Cogito, ergo sum: Where next for critical thinking?

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Both pupils and teaching colleagues must be allowed and encouraged to identify, analyse, and solve problems systematically, rather than be spoon-fed facts without questioning them, says Deborah Lawson

Cogito, ergo sum: I think therefore I am

So said French philosopher Descartes, thus providing a solid foundation for knowledge and learning over the past 400 years or so.

But are we in danger of no longer valuing critical thinking skills?

Facts are important – they set a constant which helps us to frame our lives. We know, for example, that there are 60 seconds in a minute and 100 pennies in a pound. That knowledge is important should not be open to debate.

As Daisy Christodoulou (2014) said: “Factual knowledge is closely integrated with creativity, problem-solving and analysis. It allows these skills to happen.”

But increasingly our curriculum is focused only on learning facts and being able to recall them. So, how do we distinguish fact from opinion or question the truth of supposed facts? And what happens if we fail to stop and consider why?

Initial teacher training (ITT)

The ITT core content framework (DfE, 2019) clearly highlights the importance of critical thinking through looking at how children learn and adapting teaching to meet their needs.

This is coupled with the encouragement to engage in research and use an “evidence-based approach”. However, using the language that trainees should “learn that…” suggests a focus on facts rather than reasoning. What evidence is being recommended? Is it reviewed and open for debate, or is it presented as fact and expected to be implemented?

Teaching is not just about delivering what we are told to. It is about recognising and understanding the learning that needs to take place and leading pupils on that journey. We need teachers, trainees, early career teachers, the whole education workforce, to rigorously consider ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. This is particularly important in this era of fake news, misinformation, anti-science conspiracy theories, and media and political bias and disinformation.

There have been many examples of education theories that have subsequently been debunked – the learning pyramid, learning styles (visual, audio, kinaesthetic learners), Brain Gym – but questions should be asked about how they became so widespread in the first place and why some of them remain in schools today.


Balance is needed between knowledge and skills, and this begins very early on in a child’s life. In the early years and reception, it is crucial that children learn about cause and effect – for example, a tower with a wide base can be taller than one built with a narrow base. Children need to know things and understand, and often the best way of demonstrating that knowledge is to apply it in a practical way.

In literacy, this might mean making up words that demonstrate understanding of phonics, or in maths applying the knowledge of times tables and multiplication to money. Yes, exams have a place, but too often they only truly measure facts and recall.

We have written before about the need for a broad and balanced curriculum, not one that is skewed towards an arbitrary core content. We have cautioned against the belief that there is a quantum of knowledge which all children must assume, and have continued to support a broad and balanced curriculum covering a wide range of topics and which allows for personalisation – one where teachers are permitted, even encouraged, to tailor the learning to their cohort and the local community, inspiring wider learning, firing imagination and creativity.

Of course, in order for this to be possible, we need to be able to make mistakes. Even the most creative individuals will get it wrong at times – the problem is how to manage that failure.

Creativity and wellbeing

The focus on attainment and the fear of Ofsted and accountability means that schools are reluctant to try new and unproven things, with David Green of Civitas stating back in 2014: “We know schools that would like to innovate but are scared to do so because of the misguided notions of many Ofsted inspectors.”

The situation has not noticeably changed, and this fear permeates into the curriculum, affecting delivery and learning so that children too are fearful of making mistakes.

We must also consider mental health and wellbeing. While we all want children to succeed, it is not the be-all and end-all. Learning to fail is important too. Not only that, but it is often in moments of supposed failure that inspiration and creativity provide a previously unimagined solution.

We need to be creative and encourage innovation from the top down and the bottom up. We need to engage with critical thinking, both as a skill to learn and one to deploy.

We need to encourage our pupils and colleagues to identify, analyse and solve problems systematically, and we need to consider the latest evidence, investigating and trialing before blindly imposing change.

With all of this in place, our children will have the knowledge and the skills to really learn and to achieve.

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