One of my concerns about our population is that although we are perhaps the most educated country in the world, many of us lack the important skill of thinking critically. It has been said that he who controls the mind, controls the world. Too often we are spoon fed information, not only by the media and web, but also by our educational system. If this information is assimilated as fact without further evaluation, it gives those that disseminate information the power to control you.
In higher education a well-rounded education equips learners with the skills to not only be a productive citizen, but to participate in improving their world. When little or no civil discourse on important issues and ideas takes place, students do not have the opportunity to learn to critically evaluate and filter information.
In our politically correct culture we have a habit of double-checking our thoughts, which for the most part allows for civil discourse. However, in an academic setting students may fear potential implications and think twice about speaking up. Concerns such as lower grades or social rejection due to their views may cause them to repress their thoughts.
For students to build critical thinking skills they need to be given the freedom and support to take intellectual risks. As part of the learning process, institutions and educators should encourage students to share ideas and thoughts that others might find controversial or even offensive. Providing students with an opportunity to engage in respectful and thoughtful discourse or be assigned to play devils advocate on issues and beliefs can create an opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills. This can be a wonderful learning experience and chance to more closely evaluate both sides of an argument, deepen assessment of their personal motivation and thought processes, adjust their current paradigm, and build more effective communication skills.
As online learning is my area of interest and research, online course discussion threads can be a great tool to engage learners in thoughtful and respectful dialogue, and enhance their critical thinking skills. Any curriculum can include opportunities for dialogue on any number of topics that may influence or impact the area of study. As an educator you can encourage discussion on ethics, politics, religion, law...and the list goes on. To supercharge student engagement allow them to bring up important topics for discussion, which impact their potential vocation and world. Everyone has opinions and feelings about major issues we face and having the opportunity to voice and learn other viewpoints builds not only critical thinking skills, but knowledge on the subject as well.