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Critical thinking: An ambiguous concept in educational policy contexts

What is the role of transnational and national education policies in the realisation of critical thinking?

Armend Tahirsylaj, Norwegian University of Science and Technology Ninni Wahlström, Linnaeus University

What is the role of transnational and national education policies in the realisation of critical thinking? With this overarching research question, we set out to study the contexts of Sweden and Kosovo by examining national education policies, mother-tongue curricula and mother-tongue teacher education programmes. Given the promotion of competence-based curricula by the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) over the last 20 years, our article problematised the complexity of developing 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, in the two countries of interest, both of which have been going through a number of educational and curriculum reforms over the same period of time.

In our article, ‘Role of transnational and national education policies in realisation of critical thinking: the cases of Sweden and Kosovo’ (Tahirsylaj & Wahlström, 2019), we differentiate between ‘policy-critical thinking’ and ‘civic-critical thinking’.

Policy-critical thinking is related to generic abilities, which can be applied to a wide range of work and life contexts in terms of being ‘open-minded’ and able to identify, clarify and analyse a certain problem. ‘Civic-critical thinking’ focusses instead on considerations of equity, empathy and care. In civic-critical thinking, the aim of education is to involve students in thoughtful discussions on just and unjust laws, and on decent and unfair ways of treating one another.

‘Sweden emerges as a divergent case of transnational policy-flow, while Kosovo shows strong curriculum convergence with European Commission recommendations for curriculum policy.’

Analysis of the national education curriculum contexts in Sweden and Kosovo show that the influence that transnational and national education policy contexts have on opportunities for students to master competences more broadly, and critical thinking more specifically. Firstly, it was observed, when examining recent curriculum reforms, that conceptions of knowledge have been evolving and shifting within both countries. In the case of Kosovo, the shift was from disciplinary knowledge to practical and experiential knowledge and, by extension, from academic rationalism to humanism and social efficiency. In the case of Sweden, the shift has been towards practical knowledge oriented toward the needs of the labour market and social efficiency within a framework of academic rationalism. Somewhat paradoxically, the latest competency-based curriculum reform in Kosovo—a non-EU state—is much more in line with the European Union and European Commission’s curriculum guidelines than that undertaken in Sweden. As a result, Sweden emerges as a divergent case of transnational policy-flow, while Kosovo’s curriculum reform closely followed global education policy. Thus, Kosovo emerges here as a convergent case, showing strong curriculum convergence with the recommendations of the EC curriculum policy.

Turning to critical thinking perspectives specifically, policy-critical thinking can most often be related to social efficiency and the Aristotelian concept of techne as a narrow conception of practical knowledge (Deng & Luke 2008). This version of critical thinking, in combination with academic rationalism, dominates the Swedish curriculum. A civic-critical thinking – that is, taking deliberations on common problems seriously in terms of social reconstructionism and the conceptualisation of phronesis – is largely absent in the most recent course plans in the Swedish curriculum. While in Sweden critical thinking competence (or ability) seems to be much more implicit than explicit in the national curriculum documents – as well as in teacher education programmes and Swedish language syllabi – in Kosovo, the national curriculum makes explicit references to thinking competences, which pertain to policy-critical thinking, and civic competencies pertaining to civic-critical thinking. In sum, students in both Sweden and Kosovo could potentially have opportunities to develop 21st-century skills broadly and critical thinking in particular – although not explicitly, and not only through the mother tongue curricula.


This blog post is based on the article ‘Role of transnational and national education policies in realisation of critical thinking: the cases of Sweden and Kosovo’ by Armend Tahirsylaj & Ninni Wahlström.

It is published open-access in the Curriculum Journal.


References

Deng, Z., & Luke, A. (2008). Subject matter: Defining and theorizing school subjects. In F. Michael Connelly, M. Fang He, & J. Phillion (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Curriculum and Instruction (pp. 66–87). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Tahirsylaj, A. & Wahlström, N. (2019). Role of transnational and national education policies in realisation of critical thinking: the cases of Sweden and Kosovo, Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585176.2019.1615523