Critical thinking for a global society - RSA

Critical thinking for a global society

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    Natasha Robson
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In a complex world of free-flowing information and misinformation, where we are often being sold to without realising it, clear thought is more vital than ever. Natasha Robson explains how she is educating people to think about their thinking

The modern world is complicated. It’s a world of convenience. Of freely available information, of communication unhindered by distance, of progress and possibility. But it is also the world of 'surveillance capitalism', where our behaviour is used to manipulate us. It’s now 21 years since Google launched AdWords, allowing our web searches to be harvested and used to direct targeted advertising back at us.

So we start to question whether privacy and personal autonomy still exist in the way we used to understand them. It’s a world in which we have become manipulable commodities as well as ideological targets. And our incredible potential for communication is also leading to a form of regression: our ‘echo chambers’ exacerbate problems of polarisation, divisiveness, intolerance. The complexity and resultant anxiety created by the availability of limitless information, both true and false, about world events feeds this backwards-looking tendency, this desire to simplify, to build barriers between one another.

These negative aspects of our present reality demand that we think deeply about how we prepare ourselves and our children for the future. While it might feel wonderfully convenient – even gratifying – for advertising to target us with things that we desire or need, the cost is the equally easily effected ideological targeting, the mis- and disinformation designed to fit our world view, to chime with our prejudices. It’s increasingly pervasive and it has already affected world events.

The exciting reality of a world in which everyone’s voice can be heard also comes at a cost: the anonymity that an online existence offers has made some of those voices loud, aggressive and damaging – louder, more aggressive, and more damaging than they might otherwise be.

I believe that there are answers, and these are not so difficult to begin enacting. It is this that has brought me to the RSA.

Over the past century, many commentators have expressed the feeling that the education system – in this country and others – must ‘catch up’ with the rate of technological change. In particular, John Dewey advocated an educational methodology that ‘freed intelligence’, that allowed participants to learn to think for themselves and come to informed conclusions. Dewey’s 'reflective thinking' is considered by many to have been the conceptual forerunner of critical thinking – and I believe it offers one answer.

My work focuses on the cognitive, psychological and sociological mechanisms that compromise our ability to think clearly. At present, I am running courses that follow a path from cognition to social conditioning – from internal to external – giving participants a broader understanding of their own thinking, and how it can fail or be manipulated and adjusted by actors external to ourselves.

However, this is only the beginning. Cognitive science and cognitive fallibility awareness need to be integrated into our education system, and this needs to happen as soon as possible. Surveillance capitalism – and every darkness that resides within it – is not going anywhere. Machines understand us and how we think better than we do. The only response to this is to better understand ourselves.

At the heart of this approach is metacognition – the ability to think about our own thinking. In terms of my work, metacognitive awareness is the awareness of the thought processes that lead to our beliefs and cognitions; and metacognitive regulation is taking control of those thought processes and removing, as far as possible, those aspects of our thinking that compromise its effectiveness.

What does this mean? Well, research has shown that metacognitive ability is not fixed: it is a skill that can be taught, learnt, and improved. It is a skill that should be central to everyone’s educational journey. It should not only be available in the form of philosophy and politics to those lucky enough to attend expensive private schools, or as an aspect of higher education for those fortunate enough to attend university. We need every member of every population to learn how to think for themselves, how to check their thinking in order to protect themselves, and in order to more effectively – and enthusiastically – participate in the democratic process.

There is a wealth of readable and thought-provoking literature informing these disciplines. Good places to start would include Post-Truth by Matthew D'Ancona, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, How We Think by John Dewey, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann.

My courses take participants from a cognitive perspective on thinking, through a little neurology, and broadening to more complex influences on our behaviour, such as psychological mechanisms and cultural conditioning. But we must integrate this knowledge into the curriculum, and it wouldn’t be hard to do.

What does this mean in practice? We should be adopting P4C-like conversation with younger children; make Socratic dialogue and debate standard practice in state secondaries; introduce logical fallacy games at primary school; integrate basic neuroscience into secondary-level science; look at Bayesian reasoning in maths; examine perspective change in history; make what we now call PSHE, or ‘citizenship’, more of a priority – and make it more about psychology and sociology and objectivity and empathy.

Above all, always, and in every subject, make metacognitive practice part of the discipline. In essence, don’t just teach children what they have to know to pass their exams but teach them to think about what they learn, to interrogate new ideas, and their own ideas.

If we can do this for our children, metacognitive regulation will become natural. Imagine a society in which self-awareness and careful, unbiased thinking was not an effort but an expectation, in which critical thinking was not the preserve of the sciences but a built-in modus operandi, part of the very fabric of our brains and thinking. Imagine a world in which ‘fake news’ could no longer find a foothold, let alone a stronghold, in which nuances of perspective became a valued and natural aspect of discourse between all people. In which it was not possible to pit people against one another over meaningless or misinterpreted obstacles, because we all were given the opportunity as children to understand our cognitive experience well enough to engage more deeply with it –and, consequently, with the wider world.

I want to help build that society. I want to help create that world.

Natasha Robson is a doctoral researcher at the University of Reading. Her work is concerned with the cognitive mechanisms that compromise our ability to communicate and interact effectively, as well as social and publishing history and literary criticism. She has taught for the past ten years and worked with Holland House Books on its first Novella Project as an editor and project manager

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  • Having worked in the area of critical thinking since 1987, I was very interested to read this strong defence of its importance. In listing various ways by which schools can raise the level of students' critical thinking, there was one aspect that could have been further developed. There is considerable evidence that teaching critical thinking as a discrete course and also teaching it explicitly within subjects is the most effective way in which students will develop the skills. Explicitly integrating it, of course, requires that teachers are themselves very competent critical thinkers.

    • I have only just seen this fantastic reply. Yes - I agree. This is ultimately what I think needs to happen, and I'm trying to get a workbook published to help teachers do this in their own practice, perhaps using PSHE (CT is in its remit, so this could work). Unfortunately actually getting it into the curriculum is another matter, and one that I'm going to need to get a lot more support for - and even then, it's highly unlikely in the current state of affairs that it will be acknowledged. But I'm working on it anyway!

  • Yes, promotion of PC4 is a good thing. Regarding the background reading, you might also consider Dewey's teacher Peirce, the father of postmodern thought, whose famous 1877 publication remains very accessible to young minds: "Thus, both doubt and belief have positive effects upon us, though very different ones. Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises. Doubt has not the least such active effect, but stimulates us to inquiry until it is destroyed. This reminds us of the irritation of a nerve and the reflex action produced thereby; while for the analogue of belief, in the nervous system, we must look to what are called nervous associations—for example, to that habit of the nerves in consequence of which the smell of a peach will make the mouth water."

    • Hello! Thank you for this. Yes, I'm familiar with Pierce - both because of his influence on Dewey's pragmatism and because of his work in semiotics, which I engage with in my thesis! There are obviously many commentators and much work that I had to neglect with only 800 words available - but this is a brilliant quote, thank you.

  • It is interesting to see your ideas to make an impact using metacognition & other related aspects. The flow of information needs important factors to help us understand many realities. Some creative pathways to consider are given below. (1)  CONNECTING OUR CURRENT RESEARCHERS WITH OUR FUTURE RESEARCHERS (How? Find out!)Pathways to inspire children to know the growing research Starting Research Journals for Children in simplified form, easy to understand language and pictures, many subjects, in various languages     { Authentic Research for All with Explanatory Understanding}The world needs more trust (& understanding) in science, research and authentic content in various fields (research from all subjects). The easy to understand contents and style of research journals for children can not be limited to children only but some adults also benefit from the easier version of the higher level books- think and many known examples might be coming to mind !){ Please see the website for details: }.  "Children are ripe targets for fake news. Age 14 is when kids often start believing in unproven conspiratorial ideas, according to a recent study."                                                                                                                                                    

    Scientific American February 2022, Page 37 ........I wonder if it is possible to start Research Journals for Children (a children's version of the journals)  ! (Simplified version, simple text, easy to understand pictures, less complicated math, explanatory understanding) can be published in many languages and in many subject areas to enrich our academic world (I presented this idea in 2003).  It can help to reach many age groups (not just children). Some stakeholders may also benefit from the easier version of it (regardless of their age).Some adults also benefit from the easier version of the higher-level books- (Think and many known examples might be coming to mind!) The interest to understand real science has perhaps increased with time. The time is perfect!  
     [2] A new step possible:  Citizen Education Science  (What is it? How can it work?....... )   {citizen science } + education} = citizen education science Everyone has data of some type -  Giving voice to everyone in learning. Forming education nets from the living data of all hearts.   

    MAKING A FIELD FOR ALL CITIZENS TO PARTICIPATE, COLLABORATE, COLLECT DATA IN MANY WAYS with MULTIPLE LINKS IN VARIOUS FIELDS. Giving voice to everyone in learning— “Citizen Education Science” can become an effective new dimension for many fields of learning. Our metacognition at the individual level and at the collective level can form new dimensions in learning and for future research. Meta Collective Intelligence in action.  [3} To open doors for all cultures- time to open doors for multilingual educationThe multilingual power of the universities..... can play an important role to reach internationally, communicating through the multilingual strength of the universities.   Our teachers, our students with multilingual power can play the role of ambassadors to the world. This possible step can enrich the cultural, economic, social & academic dimensions.                                                                                                                  [4]  The beauty of education for every heart.                                                                                                           THINK:  We live in multiple-nets  Also some useful pathways for various fields: (5) Multidimensional power for the protection of various environments. Environmental protection needs a multidimensional approach to enrich our efforts in a number of fields. The global momentum gearing for environment related fields. Many growing aspects indicate the importance of this issue. The 2021 Nobel Prize in physics was given for the work on complex physical systems and physical modelling of Earth’s climate. This step is also a reflection of exhibiting stronger links between climate change and solid science along with physical theory (cf. Nature 598, 246-247 (2021).  Thinking question: How does scientific knowledge impact the opinion formation of people in relation to environmental issues? Marc J. Stern compared many theories of social science - “Despite what many people think, scientific facts don’t change people’s minds when cultural commitments are in play. In multiple studies, researchers have found that increasing scientific knowledge is not consistently linked to the acceptance of the existence of environmental risks”      Reference:  Social science theory for environmental sustainability (Pg81). We have many types of environments to consider for comprehensive research studies and EER (Environmental education research). How well are we working on protecting various types of environments? Do we consider environmental protection in various fields?  Reaching all hearts to consider all forms of environment. Considering all forms of environment.  (i) Cognitive environment (ii) Psychological environment (iii) Physical environment (iv) Languages environment (v) Cultural environment (vi) Visible environment (vii) Invisible environment (viii) Social environment (And many more types). In the year 1998 and 2000; Altaf Qadeer’s work on protecting our cognitive environment was highlighted.  Also a suggestion was given to start university level courses on this topic(Various aspects of environment; cognitive environment, physical environment and other dimensions).   Expand your imagination and think of how many types of 'NETS' we have around us (e.g., cognitive-net, social-net, language net,  internet and more). Altaf Qadeer (Ph.D., FRSA)

    • This is really interesting, thank you. I had a look at your website and it's really interesting. Nets is interesting - it calls to my mind Berger and Luckmann's 'institutions', as in those things in which we participate and share with other people. I love the idea of research journals for children - it just needs to be pitched right and made exciting. Perhaps the place to start would be a slightly less formal publication, like New Scientist? I think this could really spark interest in the sciences and in research in young people.

  • Hello: Thank you for your message. I’ve often pondered Matthew Taylor’s assessment that the social sciences have not kept up with the ‘juggernaught’ of the natural sciences. I am encouraged by your positive approach, though, I worry about the synchronicity of the Covid crisis, the climate crisis, media accelerated societal polarization almost ‘in step’ with the surveillance capitalism you describe. In my day- you could beat the computer through effective research in a law library. I’ll look forward to reading your recommendations to accelerate the regeneration of the social sciences and the fundamental human rights seemingly in decline in the west. Thanks, Kahlil Day

    • Thank you for your positive response! It is all a bit bleak when you look at it the wrong way - by only observing, instead of trying to find a solution. Then it's still bleak, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel...

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