The art of instilling critical thinking in students

October 22, 2022

Anne-Marie Provost

Le Devoir, Montreal, October 22, 2022

Philippe Longchamps, a native of Sherbrooke who has been teaching in Sweden for several years, sometimes likes to confuse his students. After long hours of teaching them the opposite, he claims for a good hour that… the Earth is flat.

“I make them believe that I taught them what the government wanted, that I lied to them and that I now want to do things properly,” the history, geography and technology teacher at the bilingual Montessori school in Lund, in the south of the country, tells Le Devoir.

There follows a long discussion in his classroom, which integrates geography and physics, where he lists “evidence” from conspiracy theories while carefully observing the students’ reactions. “I see that in the class there are students who are more gullible than others. They like me and want to believe what I say. Others are immediately sceptical in their non-verbal behaviour,” he says.

The students then bombard him with questions and discuss in small groups the new elements defended by their teacher, only to put him to the test again. The teacher continues to dig into his conspiratorial rhetoric and tries to have an answer for everything. “You can see that the class is starting to turn against me, and the students have an hour to convince me that what they learned from me before is more valuable,” he continues.

In this age of misinformation and division on social networks, this method has the merit of instilling in his young people the habit of fact-checking and a healthy scepticism, he believes. It also promotes sustainability of knowledge. “It’s more important to do this than a test on the things they have memorised. They may forget what I said, what they read in the book or what they saw on the PowerPoint. But they won’t forget what they themselves have developed as thinking.

The teacher, who did his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Quebec, was in Montreal this week to give a “master class” at MTL connects, a major digital event. His teaching methods earned him the title of Sweden’s Teacher of the Year in 2020, and he was a finalist for the prestigious Global Teacher Prize last year, which recognizes the best teacher in the world.

Included in the curriculum

Philippe Longchamps advocates a holistic approach, which promotes the integration of different subjects, thus affecting students’ outcomes and enabling them to make connections.

The inclusion of critical thinking in each of the subjects is also advocated. Something he believes the Quebec government should look into.

“In Sweden, the advantage is that in the curriculum, it is included since 2011. It is part of the grading in Swedish, history or biology. The student can’t get an A if he or she hasn’t developed critical thinking skills,” he says.

This can be done through the students’ ability to determine whether a source is reliable or not, and by demonstrating with evidence in their analysis. “In the Grade 9 national tests, they have questions that will test their level of credulity and detect whether they are able to distinguish between fact and opinion,” he points out.

Something that young people sometimes have difficulty distinguishing. The latest figures from the Programme for International Student Assessment, the survey conducted by the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), show that only 47% of 15-year-olds can distinguish between facts and opinions. An “alarming” situation, he says.

“The first thing we need to do is to better educate teachers on how to recognise logical fallacies and confirmation bias, and how to teach this to young people. Too many people are suffering because some people believe fake news.

Dealing with the internet

In a book Philippe Longchamps has just published with Charlotte Graham, Transformative Education, the authors detail techniques and projects that teachers can use to develop their students’ critical thinking skills. For example, ask young people to graph raw data from reliable sources, then compare the result with their classmates and, ultimately, with graphs produced by experts.

“They learn a lifelong lesson that it is a good habit to always question what can be found on the Internet,” the authors write, thinking in particular of theories that deny climate change.

However, instilling critical thinking skills requires a dose of humility on the part of the teacher, and requires not being too authoritarian. “I want to create a safe environment for students, where they are allowed to challenge. To check if what I say is true,” says Philippe Longchamps. When the students see that I am making a mistake, I want them not to hesitate to tell me. And I congratulate them. It’s a behaviour that I want to encourage.

This “risk-taking” on the part of the pupils also helps to develop their creativity and innovation, and to reduce their fear of making a mistake, which can feed their anxiety.

Translation validated by Michel Virard

Michel Virard