Strategies for Cultivating and Assessing Critical Thinking in sub-Saharan Africa

Abstract

 Presenter (s) Mauro Giacomazzi, Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education; Joseph Lample, Kimanya Ngeyo Foundation for Science and Education; Matthew French, Komo Learning Centres; Esther Care, The Brookings Institution; Mary Goretti Nakabugo, Uwezo Uganda; Lynn Murphy, Independent; Barbara Gagliotti, AVSI-USA

If human beings are to contribute to the building of a future that recognizes the interconnectedness of life on Earth and beyond, an enhanced human awareness is vital. Education as it is currently practiced in most contexts, including the developing world, is mainly concerned with drilling into students some basic information and testing their recall of it. Hardly the type of creative thinking they’ll need to face life in the 21st century, let alone develop solutions that respect an interplanetary ecosystem – human and non-human. Fortunately, there is global momentum to reconfigure student learning goals, as illustrated by strong interest in 21st century skills (Care, Griffin & Wilson, 2018), global competence (OECD, 2018), and transversal competencies (UNESCO, 2014). This shift is underscoring the need for change in curricula, use of appropriate pedagogies, and the identification of useful assessment strategies.

In the sub-Saharan context, as well as in other regions of the world, while various organisations have tried to evaluate student learning outcomes, assessments do not capture the full picture, especially in the area of higher order thinking skills (Kim, Care & Vista, in press; Care, Vista & Kim, 2019). “Too many students who are successful in school do not learn enough of the skills and knowledge aligned with the current and future needs of employment and the further development of Uganda’s economy” (Allen, Elks, Outhred, & Varly, 2016, p. ii). In addition, the methods of teaching do not foster deep understanding of subjects or help learners to understand the connection between school learning and their personal life. Education tends to be based on rote learning (Allen et al., 2016; Mitana, Muwagga, & Ssempala, 2018).
Although policy makers and educators understand the importance of developing higher order thinking in students, concrete strategies to foster this capacity seem to be lacking.

A study conducted in Uganda (Omala, Mitana, Giacomazzi, & Ariapa, 2016), highlighted the demand of the labour market for a work force possessing soft skills and higher order thinking skills for employability and better life outcomes. There is also the perception that the Ugandan school system is not fully preparing students capable of participation in society as citizens in the broadest sense (Allen et al., 2016). Furthermore, the end of cycle examinations influence teaching practices in a substantial way and dictate the parts of the syllabus actually covered in class (Mitana et al., 2018). Deep knowledge and understanding of concepts, questioning techniques, evaluation, analysis and creativity are, consequently, almost absent in the classroom.
There is a clear gap between the learning outcomes achieved by students after navigating through sub-Saharan school systems and the expectations of the society. Local conceptualization of necessary skills is still unexplored (Onen, 2019) and methods for the development and assessment of the skills are quite unknown to the teachers, school leaders and school administrators. Accordingly, it is essential to train teachers on higher order thinking skills and provide instruments for assessing these skills for both summative and formative assessment purposes.
The proposed panel will explore the concept of critical thinking in sub-Saharan countries, the methods for the development of deep understanding in students, and methods for assessing acquisition of these skills both at national level and at classroom level.

The first presenter will document the process of defining how the concept of Critical Thinking is understood within the Ugandan society. This process will offer the basis for the development of context relevant teaching-learning methodologies that foster critical thinking skills and offer teachers tools for assessing learners’ acquisition of these competences.
The second presenter has worked to reshape the conceptual framework of teachers in Uganda as part of a strategy to shift teaching practices away from a focus on information assimilation. The presentation draws upon the experience of a a local organization in assisting primary school teachers to adopt a “capabilities” driven pedagogy: one which focuses on the characteristics, habits, skills, attitudes, and areas of understanding that they would like students to develop through school lessons rather than on the content to be transmitted from textbooks. The presentation provides a brief overview of this strategy, as well as preliminary findings that suggest pathways forward in the professional development of teachers in low-income contexts across sub-Saharan Africa.

The third panellist is working to increase meaningful youth engagement in Ugandan secondary schools through the Do It Yourself (DIY) Clubs initiative. DIY Clubs provide students with the opportunity to design and implement their own solutions to challenges they identify in their schools and communities. The presenter will provide an overview of the mechanisms through which the DIY approach leads to improved critical thinking, problem solving, greater agency, and shifts in school power dynamics.

The following panelist will focus on how teachers approach the “tweaking” of traditional assessment items to reflect critical thinking. Rather than have educators rely on imported or provided test items to support teaching, teachers are empowered to develop materials that will stimulate the “transferable skills” that help students develop the capabilities to function effectively in learning – both in and out of school, and in and out of work. Under the banner of the Optimizing Assessment for All initiative, the presentation will provide examples of the approach, and be illustrated by inputs from three countries (DRC, the Gambia, Zambia).

Last presenter will share Ugandan experiences of assessing critical thinking at scale through citizen-led household surveys. Drawing from a decade experience of assessing basic literacy and numeracy competencies at national scale working with citizen volunteers, the presenter will describe how they adapted the methodology to assessing deeper learning with a special focus on critical thinking at national level. From the assessment findings, she will review judgements on the extent to which the ground is fertile for nurturing this skill in an African context and what the policy and practical implications could be.

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