applicable. Also, talking to people, listening to people, engaging with people. We all talk about the importance of developing opinions, but in order for those opinions to be valid and compelling, you need to be able to have the critical thinking behind them to show why they are so valid and compelling so in everyday conversation as well I think the Critical Thinking module will be very useful.