Educators agree that critical thinking is a crucial skill for the 21st century, but is it harder to teach in some cultures than in others? Burmese educationalist Win Aung argues that critical thinking has a longer history in the East than many have recognised. The British Council's Don Watson reports.
According to IBM, 90 per cent of the data in the world was created in the last two years.
In order to make sense of this explosion of information you need to be able to tell the difference between wisdom and sophistry, between timely words of warning and interest-driven scaremongering. That power of analysis is what’s called critical thinking. It is defined by the Critical Thinking Community as the ability to check for ‘clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, logic, and fairness’, to build knowledge from a range of sources, including your own experience.
Does an emphasis on critical analysis of information mean that one part of the world will be better equipped to learn the skills necessary for success? Received wisdom indicates that critical thinking is embraced more enthusiastically in the West than it is in the East. Politics, tradition and religion have, according to this view, formed a powerful triumvirate which conspires to leave half the world with an approach to knowledge that relies on rote learning, and regards questioning as anathema.
Dr Win Aung, a consultant with 30 years’ experience of working in education in Burma, accepts this view has some foundation in day-to-day life. It is particularly evident in a country still struggling to emerge from the shadow left by decades of authoritarian rule, but it is by no means the whole story.
‘We do have a more vertical and hierarchical model of society,’ Win Aung says. ‘Myanmar is largely still a country where the father rules in the home and the teacher rules in the classroom.’ But, he argues, the notion that critical thinking is a foreign concept is not just misguided, it is factually wrong.
‘Certainly in the Buddhist tradition, which is influential across the whole of Southern and Southeast Asia, there is a strong tradition of critical thinking. Some of the fundamental tenets of the Buddhist tradition are essentially an early version of critical thinking,’ he says. ‘The Buddha taught freedom of thought and freedom of enquiry to his disciples. The emphasis is on internal reflection and consideration of the value of a proposition, rather than on blind belief’.
So why is rote memorisation a predominant way of learning in Burma? The answer, Win Aung says, is partly down to the structure of the Buddhist religion. ‘The fact that Buddhist teachings are recorded in the Pali language, which does not have a writing system, puts a great emphasis on the ability to absorb and recite correctly, which consequently gained a value in the East that it was never accorded in the West’.
Then, in Myanmar particularly, the military government found it expedient to emphasise unquestioning obedience as a core virtue. The result is what Win Aung, drawing on Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, calls a ‘culture of silence’. We see this in the reverent atmosphere of the classroom, where students lack the confidence to question things. This is significant because a questioning behaviour could be critical if students are to get by in the world.
‘As Myanmar opens up, we have more access to the outside world. And because of new technology, the young are exposed to a sudden rush of information,’ he says. 'The ability to evaluate this critically and decide what is true and good and what is false and harmful is all the more important’.
In attempting to revive the tradition of critical thinking in Burma, Win Aung does not underestimate the scale of the cultural change that he and his fellow reformists need to effect as they begin the process of putting a national strategy for education into place.
'Many of our teachers are not critical thinkers', he says. 'We have to improve their ability to teach more effectively and be able to promote critical thinking.' This dual challenge, he points out, places a great emphasis on Burma’s current generation of teachers to overcome a lack of confidence brought about by decades of the ‘culture of silence’, and create a space in Burma’s classrooms where a culture of critical thinking can grow and thrive.
‘If the teacher exercises authority in the classroom, how they exercise their authority is very important in changing the culture of that classroom.’
There are also challenges at the societal level, he says. ‘We have a culture of harmony, which brings with it a demand for respect and obedience. When children start asking questions, there may be a feeling that they are becoming impolite and aggressive’.
According to Win Aung, the change needs to be a culturally sensitive one – a reconnection with the Buddhist tradition of critical thinking which circumstance and history disrupted.
‘We need to balance social harmony and social cohesion, and the practice of democratic education’.
Dr Win Aung is one of the policy makers from the UK and the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries brought together by the British Council in for the 21st Century Learning series, to share experience of their triumphs and challenges.
Find out more about the British Council's policy dialogue work and the ASEAN deep learning policy engagement series, as the final seminars in the series take place this month.