Infusing Critical Thinking Into the School Curriculum

Tony Mays reports on a recent project in Nigeria which seeks to help primary and secondary school teachers infuse critical thinking skills into the everyday school curriculum. Recent curriculum experiences and debates within South Africa related to outcomes-based education as well as an engagement with the literature on critical thinking, informed Saide’s involvement in the project.

Helping learners to become more critical and discerning thinkers is a goal shared by many of the institutions and countries that Saide works with and remains a key intended critical cross-field outcome of South Africa’s National Qualifications Framework, even though the school curriculum has de-emphasised these more open-ended outcomes-statements in favour of statements and guidelines more closely aligned to knowledge acquisition.

Lai (2011) notes that critical thinking has been interpreted differently in different contexts while Willingham (2007) observes that to some extent ways of thinking are embedded in disciplinary practices which militates against, for example, offering a general course in critical thinking skills and expecting this to permeate across the curriculum. Salmon (2010) notes, however, that there are certain kinds of approaches that teachers can adopt in working with younger learners which can cross disciplinary boundaries.

The project was initiated with two pilot workshops of one-week each involving 50 primary school teachers in the first workshop and 50 secondary school teachers in the second, together with representatives of State School Improvement Teams (SSITs) who are involved in post-workshop follow-up support and evaluation.

The programme has three main outputs as indicated below:

  • Output 1: Design of training materials and training of teacher and State School Improvement Teams;
  • Output 2: Monitoring, support and evaluation;
  • Output 3: Communication and knowledge management.

Output 1: Design of Training Materials and Training of Teacher and State School Improvement Teams
Our local partner, NSF Development Ltd., and Saide prepared an initial draft proposal and then consulted with the project sponsors to refine the proposal. Once the proposal was accepted, the NSF-Saide partnership then source/developed the training materials and monitoring instruments for the pilot. To try to reduce time and cost, core training resources were sourced from Open Educational Resources (OER) wherever possible.

The proposed scope of the training material was as follows:

  • Exploring critical thinking (Day 1)
  • Analysing and critiquing examples of practice related to mathematics, language and civics education teaching (Days 2 and 4)
  • Developing own subject-related examples and providing feedback through cooperative and collaborative activity - and resource-based learning (Days 3 and 5).

 Output 2: Monitoring, Support and Evaluation
It was intended that the consultants’ interaction with the teachers and SSITs would model the expected dialogic and critical classroom engagement between teachers and their students/pupils including the support, monitoring and assessment. At the end of the first training intervention, there should be a formal review of impact. It is envisaged that evidence for this review will be derived from:

  • A formal survey among both teachers and SSIT members (completed)
  • Focus group interviews with appropriate samples from the two learner populations (in process)
  • Evaluation of portfolios of evidence of changed practice (In process).

The first population of teachers was planned to be in May 2015 while the subsequent ones were proposed for August 2015 (this was moved forward to June 2015), November 2015 and February 2016. It is intended that every subsequent intervention with a new population of classroom teachers should benefit from the feedback derived from this ongoing review process.

Output 3: Communication and Knowledge Management
Communication and knowledge management is an essential part of the project to ensure that stakeholders understand the reform agenda, support the process and ensure sustainability of the change. These will be done through three essential elements: advocacy, documentation and dissemination of information.

  • Advocacy: The first step will be to conduct political engagement with relevant state authorities to explain the objectives of the project, ensure necessary buy-in and get the states to identify the pilot local governments, schools and teachers.
  • Documentation of learning: Throughout the project implementation and monitoring process there will be documentation of learning on what works and what needs to improve. Results will be documented for policy influencing.
  • Dissemination of information: The project will produce reports from the various assessments, newsletters and also organise meetings and events to disseminate findings from the assessments and also disseminate what the critical thinking and logical reasoning curriculum is all about, as well as information on the new teacher training methodology.

Planning and Preparation
After consultation, it was agreed that the first phase of the pilot would involve 50 primary school teachers from Kano and Kaduna States and at least four SSIT officials. The workshop was scheduled for the period 18-22 May 2015 and was facilitated at the Chida International Hotel in Abuja. The second workshop, took place at the Al-Ihsan Metro Hotel in Kaduna between 22 and 26 June 2015 and involved 50 secondary school educators from Kano and Kaduna States and up to seven observers/co-participants/co-facilitators (involved in opening and closing sessions, group work and a Friday afternoon impromptu discussion on ‘temperament’).

In each case, a draft workshop programme was developed and a deliberate facilitation strategy for the workshop was to gradually shift the locus of decision-making and resource production from the workshop facilitators to the workshop participants. This was considered essential if participants were expected to return to schools to implement in practice the things they had learned.

In support of the workshop plan, a collection of useful OER was sourced and some additional resources created and then shared as OER. The resources were made available digitally on a CD or via Dropbox, with one hard copy of each text-based resource printed for each group of 5-6 participants.

Initial feedback from the workshop participants was very positive. However, the extent to which the workshops impact on actual classroom practice and on learner engagement is still being investigated by the SSITs.

The project is located within a wider initiative within Nigeria. NSF Developments Limited (NSF) was aware that the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), through the Directorate of Behavioural Analysis (DBA) charged with implementing the prevention module of the strategy for Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), sought to implement a pilot programme on designing and implementing a curriculum that would encourage critical thinking and logical reasoning. NSF Developments Limited accordingly entered into a partnership with Saide to develop the proposal to train teachers and master trainers on a creative curriculum that would strengthen the capacity of 120 primary and secondary school teachers from two states of Kano and Kaduna on critical thinking and logical reasoning. The proposal identified the following overall goal and objectives:

Goal: Improved learning achievements and decision-making capacity of students in the pilot schools in the two pilot states of Kano and Kaduna.


  • To increase the capacity of 120 primary and secondary school teachers in the areas of critical thinking and logical reasoning
  •  To increase the capacity of 80 State School Improvement Teams in the two states to roll out the training in the two states

The pilot workshops reported on here were enabled through a national project called SAVE related to the above and supported by the Australian Embassy.

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