Give it a bit of thought

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Teaching children the 'key skills' of life is what education is all about, isn't it? If only it were that simple, says David Lines

There is a growing consensus that equipping students with subject knowledge, however detailed and precisely learned, is not enough and that it is core or key skills which are lacking. As a result, key skills will soon be introduced into revised A-level syllabuses.

It is common to emphasise three key skills: communication, application of number, and information technology. Such a definition is too narrow, however. Take information technology. Is this really a key skill for the next generation? Strip away the hype and what we find is the 21st century's answer to the pen. Similarly, it is one thing having the communication skills to deal with a group of strangers; having something interesting to say to them is entirely another.

When asked about the skills they are looking for, business people generally argue that decision making, problem-solving and working with others are as important if not more so than the skills listed above. But such skills are not easily learned. Above all, they require people to think.

Is this really a problem, you might ask; teaching children to think is, surely, what education is all about? Unfortunately it is not that simple. Independent thinking, which might be critical of staff, or the school or even society in general, is potentially dangerous, not simply because it is subversive but also because it might have an impact on classroom discipline.

Then there is the nature of thinking itself. Most teachers are ill-equipped to go beyond even an elementary probing of the meaning of such words as "synthesis" and "evaluation". As a result, examination questions which require students to discuss issues are rarely answered effectively. We recently asked a number of A-level students what they understood by the word "evaluate". Typical answers included: "it's a conclusion"; "it sums up what you've said"; and "it brings together the points you made earlier".

We asked another group of students to answer a business studies question which required them to discuss the ethical basis for business operations. Some were doing A-level business studies, some philosophy A-level, and some were doing both.

The results were clear. Those who were only doing business studies offered answers which were often little more than unthinking utilitarianism, despite an attempt at evaluation. Those who had been trained in thinking skills and had examined ethical issues provided answers that were genuinely evaluative, even if they had not followed business studies. Unsurprisingly, the best answers came from those who had studied both business and philosophy.

One of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's provisional list of "free standing" AS syllabus titles is critical thinking. What precisely critical thinking means, and how it will be translated into syllabuses, remains to be seen. The important point is improving students' abilities to reason. Thus we would argue for use of the term "thinking skills".

Thinking skills should permeate the curriculum. If that is done, it will raise the quality of answers in all subjects, and equip students to become independent, life-long learners. Only then will they be able to pass judgment on a range of subjects, as well of course as being able to communicate the arguments, add them up and then enter the results on a spreadsheet.

David Lines is a lecturer in business and economics at London University's Institute of Education

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