By: Dr K K Paul

The concept of critical thinking is not something entirely new. It has been enshrined in our ancient heritage and has made significant contributions to the development of Indian philosophy. For any concept to be accepted, its refutation and evaluation were taken into account. Reason used to be the sole means of knowing truth and falsity. Sutarka and kutarka were encouraged and debated. This made our ancient seats of learning intellectually far more advanced in their approach. Such critical thinking, along with its unique ecosystem, was a fascinating experience for scholars, who were attracted from all over the world.

It is a well-known historical fact that when the foreigners invaded India, one of their main targets were our great institutions, in addition to those at Takshila and Nalanda. Besides impacting us politically, socially, culturally and economically, they left a critical void of centuries in our intellectual thought. Later, our educational system became a victim of the colonial legacy of the British. Encouraging and inculcating creativity, logical thinking, reasoning and a sense of inquisitiveness were more or less alien to the system we inherited from them. The entire emphasis was on rote learning. Despite the realisation of the deficiencies in the system and measures suggested by various experts and education commissions over the decades, change has been very slow. Even the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) invested in the education sector has been abysmally low.

Nevertheless, change was inevitable and it became more than visible during the first two decades of this millennium. Today, we can compete with the best nations in the world in areas of electronics, space technology, atomic energy, communication and digital technology — in its reach as well as penetration — besides such like other indicators of development. There are, however, areas of serious concern as these positive developments can be attributed to the success of a handful of institutions while a majority of them continue to lag behind.

With more than 50 per cent of India’s population being in the younger age group, we can be termed as the world’s most youthful nation. As we talk of demographic dividend, we should also assess the extent we are equipping the youth to face the world and adding to the strength of the country rather than converting them into a burden. For some reason, education at all levels could not be given the priority it deserved. It is good to see that it is now being realised and rectified. Our youth have to be strong personalities backed and developed by a holistic educational system, which is capable of giving them sufficient confidence and making them comfortable with latest and futuristic technologies.

But universities and institutions of higher education being the very last rung in the career of an individual, a sudden change and a different pattern of education at that level may become difficult for absorption. It is, therefore, essential that our education system be integrated from the foundation stage onwards, in certain specific core areas, which would encourage thinking and inculcate a sense of enquiry and inquisitiveness.

Scientific evidence shows that 80 per cent of the brain is fully developed by the age of six, which indicates importance of child care in an appropriate environment with stimulus to the brain. Here lies the importance of school as well as pre-school education. Emphasis on foundational literacy and numeracy at the school as well as pre-school levels is known to aid healthy growth of the cerebral cortex, an area associated with such skills within the brain. In this context, the most important factor is the teacher, who has to be adequately equipped with the latest pedagogical techniques so as to ensure appropriate development of the cognitive skills among youngsters in a sensitive manner. Accordingly, text books and exercises, which encourage correlation of concepts besides thinking and questioning, will have to be designed.

A report published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently found that India had a disproportionately low number of teachers for school-going children. While we do need quantity, the quality of teachers is perhaps even more important. The ILO report also revealed that elementary school teachers have a critical impact on the earning capacity of students and, hence, the economy. Recent pronouncements, that we have a large number of educated unemployables, may be a result of poor quality of teachers and pedagogy. Hence, the need is for a new look towards training of teachers.

Simultaneously, it has been observed that at higher levels, following an approach which integrates arts, linguistics, and humanities besides mathematics along with science and technology, leads to a deeper learning. This promotes critical thinking and one of higher order. Besides, it also leads to the development of problem-solving and communication skills. Such a holistic approach for acquisition of knowledge would be relevant in present-day context as well as future.

Work being done at the PMF for the acquisition of knowledge shows that memorising is like carrying the burden of books; it does not have much meaning and does not even add to one’s knowledge unless one comprehends the content. In today’s classrooms, so much of information is already available with the students that they do not expect it from the teachers. Instead of “what”, they need to be explained “why” and “how”, which can satisfy curiosity of students and stimulate critical thinking.

The link between critical thinking and education is obvious as one cannot learn without thinking well. For comprehension of content and clarity of concepts, it is, therefore, important that students ask questions. This is where lies the importance of critical thinking. It consists of techniques of sound and systematic reasoning as well as arguments and counter arguments, besides elements of deductive logic. Work books are now available, which help promote critical thinking skills. Irrespective of the subject, the usefulness of such techniques has been tried and tested by experts in the stimulation of the brain.

In the contemporary scenario, the importance of critical thinking in view of the draft National Educational Policy (NEP) has also drawn inspiration. Appropriate modifications to the curriculum have been suggested. According to research findings of a US-based partnership for 21st century, communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking, known as the 4Cs, will be the core skills required for 21st century education. It has been established that at the college and university levels, habits of mind, such as analysis, interpretation, precision and accuracy, problem-solving and logical reasoning can be as important as content knowledge itself.

At the same time, the question before us is that with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution and the arrival of the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence (AI), what would be the future of critical thinking? In fact, a restructured curriculum with focus on 21st century skills would be even more important for a comfortable interface with the fourth industrial revolution technologies. Emphasis on collaboration and team work would still be essential so that in the hi-tech future, one can think critically as well as independently and not become entirely subservient to AI. The draft NEP, with reference to school education, has made no mention either of a reduction in the weight of school bags or any happiness classes. On the positive side, it has alluded to the usefulness and introduced the concept of critical thinking in higher education. It is to be hoped that the final NEP will take into account and focus on some of the issues mentioned here so as to improve the lot of our youth, so that they can significantly contribute towards nation building.

(The writer is a former Governor and a Senior advisor at the Pranab Mukherjee Foundation)