Critical thinking and knowledge

Critical thinking and reflection challenges and nuances rigid mindsets. Knowledge of various forms of intolerance is necessary to be able to interpret, prevent and deal with attitudes in schools where they manifest themselves.

  • Correlation between knowledge and prejudice

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    Prejudice and stereotyping are linked to our identity and to how we see ourselves. We are therefore loath to change our perceptions once we are presented with new knowledge. In fact, it may seem as if knowledge counts for nothing when it comes to our fundamental attitudes towards other people.

    One classical example often cited to demonstrate that truth (knowledge) does not always make people do good is how the extreme crimes perpetrated during World War II were hatched and carried out by intelligent, well educated and knowledgeable individuals.

    Contact between members of different groups is the most effective way of reducing prejudice.

    Gordon Allport pointed out that knowledge does not change the attitudes of those who are prejudiced in the first place. He also took the view that knowledge and a form of lived experience of other people – not least through co-operation – can help against prejudice. This was the basis for his contact hypothesis, which proposes that contact between members of different groups is the most effective way of reducing prejudice.

    Knowledge matters

    Research has also found that knowledge matters. One example is the International Citizenship and Civic Education Study (ICCS) carried out amongst lower secondary students in 2009. In the Norwegian part of the study the researchers identified a degree of correlation between knowledge and engagement without being able to conclude which impacts on which.

    They also point out that it can be problematic in a democracy if too much emphasis is placed on knowledge when forming an opinion. Since people have different levels of knowledge, this would instead legitimise governance by an enlightened minority. This perspective is worth bearing in mind as we set out to justify our strong focus on knowledge, critical thinking and curiosity.

    First we need to feel included. Only then can we absorb new knowledge that challenges our ordered view of the world.

    Knowledge carries more significance in a safe framework in which the individual feels comfortable about their own values, identity and affiliation than when the individual feels insecure. To some extent it is a question about which comes first. First we need to feel included. Only then can we absorb new knowledge that challenges our ordered view of the world. We need to feel a degree of confidence in order to engage in the kind of self-reflection that is required when challenging stereotypes and prejudice.

    What kind of knowledge?

    At least as important as knowledge itself is the kind of knowledge the students encounter. Common denominators between our own group and others are important in order to ensure identification. Awareness of internal diversity, i.e. information that helps nuance our perception of uniformity within various groups, is important to prevent bias in how we view others.

    Knowledge can change superficial perceptions.

    It is not just ingrained attitudes that can result in exclusion and stigmatisation of others. Seemingly innocuous and superficial views and statements can also be stigmatising. There is much to suggest that knowledge and critical thinking can have a more instant and greater effect.

    This was one of the findings in the 2006 report “Eleverne skal lære at skelne” (Students must learn to make distinctions), a study on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Danish lower secondary schools. Teachers who were interviewed reported that some students with a Middle Eastern background were expressing highly negative attitudes towards Jews and the state of Israel. The teachers described these attitudes as unconscious, as though they had been acquired at home without reflecting on them. Many of the teachers also stressed that students had completely changed their views on Jews after learning about anti-Semitism, Judaism and Israel.

    Knowledge and critical thinking can have a more instant and greater effect than learning about prejudice formation when it comes to swaying attitudes.

    One interesting point in this survey is that it is not a given that what the researchers called unconscious anti-Semitism would have been reduced as a result of general teaching on issues such as prejudice formation or anti-racism. Concrete facts on the very prejudices harboured by students are what give the students new insights.

    Concrete knowledge of different forms of prejudice is also important in order to understand the context of what takes place in the school grounds. As both a teacher and member of society, you should be familiar with a few historical trends and topical discourse in order to recognise and interpret attitudes you encounter at school and in society.

    This kind of knowledge-based perception of reality stands in stark contrast to various conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory can be defined as a rigid and all-encompassing perception of reality which does not change in the face of new information. Instead it is the interpretation of the new information that changes in order to fit the static theory.


    Author: Rolf Mikkelsen

  • The history and context of prejudice

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    There are a number of perspectives a teacher must consider when students express prejudice and offend their peers. Firstly, they must put themselves in the place of those on the receiving end of the prejudice if they are present. Secondly, they must consider the intentions of the transgressor and thirdly the interpretations or observations of other students and witnesses. These three perspectives exist for all forms of harassment. However, when it comes to prejudice and group-based hostility the teacher must also consider the history of the prejudice and its current prevalence. This makes words and actions based on such ideas more complex. As a teacher, you must familiarise yourself with historical and contemporary contexts in order to interpret different aspects of ideas and prejudices you hear from your students.

    As a teacher, you must familiarise yourself with historical and contemporary contexts in order to interpret different aspects of ideas and prejudices you hear from your students.

    For example, a Jewish boy described how his classmates had thrown coins on the ground and asked him to pick them up. Being unfamiliar with the trope about “greedy Jews” and its deep roots in Norwegian and European thinking makes it more difficult for you to assess how such a situation will be perceived and how you should respond to it. Similarly, it is important to be aware of the race thinking that permeated Western societies a century ago in order to be able to interpret words such as “nigger” and “racist”. Acquaintance with the current discourse on itinerant beggars is one example of useful knowledge that can be used to interpret prejudice against Roma. The case of the Roma is also an example of the significance of historical beliefs, since much of modern-day prejudice against them is founded on ideas that were prevalent both one and two centuries ago.

  • Critical thinking and curiosity

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    Curiosity about new information, i.e. knowledge that changes our existing perception of reality, is therefore the counterweight to stereotype. By cultivating our curiosity we build resistance against prejudice in that discovering new information that contrasts with our existing ideas becomes interesting in itself.

    Critical thinking does not mean being content with different opinions, rather it involves seeking explanations and justified critiques of those explanations.

    The Norwegian Education Act lists critical thinking as one of the skills all children should acquire. Schools should not convey static information but give the students tools to enable them to analyse, discuss, challenge and critique established knowledge. This is a key element in the scientific thinking also referred to in the Education Act. Critical thinking also means subjecting our ideas about others – as well as our self-awareness – to scrutiny, reflection and argumentation. Critical thinking does not mean being content with different opinions, rather it involves seeking explanations and justified critiques of those explanations.

  • Practising our reasoning skills

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    Key to preventing discrimination and objectionable behaviour is training the students’ reasoning skills. Reasoning can be seen as an extension of literacy and capacity for critical thinking. It should involve the ability to decode and comprehend texts of various kinds, the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, and the ability to take a stand.

    Critical thinking and the education system’s mandate

    “Thinking critically means putting up resistance; using knowledge as a basis for critique,” said the Greek philosopher Protagoras. “There are two sides to every question – and they are opposites to each other.”

    “Thinking critically means putting up resistance; using knowledge as a basis for critique” (Protagoras)

    Critical thinking permeates the governing documents for the Norwegian education sector, from the scientific thinking described in the objectives clause of the Education Act to attainment targets in individual subjects. The national curriculum states that schools should:

      • stimulate the stamina, curiosity and desire of students and apprentices/trainees to learn
      • stimulate students and apprentices/trainees to develop their own learning strategies and critical thinking abilities

    Critical thinking is described as a basic skill in the curricula for most subjects. An example:

    Oral skills in Mathematics … involves forming opinions, asking questions and making arguments using both informal language, accurate specialist terminology and vocabulary.

    The same applies to attainment targets in individual subjects. There are few subjects that do not give teachers an opportunity to train their students in critical thinking. For instance, one of the attainment targets in Norwegian is that students should recognise rhetorical appeals and ways of making arguments. In Food and Nutrition the students should discuss how food helps create identity.

    Critical thinking is not just practised as an isolated skill, therefore. On the contrary, it is possible to see different sides to critical thinking, from argumentation and discussion to source criticism, as something that can permeate every activity at the school.

    Triple filter test for critical thinking

    Critical thinking can be described as the filtering of facts, opinions and thoughts. One good example of such filtering is the model created by Socrates which identifies three important filters. Socrates advises us to weigh up what we hear – but also what we see and read – against the concepts of truth, kindness and usefulness.

    Socrates was known in Ancient Greece for holding knowledge in high regard. One day an acquaintance of his asked: “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about a friend of yours?” “Wait,” said Socrates. “Before telling me anything at all I want you to pass a little test. I call it the triple filter test.”

    “Triple filter?” asked the other. “Exactly”, Socrates answered. “Before you say anything at all, my friend, I want to filter your information. The first filter is truth. Are you certain that what you are about to tell me is true?” “No,” said the man, “I just heard about it, and …”

    “OK,” Socrates said, “so you don’t know whether what you want to tell me is true or false. Let us try the second filter. This filter I call goodness. Is what you are about to tell me something good?” “On the contrary …” “I see,” said Socrates, “you want to tell me something bad about him, and you’re not sure that it is true, either. Still, you can perhaps pass the third filter – the one I call usefulness. Is what you are about to tell me something useful?” “Not really,” said the man.

    “So, the conclusion is as follows,” said Socrates: “What you are about to tell me may not be true, it is not good, nor is it useful. Why would you want to tell me at all?”


  • Source awareness and source criticism

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    Critical thinking also means being conscious of how facts, opinions and ideas all originate somewhere and that they may have one or more sources. Much of the material used by schools in this kind of teaching and learning can be considered a source. Source awareness means being conscious of the kind of sources we use and whether the source is capable of standing up to scrutiny.

    The educational theorist Harald Frode Skram (2000) has classified sources as tools in problem-based teaching and divides them into informative, illustrative and contrasting sources.

      • An informative source states a fact and speaks for itself.
      • An illustrative source is used to clarify, highlight or exemplify something.
      • A contrasting source puts the spectator or reader on the spot and exposes them to the difficult task of analysing and weighing up the pros and cons.

    Much of the material used by schools in this kind of teaching and learning can be considered a source.

    A more detailed analysis requires us to throw light on the source by posing questions always used by professionals. Here are two sets of questions for evaluating a source. One of them was created and used by a journalist, the other by an educational theorist specialising in history.

    Source criticism in journalism

    In her book on practical journalism, Kjendsli (2008) takes the following approach to source criticism. She writes that before publication, first establish whether what you are about to publish is true. She outlines the following process in the form of questions:

      • Who is the sender, and who is the recipient?
      • What are the characteristics of the source material?
      • Where did the case originate?
      • When was the information produced?
      • How does the information look?
      • Why is the information being made known now?
      • Have multiple independent sources confirmed the information?

    Source criticism in social science

    The questions below are suggestions that should be asked about all sources, based on the approach taken by the educational theorist Erik Lund.

      • What kind of text is this?
      • What is the text about?
      • Whom is the author addressing?
      • How did the text come into being?
      • Where might it come from? When?
      • Is the text written with a specific motive in mind?
      • Does the source seem trustworthy?

    Author: Rolf Mikkelsen



  • Literature

    Banke, Cecilie Felicia Stokholm (2006). «Eleverne skal lære at skelne». Erfaringer med antisemitisme, antimuslimske holdninger, undervisning i Holocaust og mellomøstkonflikten i danske skoler og ungdomsuddannelser. En eksplorativ undersøgelse.» I DIIS Report. Copenhagen: Danish Institute for Internationial Studies.

    Liht, Jose/ Savage, Sara. «Preventing Violent Extremism through Value Complexity: Being Muslim Being British«, Journal of Strategic Security, Vol. 6, No. 4 (2013).

    Kjendsli, V. (2008). Rett på sak. Lærebok i praktisk journalistikk. Fredrikstad: IJ-forlaget.

    Koritzinsky, T. (2012): Samfunnskunnskap. En fagdidaktisk innføring. Oslo: Universitetesforlaget.

    Mikkelsen, Rolf, Dag Fjeldstad og Jon Lauglo (2011). Morgendagens samfunnsborgere. Norske ungdomsskoleelevers presentasjoner og svar på spørsmål i den internasjonale demokratiundersøkelsen ICCS. Acta Didactica Oslo.  Oslo: Institutt for lærerutdanning og skoleforskning, UiO.

    Skram, H.F. (2000). Et lite notat om bruk av simulering og rollespill i historieundervisningen. Forlesningsnotat  ILS, UiO.

    How to tackle the far right? Delusions and new propsals. Budapest 2012.


  • Argument, bigotry or personal attack?

    TID: 30 mins Read more
  • Fact, opinion, prejudice

    TID: 30–40 mins Read more
  • Exercise in definitions – what does it all mean?

    Discuss and reflect on different interpretations of words and terms. Practise how to change opinion in light of new information.

    TID: 30 mins Read more