Critical Thinking

The Western academic system is very different from other countries’ systems


This paper discusses the role of critical thinking in the Western education system. We will see that Western educational culture is in some ways very different from the education system that many international students have grown up with, and requires specific study skills if students are to succeed. The required approach is often described as a ‘critical thinking’ approach.

Critical thinking in Western Higher education – Western Universities and employers regard ‘critical thinking skills’ as one of the most important skills that students or employees can possess. Many top universities advertise their courses by saying that they help students to develop critical thinking skills. For example, the website of Durham university quotes accountancy firm, Deloitte and Touche:

“Attributes gained from a Durham University degree include critical thinking, an analytical approach and the ability to reason with information…” (Deloitte and Touche, cited on Durham University website, 2011).

Similarly, critical thinking has been identified as the most important skill that employees in America would need over the next five years (in a recent American study of over 400 senior HR professionals).

What is critical thinking?

So, what is critical thinking? Critical thinking has been described as an attitude of “reflective scepticism” (McPeck, 1981). ‘Scepticism’ means questioning accepted opinions. Therefore critical thinking means not accepting anything until after carefully questioning and evaluating it. In university study, critical thinking means being analytical, and evaluating the arguments of other scholars and making judgements about their validity. This means assessing the evidence that they use to support their points, and deciding whether or not this evidence logically proves their conclusion. Furthermore, any assumptions behind the argument should be identified, because these may limit the validity of the author’s points. A critical approach is the therefore the opposite of simply accepting something as fact because it has been published.

Historical and Cultural background

The Western education system has been influenced by its Greek cultural and philosophical heritage – and this heritage is not universal. Other countries have different philosophical backgrounds, and this is reflected in differences in their academic systems. Greek Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle increased their knowledge through extensive debates and logical argumentation, making claims and supporting those claims with evidence (Egege and Kutieleh, 2004). They aimed to defeat each other’s arguments by exposing weaknesses in each other’s logic or in the evidence used. Sonja Elsegood (2007) describes this Western approach as a ‘claims and support’ approach – a claim is made or an opinion is expressed, and this opinion is only accepted if it is logically supported with evidence. She writes,

“In the Western intellectual tradition, people are encouraged from an early age to ‘evaluate’ ideas, things, people, places, events and experiences by making (and supporting) personal judgements about them. They also learn that people may have different opinions about the same phenomena, which they contest [i.e. disagree with] by debating the relative merits of the reasons and evidence supporting their different views.”

This approach to extending knowledge is not universal, and we must now contrast the critical thinking ‘claims and support’ approach with an alternative method used in many countries.

Alternative Approaches to Knowledge extension

Sonja Elsegood (2007) discusses the education system in Indonesia, and identifies an educational culture that international students from Asia and the non-Western world may recognise from their own experience. She comments on the “very clear boundary between ‘experts’ and ‘non-experts’” (Soenjono, 2001, cited in Elsegood, 2007), stating that “experts… transmit a body of knowledge to non-expert students”, who are not expected to ‘question’ or ‘evaluate’ the teaching that they receive (Sinclair 2000, cited in Elsegood 2007). She describes the educational approach as follows:

Predominantly, students are trained to read for ‘information’, which they summarise, memorise and later reproduce in tests and exams. Written assignments also are usually in the form of descriptive reports where students demonstrate their ‘mastery’ of a subject by the amount of information and ‘facts’ they can reproduce (Sinclair 2000).

Thus the emphasis is on remembering the expert’s perspective rather than on producing a new perspective, and writing is descriptive rather than analytical. However, in the Western education system students are required to take on the role of an ‘expert’ (Sinclair, 2000, cited in Elsegood, 2007) – they should construct unique answers to essay questions that may disagree with others’ opinions. This is possible because an opinion is valid only if the supporting argument and the use of evidence is logical. In critical academic writing – in an academic discussion about a topic – anybody’s opinion, or claim, is valid if it can be defended with appropriate reasoning.

Conclusion: A Clash of Cultures

In conclusion, international students need to become familiar not just with the appropriate language for academic writing, but also with the critical culture of Western education. Many students may not be comfortable with the kind of critical thinking described here because it may seem negative or destructive since it is a significant contrast to the Confucian preference for harmony and the Asian emphasis on face-saving (O’Sullivan and Guo, 2010). The following quote refers to Chinese culture, but could be true of many non-Western cultures. Guo explains,

Westerners value independent thought and the ability to debate and argue as social organizers. This belief system is not found in Chinese culture and philosophy where harmony is valued as the central concept of Confucian tradition. Harmony implies that the individual is primarily a component of a collective and the unity of this collective is the most important concern. Consequently, argument and debate are viewed as less acceptable social behaviors as they reduce the unity and harmony of the collective. (O’Sullivan and Guo, 2010)

Therefore, if you are an international student, then it is important to realize that your tutor expects you to question what you read, to question the opinions of experts in your field, and to understand that there is often not a single ‘right’ answer. Whether or not an answer is respected and regarded as correct depends on the strength of the argument and the evidence used to support it – not on who is giving the answer. So when writing essays, you should be able to formulate an opinion of your own about the topic and show how your unique opinion is supported by some published sources and how it also differs from and disagrees with other sources. These skills can be learned and developed with practice – doing so will enhance performance at Western Universities, among employers and in many areas of life.