Critical thinking is a skills-based subject, as opposed to a content-based subject. The majority of what kids learn at school is content-based and little (if anything) is taught about how to think critically. You will have to wait until AS/A Levels until studying critical thinking becomes a subject option and even then only a handful of pupils will study it. Despite people’s assumptions that studying philosophy at university is terrible for your career prospects, many employers recognise the benefits of the degree: it teaches students how to interpret, analyse and evaluate ideas and arguments.
These skills are transferable and are valued in many professions: law, policy, research, the civil service, journalism, business & finance, marketing & advertising, social work and teaching. What employers value is not the graduate’s knowledge of Plato’s metaphysics or Kant’s moral philosophy, but the skills of critical thinking that are gained by studying these topics. Being able to think in a ‘critical’ way means that you think carefully about what you read and write, judging what information and evidence is credible and reliable. You are able to question what other people have written and figure out if their ideas are justified or not. You can compare and synthesise information in order to support an argument. And you are able to notice and challenge biases, distorted views, prejudice and illogical arguments – not only in the work of others but in your own work as well.
Being trained in analytical thinking will give you a better chance of academic success in higher education, where taking a critical approach to your studies is valued very highly. Simply memorising and explaining concepts will not impress your professors and examiners, despite the fact that this way of learning got you good grades in your GCSE and A Level essays and exams. And as mentioned before, critical thinking will impress potential employers – the ability to reason well can be applied to oral and written communication, strategic planning, troubleshooting, problem solving and the critical evaluation of projects.
Learning critical thinking is not only important for academic and professional success, but for personal development as well. Being able to think clearly makes you less prone to take things for granted, less likely to accept ignorance, prejudice or poor reasoning, and more likely to form a worldview which is carefully considered and rational. However, it is difficult to create a generation who are academically successful or employable or rational if critical thinking is only taught as an optional AS/A Level subject. Children need to learn the basics of critical thinking so that they can be prepared to study critical thinking in more depth at GCSE level, at A Level and then at university.
Alongside the teaching of critical thinking, it is important for children at an early age to learn about the nuances of ethics, on both a theoretical and practical basis. Studying a range of ethical theories involves critical thinking skills as well, which makes the study of ethics very useful. Children could be taught about the importance of ethical values such as empathy, honesty, generosity and tolerance while comparing these to unethical traits such as hatred, dishonesty, selfishness and intolerance. By considering thought experiments and ethical dilemmas, children would be able to learn about the intentions and consequences of their actions. This will prepare them to deal with real-life situations in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. If children were taught to think carefully about the intentions and the consequences of their actions, then they might become less prone to lie, steal, cheat, break promises, be selfish or bully others.
There is an increasing concern about ethics in various professions and in business. Ethics is central to the medical profession, so learning about ethical principles at an early age will give you transferable skills for a career in medicine. Furthermore, the skills of critical thinking that are gained through studying ethics will make you far more adept at dealing with the ethical dilemmas and balancing of values that are involved in the medical profession. For example, concern for patient autonomy can easily clash with the doctor’s view of the patient’s best interests. More and more businesses are becoming socially responsible, taking responsibility for how their activities impact the environment, consumers, employees, communities and stakeholders. Businesses would value someone who is skilled at weighing up benefits and risks.
Professor Simon Robinson has argued how learning ethics can increase students’ employability. Robinson makes this case for university students, however, I think his arguments apply equally well to primary school pupils. If these skills are taught to primary school children, this not only means that these useful skills can be taught to every child, it means that by the time these pupils leave school at 18 they will be highly trained in ethical and critical thinking. This means that it might not be necessary for an 18-year-old to study for a further 3 years, accumulating massive debt, with the hopes of being employable after graduation. We need to ensure that young people are able to find work without feeling pressured and expected to go to university.