Critical thinking in schools is crucial for promoting democratic societies in ASEAN

Photo: Bryon Lippincott

At Education International’s 8th World Congress, democracy and human rights issues were front and centre. In a region mired in autocracy and rights abuses, the promotion of critical thinking will be crucial for democratic change.

By Zachary Frye

Education International (EI), a Brussels-based organisation promoting quality public education for all, hosted its 8th World Congress in Bangkok from July 19 to July 26, 2019.

Critical thinking in the classroom was a central issue. Around the region educators face obstacles preventing the advancement of critical thinking skills among students, especially regarding important social issues like democracy and human rights.

For Susan Hopgood, EI’s president, this is a concerning development. Speaking with ASEAN Today, she implored policymakers to implement more holistic curriculums.

“Democracy and human rights are critical to the wellbeing of the world, and they rely, in part, on having very informed citizens. That’s why we say education has a really important role to play.

Susan Hopgood opened Education International’s 8th World Congress in Bangkok.
Photo: Education International

“For our young people to be critical thinkers, they’ve got to have the skills and knowledge to make decisions about [different] ideologies. Everything teachers do, in a way, should be about encouraging young people to think for themselves. Students need to learn to debate, discuss, be aware of other people’s differences,” she added.

Economic competitiveness is being prioritised

Southeast Asia is one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. Although economies are rapidly expanding, autocratic regimes hold many countries back.

When basic rights are repressed democracy suffers. Without democracy, corruption breeds and democratic norms and institutions are weakened. The will of the electorate is brushed aside and sustainable economic and social development becomes more difficult.

Critical thinking, if advanced at all, is often seen solely as a tool to promote crucial economic sectors, like technology or medicine.

Dr Yuwana Podin, a research scientist at the University of Malaysia, Sarawak, told ASEAN Today that this imbalance does a disservice to society.

“In Malaysia, schools focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] more than human rights and democracy. Some people, even adults, don’t feel the need to be a part of the democratic process. The right to speak [out] and express yourself is seen as a luxury.”

Educators are facing an uphill battle

Even if critical thinking is on the agenda, educators are finding it difficult to implement.  

Raymond Basilio, a leader at the Philippine’s Alliance of Concerned Teachers, lamented: “Our classroom setup is very structured. We don’t have academic freedom. Teachers need to teach [using] the material provided. They aren’t allowed to use reference materials of their choice. This limits the way students think because I believe critical thinking can only be developed when you have multiple sources of information,” he said.

He went on to note that governments too often think of education purely as a means of employment, as opposed to a path toward liberation.

“For the Philippine government, they need to produce graduates with technical and vocational [skills]. You need to teach Filipino students how to clean the bathroom, how to give a massage, how to do haircutting [sic]. These are very technical things that don’t represent education at all.”

Governments are pushing back against critical thinking to advance their agendas

In the Philippines, the Duterte administration is actively undermining the public’s ability to discern fact from fiction.

Fake stories and vicious personal attacks are being trafficked out of the presidential palace and malign actors on social media are using the platforms to legitimise the narrative.

Maria Ressa, the CEO of Rappler and co-winner of TIME magazine’s person of the year award in 2018 for her work promoting the rights of journalists, told ASEAN Today that educators have a vital role to play in combating illiberalism.

Maria Ressa, the CEO of Rappler, talking at Education International’s 8th World Congress on July 23, 2019.
Photo: Education International

“What the government has done [is promote] a scorched earth policy for short term power.”

“There’s what you teach and then there’s the values that are implicit in how you teach. What we teach in schools, that’s the medium-term solution. But you need to be aware of how quickly the ground beneath our feet is shifting because if you have no facts, how are the kids [going to think]?

She argues that modern society, fueled by a fast-paced Internet culture, too often ignores or dismisses worrying trends.  

“Thinking slow, critical thinking is left far, far behind [and now] the world is grappling with this.”

Curricula that emphasize democracy and human rights will help ASEAN move forward

In order for ASEAN nations to reach their full potential, socially and politically, democracy and human rights need to be on the educational agenda.

However, critical thinking must be taught in a politically neutral way; students shouldn’t be taught what to think, they should be taught how.

Students need to grapple with big issues in a way that allows them to make reasoned, evidence-based decisions based on sound values. If they do, the region’s leaders of tomorrow will be better equipped to make political decisions, no matter their ideological bend.

Illiberal governments find critical thinking a threat to their power and will continue pushing back against these efforts. There will be policy fights over the perceived politicisation of critical thinking in the classroom. But if students don’t have exposure to debates over real social issues, they won’t blossom into engaged democratic citizens as adults.

ASEAN’s citizens have benefitted from enormous economic progress in recent years. A region marred by poverty and war just a generation ago is now one of the most dynamic in the world.

But there is more work to be done. Critical thinking will be the cornerstone of stable and just democratic societies in the region moving forward, but only if it’s prioritised in national curricula.