Improving teachers’ instructional design to nurture critical thinking amongst Ugandan learners

By Mauro Giacomazzi

Over the last ten years, I have become increasingly intrigued by the assertion that young people across the globe lack “21st-century skills,” as regularly put forth by various research and media sources. As someone who strongly believes that high order thinking skills, such as critical thinking, are desirable and necessary human competencies that young people should attain along their educational journeys, I have also grown concerned with the Ugandan education system’s apparent inability to enhance these skills amongst learners. In order for Ugandan learners to gain critical thinking skills as they learn in schools, I believe that educators must utilize pedagogical approaches that place learners at the forefront of the learning process.

Once, I was visiting a Mathematics lesson in a secondary school in Kampala and the teacher was explaining the mathematical concept of ‘mean.’ The given definition was perfect but after explaining the general rule he added: “If you have 10 numbers, the mean number is one that has 5 smaller numbers and 5 bigger numbers”… or something of the sort. I was surprised by this because although it could be true, it was not a rule. I also realised that this elaboration confused some of the students. So at the end of the lesson, I asked the teacher to clarify that statement. He was aware that his explanation was not absolutely true, but he told me: “The final exam will never present a case were the mean has, for example, 4 smaller numbers and 6 bigger numbers…”. This was like an epiphany to me.

For me, this experience confirmed research that tells us that in the Ugandan context, teaching methods implemented in the classroom neither foster deep understanding nor help learners make connections between the subject material and their lives. In response to these findings, the Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) is currently implementing a new competence-based Lower Secondary Curriculum that aims to foster deeper learning among students.

I think it is critical that teachers develop a better understanding of how to recognise critical thinking amongst students, learn more about how they can foster classroom conditions that encourage its development and how they can guide learners to become better critical thinkers. Ultimately, the critical thinking development process needs to be deliberate – from the lesson planning stage to the delivery and assessment stages. However, there is still a need to introduce teachers and school leaders to pedagogical methods that will enable them to develop and assess critical thinking in their classrooms.

With this context in mind, the team at the Luigi Giussani Institute of Higher Education (LGIHE) conducted a professional development action research to improve teachers’ capacity to use teaching strategies that focus on developing critical thinking in various subjects and also develop lesson plans that nurture critical thinking amongst learners. We successfully coached 16 teachers across three subjects: Mathematics (05); History (06) and English (05) over a period of six months, who developed a total of 69 lesson plans. Using a participatory method we helped the teacher understand the difference between a lesson that was participatory but completely directed by the teachers and a lesson that was engaging and student-led. Through coaching sessions, the teachers developed improved lesson plans, presented their lesson to colleagues in microteaching sessions and reflected on the work done in focus group discussions among the colleagues.

Using a grounded approach, a contextualised rubric was developed, validated and used to evaluate teachers’ lesson plans. Scoring was conducted by two independent subject-based experts. We were quite impressed with the results. Overall, the quality of the teachers’ lesson plans progressively improved after being introduced to the approach to enhance critical thinking. The final versions of the lesson plans across all topics in the three subjects scored higher in terms of quality relative to earlier versions. Feedback from fellow teachers and facilitators also alerted participants to gaps and areas of improvement in their lesson plans,. Moreover, the teachers considerably changed their learning theories and their beliefs around the curricula and the. One teacher said: “I am asked to change my way of thinking. I am required to change the way I prepare my lesson and also change the way of teaching. I call it a change, because I need to switch from the way I was taught to the new reality at hand. It is good because what I learned was that as I prepare the lesson, I should challenge the students, not spoon feed them anymore. This would help the students to acquire knowledge, skills and values not only to pass exams but use them even after school, as they go into the world to do different things for their lives.”

Furthermore, discussions with learners after implementation of critical thinking- augmented – lesson plans revealed:

  • Learners’ had more confidence in the content they had learned during the lesson
  • Learners had more awareness of the knowledge and skills they had acquired during their lesson
  • There was improved participation amongst learners relative to other lessons that did not have a critical-thinking focus,
  • Learners generally appreciated the mode of delivery used by these teachers.

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