Updated: May 16, 2021
The Politics and International Relations Society was back in force today ready to practise critical thinking, collaboration and communication skills.
In a 45 minute session the mixed-age group ate their lunch and considered two articles published today on the BBC news website. The first was about the call for MPs to be given the legal right to call witnesses to committee hearings and the second was about UNICEF's reaction to the UK Government's decision to cut foreign aid spending by 60%.
I had been reading David A. White's book, 'Philosophy for Kids' over the weekend and thought that it might be good practice to apply philosophical questions to current affairs.
The two questions that I chose were:
I asked the group to read first the two short articles and then we talked about what they were about. We talked about the main themes of the stories. The group deduced that the first article was about power, transparency and scrutiny. The second article they thought was also about power and the responsibility of wealthier nations to support those in need of humanitarian assistance.
Now that we had established the themes of the articles, we then applied the key questions. I talked a little about identifying causal connections: X causes Y. In this sense some people will be satisfied with a simple cause and effect statement where one event/thing causes another event/thing. And that is the end of the story: X causes Y. The End....and yet it is highly unlikely that any current affairs story can be explained in this manner.
I asked the group to consider what the X causes Y explanation could be for the UNICEF story. They came up with....
The UK Government's cuts cause the suffering of children.
I then asked them if there was adequate evidence within the article to establish the X causes Y connection. I also made the point that many people only read headlines and do not take the time to even read the article and yet use the headline to form their understanding of an issue. Research has identified that 80% of readers never make it past the headline. According to some sources, on average, eight out of 10 people will read headline copy, but only two out of 10 will read the rest.
I said that if the evidence is not adequate then the speaker or writer has been guilty of the fallacy of 'questionable cause'.
The example of questionable cause I shared with them was:
Every time I go to sleep, the sun goes down. Therefore, my going to sleep causes the sun to set.
The two events may coincide, but have no causal connection.
We then moved on to think about the impact on societies, communities, governments and individuals of people generating their understanding of political issues using questionable cause and/or simply reading the headline of political articles.
Next we considered why the word 'because' is so important as it is one way to avoid simplistic analysis of political issues (and in fact, all issues). When we say 'because' we are trying to explain something. Giving an explanation is complex but we must not take the path of least resistance and say 'Just because' in answer to a question. When we ask questions that receive a 'Just because' response, what we are hearing is that the question we have asked is not worthy of explanation as the answer obvious. 'Just because' shuts down critical thinking and analysis. Perhaps the respondent doesn't have the knowledge or language to explain the reasons to us. Whatever the explanation, it is a dismissive and unacceptable response for the critical thinker.
I asked the group to consider the parts of each article that would benefit from adding the word 'because' to help further explain a statement or opinion proffered in each article. This is what we came up with...
The committee suggested a failure to appear could be a criminal offence, punished by a fine or imprisonment (this is a statement from the article) because this would ensure that those with evidence could shine a light on enquiries that are in the public interest and this would enhance the scrutiny of political and industry representatives which would then enhance the democratic process.
"We will still spend more than £10bn this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health" said a spokesperson for the FCO (this is a statement from the article) because this would make us (the UK Government) look good/ this is our global responsibility.
We then progressed to look at the 5Whys technique which helped the group understand how to get to the heart of an issue and uncover the real challenge.
For more about this thinking technique, take a look at the video I made below.:
We took the UNICEF article and applied the 5Whys technique as follows:
Why are children suffering?
Because they are living in countries with governments that are struggling to provide support in terms of health and social care, such as Yemen.
Why is Yemen struggling to provide support in terms of health and social care?
The ongoing conflict in Yemen revolves around the issue of political control. The conflict has its roots in the failure of a political transition supposed to bring stability to Yemen following an Arab Spring uprising that forced its longtime authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in 2011. As president, Mr Hadi struggled to deal with a variety of problems, including attacks by jihadists, a separatist movement in the south, the continuing loyalty of security personnel to Saleh, as well as corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.
The Houthi movement (known formally as Ansar Allah), which champions Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority and fought a series of rebellions against Saleh during the previous decade, took advantage of the new president's weakness by taking control of their northern heartland of Saada province and neighbouring areas.
Disillusioned with the transition, many ordinary Yemenis - including Sunnis - supported the Houthis, and in late 2014 and early 2015 the rebels gradually took over the capital Sanaa.
The Houthis and security forces loyal to Saleh - who was thought to have backed his erstwhile enemies in a bid to regain power - then attempted to take control of the entire country, forcing Mr Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015.
Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at defeating the Houthis, ending Iranian influence in Yemen and restoring Mr Hadi's government.
The coalition received logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France.
Why have France, the US and the UK provided logistical and intelligence support to the coalition led by Saudi Arabia?
It has been reported that the US are keen to curb the power of Iran in the region, UK arms sales buy Britain influence with Saudi Arabia; influence that it can use to sue for peace and France claims that it really wants to support security and stability in the region.
Why do these governments believe that Saudi Arabia and its coalition could bring peace and stability in the region?
Most governments agree that the conflicts in Yemen and Syria can only be ended through the implementation of political, rather than military, solutions. If Saudi Arabia and Iran can take steps toward political compromises in Syria and Yemen, this subsequently will reflect positively on the trust building process.
On March 22, Saudi Arabia presented a peace initiative to wind down the war in Yemen. The proposal laid out the need for a comprehensive cease-fire, reopening Houthi-controlled Sanaa International Airport, and allowing fuel ships to dock at Houthi-run Hodeida. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan pronounced the initiative in Riyadh, saying, "We want the guns to fall completely silent."
But Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam quickly said the initiative did not propose anything new. He wrote on Twitter, "Any stance or initiative that does not note that Yemen has been subjected to six years of aggression and siege and that does not separate the humanitarian issue from any military or political agreement … offers nothing serious and nothing new."
Many countries, including the United States, the UK and China, voiced support for the new Saudi peace drive, calling on the warring sides in Yemen to seize the opportunity. But while this backing for the initiative appears to be good news, it means little to multitudes of Yemenis.
Why does this mean little to multitudes of Yemenis?
Six years of war and recurring failures of political negotiations have made civilians in Yemen skeptical about the viability of peace talks and efforts.
The damage to Yemen and its people has been massive. Food insecurity, diseases and displacement plague millions of people. Amar al-Amari, a schoolteacher in Sanaa, told Al-Monitor that a peace initiative cannot wipe out this nation's plight overnight. "I am not happy about this Saudi proposal; either it succeeds or not. The war has destroyed every beautiful thing in this country. How and when can we reclaim the joy and tranquility of our prewar life?" Amar asked.
And so we can see that by asking the 5 Why questions, the root cause of the suffering is not a simple 'X causes Y' response. The response is far richer and nuanced in that it is not simply the UK Government's reduction in foreign aid to countries such as Yemen that is causing the suffering of children (although it will negatively impact the Yemeni children and arguably the continuation of arms sales to the Saudi coalition actually exacerbates the suffering of the children).
If 80% of people do not read beyond the headline, the consequences for real understanding and analysis of any political, social or economic issue are significant.
This case study offers a clear pathway that teachers and instructors could use to facilitate critical thinking. One reason to explain why this worked so well is that there was limited cognitive load which reduced overwhelm. Not everyone in the group had deep knowledge and understanding of either or both political issues, but this is the wonderful nature of collaborative work: not everyone has the same views, knowledge and understanding. What all of the group members did have in common however, was an interest in thinking and a desire to find out more about the world in which they live. This exercise did not demand a vast prior knowledge but it did demand curiosity. The pupils in this group are self-referring: they decide whether to come to the co-curricular session or not. Some come with friends; some come alone and make new connections across year groups. They are effective in their listening skills and are able to articulate their ideas. They make connections and always think and ask 'why?' This is all that is necessary for a task such as this.
Curiosity is a mindset.
But how can curiosity be fostered in young people? This is complex to quantify but here are my thoughts:
Look to the future
Create opportunities for young people to realise their role in the world in which they live. The more that they encounter that relates to issues such as climate change, and political systems, for example, the more they will begin to realise that they need to be interested in what the world looks like now and could look like in their futures. Only when they realise that they are the lynch pins for the future will they begin to become curious about their place now and the role they could play in the future in terms of improving systems and supporting others. The Future We Choose is a great book to read to get you thinking in this way.
Burst their bubbles
When young people begin to think beyond the confines of their own being and that of their family and friends, they can begin to be curious about the impact political decision making has on people that are unlike them in terms of income, gender, political affiliation, ethnicity, religion etc. When young people are asked about the impact or effect of an issue, they are likely to consider first, the bubble that is their own life experience. Challenging this myopia is something that teachers and parents can do by asking about the possible impacts of an issue on their community, their nation and globally. Bursting their bubbles of their own lived experiences is the kindest thing a teacher and parent can do because it encourages empathetic understanding of what it might be to walk in someone else's shoes. I wrote more about this here.
Make thinking visible
Modelling curiosity as a parent or teacher is essential. When young people can see visible thinking, they can understand it. Talk about your thought processes and how you came to your conclusions. The curious child is likely to challenge you. This should be welcomed and encouraged. No 'Just because' responses! I use the Project Zero (Harvard University) Making Thinking Visible strategies regularly.
Give time and space
Allow young people time and space to investigate things - this could be reading for pleasure, it could be trying to fix a household appliance that has stopped working or experimenting with a recipe in order to cook a family meal. When we give young people responsibility they have the opportunity to become curious, develop their own mental models and find solutions to the challenges that they face. The Little Inventors Handbook is a fantastic resource that can be used by young people on their own or teachers and parents alike.
Identify the connections
Use systems thinking to help young people understand that issues connect to each other. They are likely to begin to question why these connections exist. Read more about this approach here.
Harvard Business Review reported in 2018 that
When our curiosity is triggered, we think more deeply and rationally about decisions and come up with more-creative solutions.
We know that the skills most in demand for the Fourth Industrial Revolution towards which we are hurtling at breakneck speed are critical thinking skills, creativity, communication and collaboration. Providing time and space for such pursuits should not be regarded as 'nice to have' in education settings, they should be the driving force behind all academic work as they are with successful Project Based Learning (PBL) initiatives.
Without these skills driving forward the educational experiences of our young people we run the risk of knowledge accumulation and standardised testing dominating the seven years of secondary school and beyond into higher education. That is not to say that having knowledge is redundant. It is to say, however, that the accumulation of knowledge is not sufficient to survive in the future. Where knowledge is taught or learned, it needs to be processed to have a function. Any job or function that can be automated is at risk of being a redundant pursuit for human beings. We have the ability as teachers and parents to cultivate the essential skills that young people need now and will need in their futures in order to survive and thrive.