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  • Writer's pictureStacey Chiew

Nicki Coombs: Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking In Education

School should become the place where teachers, not just students, learn. - Vijay Dhameliya

The rise of globalization has placed English as a global language. Demand for English-medium education remains high in Asia. In Malaysia, some international schools adopted the British curriculum have "gone global", seeking help from well-trained educators who are natives to the British curriculum to support their schools in a non-British setting. The UK education approaches focus on fostering independent thinking rather than memorizing facts through repetition or exam based learning. The need to meet the curriculum requirements is the main reason local international schools hire expatriate teachers, as they are familiar with the teaching approaches and training in the UK.

Nicki Coombs, executive principal.

After working in the education field for more than 25 years in England, Nicki was ready to venture into a foreign country. She was eager to share her expertise and experience in a school that offers British curriculum. Nicki has always keen on exploring new cultures and learning new things. Seeing all challenges are opportunities, her passion of wanting to impart knowledge to children of a different culture led her to Malaysia, her second home.

She landed in Malaysia 6 years ago working as a school principal at Beaconhouse Newlands International School. This year, she is appointed as the executive principal for Beaconhouse Sri Inai International School. An expert in the UK education program, Nicki shares her views on issues related to modern-day learning.

1. How do you define 21st-century learning? What are the characteristics of a 21st-century teacher?

The 21st-century learning requires students to become independent thinkers. They need to know how to filter information and apply the knowledge learned into their daily lives. On the other hand, the goal of teaching is not just transferring knowledge. Sources of information can be easily obtained using the internet. The role of teachers has changed. Teachings no longer focus on exam performance or monitoring student progress but preparing them for the world of work.

A modern-day teacher should possess the skills to demonstrate higher-order thinking to students to help them develop a growth mindset. These are the skills the future generations need to ensure their future career success: The ability to seek new solutions to new problems. We are living in a digital age. New teaching methodologies are changing the landscape of education. Students can easily access to a vast array of information. Traditional teaching methods such as spoon-feeding or one size fits all approach where students are subjected to the same teaching styles don't suit today's learning purposes. These are outdated educational practices that prevent students take responsibility for their own learning. Spoon feeding inhibits critical thinking, which will lead to poor job performance. As educators, we need to teach children how to make better choices, take ownership of their learning and express their views confidently.

To be a successful teacher, he or she must be willing to learn and never stop learning. In order to equip students with the necessary skills , educators must adapt to the pace of change and change with time.

2. What are your thoughts on Eastern and Western education approaches? In general, Western education emphasizes on the importance of deep understanding, while Eastern education focuses on memorizing (recalling of facts).

It is no surprise that teaching styles have changed significantly over the years due to the changing demands for education in society. Giving students responsibility to evaluate their progress and reflect on their growth is necessary. Transferring knowledge or skills is seen as successful only if students know how to apply what they have learned in multiple contexts, including challenges outside the school.

Different cultures practice different values which results in different ways of approaching things. Not only Eastern and Western education systems differ in teaching and learning approaches; teacher training and school leadership styles are different too. There is no perfect education system, but school leaders can work out the best education programs by taking the best of both worlds to make an impactful and meaningful change in education.

3. What are the strategies to boost critical thinking in students?

Young children are naturally curious. It is important to encourage them to try new things and take on more challenges. Provide them opportunities to ask better questions and think things out, this will foster analytical skills. Teach them to look at things from different angles. Use multiple active learning strategies to strengthen their research skills, invite them to share their views and talk about it. I believe project-based learning should be taught in every classroom for every subject to challenge students to use multiple skills to solve problems inside and outside the classrooms.

Inquiry-based learning by utilizing group projects that link to real-world issues will nurture problem-solving skills and challenge students to think critically and creatively. Today's education is about preparing today's students for tomorrow's workforce or jobs that don't exist yet.

4. What is modern holistic learning? How teachers can help implement holistic education effectively?

To prepare students for challenges that don’t exist yet, we must embrace modern teaching. Today's children are growing up globally conscious. Teachers need to have a deep knowledge and understanding of the subjects they are teaching. There is a possibility a teenage student may know more about a subject matter than the teacher, especially when it comes to using technology. In this case, teachers need to adjust their lessons accordingly and look at each child as an individual using personalized, targeted teaching tailored to their needs. Addressing the learning needs of students based on their interests and prior knowledge can impact and improve their learning outcome and achievement.

Education today focuses on whole-person development as a solution. In other words, schools must provide the right kind of facilities to support student learning and knowledge acquisition. Children in Malaysia spend long hours at schools. Therefore it is important for schools to provide a safe and supportive environment for them to thrive. Hands-on lessons where students are allowed to explore, generate and collect new ideas should be included in teachers' lesson plans to help them broaden their horizons, maximize their learning success and develop the kind of soft skills they will need for the future of work.

Today, schools around the world are implementing global classroom concept to promote a meaningful and interactive experience for students from various background. Maximizing interaction between international and domestic students will help them acquire new socializing skills to become confident individuals ready to tackle future global challenges. In fact, a global classroom is a replica of an actual world itself but on a smaller scale. Working globally and cross-culturally will be the future trend as more countries chose to participate in global trade. It is important to help students develop a global mindset at a very young age so that they can think flexibly when it comes to problem-solving, and use multiple perspectives to investigate a problem.

5. What are the challenges teachers face in today’s world?

Today's education requires well-educated and trained teachers who are ready to adapt to new situations thrown their way. What required in a classroom a few years ago have changed so dramatically even some teachers may find it hard to keep up with the latest education development. Therefore, schools must identify potential upskills and provide the necessary training to help teachers stay relevant in the changing world of education.

Modern-day teachers should not limit their learning to the subjects they are teaching. Make new paths; horn new skills and explore new areas of expertise to promote new knowledge sharing. Knowledge is interconnected. To encourage critical thinking in students, teachers themselves need to operate at a professional level where they are able to to see things from diverse perspectives. To be an up-to-date teacher can be a challenge to some teachers. As the world changes faster than the classes do, well-prepared teachers are great assets to schools.

Most people are not aware that a teacher’s job is not just standing in front of students lecturing for hours and marking students’ work. The truth is they do a lot more than that. Many times, they have to be all things to all people. Because they are role models; some would place unrealistic expectations on them, not realizing that they are juggling many responsibilities: From planning lessons, grading, organizing school events to leading extracurricular activities and the list goes on. More things are going on with the school than any parents or students know about.

There are hidden challenges in schools daily. For that, teachers must learn how to become more resilient and look for strategies to deal with them. Striking a healthy work-life balance without neglecting personal lives is necessary and important; so that they can continue to grow and succeed in what they do best.

6. If you could change just one thing regarding the way education is done, what would it be?

I would change the way how teacher training is done. I would make the experience more hands-on and exploratory as such approaches give teachers opportunities to make mistakes safely, open to constructive criticism and learn to take responsibility for their growth. To help students become better thinkers, teachers must maintain an open mind. They must be able to evaluate a situation from different critical perspectives, as personal biases can only prohibit critical thinking. By providing teachers adequate professional development opportunities, this will help them better equipped to meet and adapt to modern day learning goals.

Generally, teachers are passionate about their job. For teachers to teach successfully, schools must provide sufficient facilities and tools to support modern teaching, so that adequate support can be given to students. If I have the funding, I will design a school well-equipped with modern education facilities to benefit teachers and students who use it. It will be a building where teachers and students can feel secure and safe, a creative space that promotes sustained excellence and achievement. To take care of student wellbeing, teacher wellbeing comes first.

7. Some parents are committed to long working hours, what can they do to help and prepare their children to thrive at schools?

Nowadays, it is more likely both parents working full time outside the home. Some may find it difficult to squeeze time out of their busy schedule to monitor their children progress at school. When time is an issue, parents should learn to invest their time on where it matters most. Research shows that quality of time is much more important than quantity of time. It isn’t about the endless hours of time parents spend with their children, but how they communicate or connect with them. In addition, effective communication between parents and teachers is necessary to improve a child's academic performance. To keep children on track in school, parents need to communicate positively with their children. When a child have a secure and positive relationship with their parents and feels unconditionally loved, he is more likely to blossom.

Quality time can happen anytime and anywhere, thanks to technology. Spending quality time, building trust and tune into your children’s feelings are a few gestures to show that you value them for who they are. Teach them take responsibility for their own behaviour, for example, how to prioritize tasks, evaluate their own learning progress and judge the amount of time needed to complete an assignment. Children who are independent learners tend to have more self-confidence when they know they are in control of their learning.

Published in Dreamic Educational Magazine 2020.

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