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A Lesson in Critical Thinking

by Nithya Siddhu


I was having lunch with a friend who is a lecturer in a private college. "It must be fun to teach students who are already mature", I asked her.

She gave me a derisive laugh.

"Mature? Mature in what way? Do you know that most of them still ask me whether they need to copy what I have written on the board or displayed on the overhead projector screen?

Seeing my look of disbelief, she added, "And what's more, they still expect me to give them all the notes he will need for my subject."

"But surely," I protested, "there must be some difference."

"The only difference I can see is that they're older but where particpation is concerned, I still get a lot of downcast eyes and blank looks when I ask a question."

What she said made me reflect on what we are achieving in sohools today. Assuming that the average college student is at least above 18, this would mean that he would have spent a minimum of 11 years at school. During this period, how much time was spent in teaching him how to think rationally and critically?

Obviously, critical thinking is not one of the strong points of the average Malaysian student. In fact, despite the recent emphasis on student-centred learning, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of students' time is spent copying endless notes and accumulating facts provided by the teacher. Later, in examinations, they reguritate these facts.

Most Malaysian students are very passive. The curious, questionmg student is the exception rather than the rule in our classes. However there are some teachers who hate to be questioned when they are teaching and thus view such a student as a "disruptive" influence. They tend to stem his creative outflow and more often than not end up killing his desire to know more.

In time, this student learns to still his tongue and in the process, adds to the passive atmosphere prevalent in the classroom.

But this is what we must avoid at all costs. I know that there are teachers who fear that allowing a few questions will open the floodgate. There are many too who fear that a confession of their ignorance will diminish their students' respect for them.

I feel that as long as a teacher prepares her lessons well and anticipates certain questions, she will grow in stature as a good teacher. She will also be respected if she says: "I'm not sure of the answer, I'll find it out for you."

Meanwhile, we need to bolster the confidence of students by praising them whenever they ask questions relevant to the lesson.

In addition, we must do all we can to provide the right learning opportunities and ask the kind of open-ended questions that encourage them to think about what they learn daily.

Sometimes, when I ask my students to do a comprehension passage in their Science class, they look askance at me. However, I insist. In doing so, I erase that erroneous belief of theirs that a comprehension exercise belongs strictly to the realm of the language teacher.

The point is: we must train our students to think! There is no point in learning if all the facts and all the answers are coming from the teacher.

The "spoon-fed" mentality of the Malaysian student is nothing to be proud of. What we teachers can do is to stop giving them all the facts. Instead, we need to expose them to a wide variety of material through a "hands-on approach".

I once asked my students how they studied. Most said that they just read through their notes. No pen and paper is used. What they are using is a very passive and ineffective way of learning. Alexander Graham Bell's golden rule of learning is to "observe, compare and remember".

In short, allowance must be made for the active involvement of the mind to accumulate, assess, compare and classify data. Students must be taught how to take notes, how to organise them and finally how to use them. As teachers, we must make it one of our priorities to encourage and motivate them to think about what they read and learn.

As I see it, if we don't begin to teach them thinking skills now, we'll continue to have colleges full of robots incapable of independent study!

The Star, July 19, 1998.

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