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Ethical Understandings and Critical Thinking in Education Essay

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Updated: Jun 14th, 2022


Educational theory and practice have evolved significantly throughout the 20th century. Only slightly over a century ago, in the Victorian age, education was separated into vocational training for the masses and academic studies for elites (Marples, 2011). Hence, for most people, education was merely a tool in their working life. The importance of introducing critical thinking as a universal educational practice was argued by earlier philosophers, such as J. J. Rousseau (Leshkovska & Spaseva, 2016). However, these ideas have not been implemented until the 20th century when John Dewey’s theory stimulated the reforms in the system. Dewey criticized the traditional teacher-centered education, introducing the model of inquiry that aimed to develop students’ intelligence (Cam, 2016). Following Dewey’s findings, many scholars argued that education could not be limited to vocational training, as it does not contribute to development of intellectual potential and merely serves to satisfy the interests of the industry (Marples, 2011). These arguments reestablished the key idea of Socrates’ philosophy, which states that the unexamined life has little value (Cam, 2006). Overall, Dewey’s ideas laid the groundwork for modern educational theories and practices that promote a student-centered approach.

While Dewey’s theory relies on scientific inquiry, modern scholars point out that this model can not be used efficiently in all teaching areas. Critical and creative, or high-order thinking, introduced by Lipman, promotes a generic approach that does not rely on specific disciplines and can be applied universally (Cam, 2018). According to Cam (2018), “high-order thinking embraces complexity, strives for coherence, is answerable to evidence and logic, seeks meaning, and is energetic or intense, while generally being broad in its scope” (p. 62). Lipman’s ideas had a significant impact on the formation of modern education systems in the past few decades. The success of the paradigm reflects the dramatic change in the perception of education goals that has happened throughout the last century.

What are the Goals of Education?

If asked about the purposes of education, most people would probably think of job opportunities. However, while work can be the factor determining the quality of life for some, it cannot be used as a universal measure of a fulfilling life. Many people would quit their jobs after winning a million in a lottery (Marples, 2011). Following the education-for-work ideology, one can conclude that getting an education for these individuals was a waste of time. In fact, the simplified perception of education as a tool for getting a better job is mostly congruent to the educational practices of the Victorian age, when it was limited to vocational training for the masses.

The model of education based on critical thinking offers a significantly more complex approach. Modern curricula in the developed countries list a number of educational goals, such as developing autonomy, integrity, ability to make informed choices, and build healthy relationships with other people (Marples 2011). In other words, education in contemporary philosophy is seen as the key factor in living a fulfilling life. Scholars argue that critical thinking makes a difference not only in academics but also in individual and social life (Ghanizadeh, 2016). The lack of critical thinking practices in education, on the other hand, leads to poor judgments, bad decisions, and missed opportunities for the students in the future (Cam, 2006). These ideas have found significant support among scholars worldwide. However, the attempts to implement the principles mentioned earlier have been largely limited to the Western world. In Asian and African countries, teacher-centered schooling remains the dominant form of education.

Most researchers have abandoned the reductionist education-for-work concept in favor of a more holistic approach that recognizes the impact of education on all areas of life. However, work undeniably remains one of the factors that define the quality of life for many people; hence, it is essential to analyze how educational theories correlate with job opportunities in the 21st century. The research shows that during the second part of the 20th century, the demand for routine jobs that do not require analytical thinking has been gradually decreasing (Reimers & Chung, 2019). Therefore, countries have started implementing new education models to address unique challenges and remain competitive in the global market (Johnson & Morris, 2010). Reports from the World Economic Forum and major IT corporations include critical thinking in the list of employee skills essential to succeed in the fast-paced environment of the 21st century (Reimers & Chung, 2019). It proves that the demands of the industry have changed significantly throughout the century. The focus on vocational training is no longer a trend, and critical thinking has truly become the ultimate skill of a 21st century professional.

Critical Thinking in Educational Practice

Government regulations in education have a significant influence on educational practices. In Western countries, pedagogy has been rapidly evolving in the past decades, promoting a student-centered approach and increased autonomy for the teaching community. According to Siles-González and Solano-Ruiz (2016), “one of the goals of the European Higher Education Area is to transform assessment systems based on academic authority into systems based on active and responsible student involvement” (p. 122). In the US, the government provides only broad directions for the teachers, who have a relatively high amount of autonomy (Reimers & Chung, 2019). While some countries, such as Colombia, adopted the US educational model, in many other developing countries, teachers are restricted in their practices (Reimers & Chung, 2019). These countries remain largely loyal to the principles of the old-school teacher-centered systems.

Even in Western countries, where critical thinking is widely accepted as the standard approach, educational institutions often struggle to implement it properly for numerous reasons. Most scholars see debating as one of the key tools that encourage argumentative thinking. However, the research has proven that many teachers are more inclined to reward students for following their communicative cues, rather than for demonstrating the ability to think independently (Kuhn, 1992). The understanding of the critical thinking approach can be a stumbling block to the educators. Often, teachers at the same university can have slightly different perceptions of the concept and, as a result, give differing advice to students (Hammersley-Fletcher & Hanley, 2016). Hence, educating the tutors about critical thinking should be the priority of the governments that seek to implement new methods in education.

Cultural differences can represent another challenge for educators, especially in countries like the US and the UK, where the number of international students is traditionally high. Asian students often experience culture shock, as their national education systems function differently, and questioning the teacher’s point of view is considered utterly disrespectful (Hammersley-Fletcher & Hanley, 2016). Induction programs for international students have to be used to address this issue (Hammersley-Fletcher & Hanley, 2016). Overall, while critical thinking is considered an integral educational tool in Western countries, these cases show that the efficiency of the approach depends on the tutor’s flexibility and understanding of the concept.

Ethics in Teaching Foreign Languages

Ethical understanding and critical thinking are essential to teaching a foreign language. Learning a new language cannot be complete without studying a different culture. Students that focus exclusively on grammar can easily make embarrassing mistakes when communicating with native speakers because they lack an understanding of their culture and ethics (Sun, 2013). Numerous studies have shown that language programs in many countries offer minimal opportunities to reflect on the contents of the courses and develop a better understanding of foreign traditions (Maijala, 2020). Old-school education systems focus primarily on grammar, leaving very little autonomy for the students and tutors to explore other dimensions of language learning. For instance, most pre-service foreign language teachers in Finland admit that limited exposure to other cultures had a negative impact on their professional development (Maijala, 2020). Therefore, it is crucial to encourage teacher trainees to consider different ways of including cultural teaching in their practice.

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is a method in language studies that has gained prominence in the last decades. According to Ali (2011), “the major role of CDA is to find out the function of social power and language dominance” (p. 29). Language is a potent tool that can be used to manipulate people, and education that encourages critical thinking is the only antidote (Ali, 2011). CDA concept is largely based on the principles of language awareness.

This approach encourages students to use critical thinking to analyze the features and patterns of a language. It defines language as a cultural and social phenomenon that can be studied only in the socio-historical context (Ali, 2011). This approach also promotes student-centered education, in which the role of the teacher is to provide critical tools to the students and encourage self-motivation (De Villa, 2017). The research shows that most foreign language students unfamiliar with the principles of CDA do not pay attention to the ways in which linguistic structures can influence the message of a text (Ali, 2011). However, after being introduced to CDA tools, most students demonstrate better judgment and understanding of the context (Ali, 2011). The use of critical tools in teaching languages exposes students to different ways of thinking and reduces intercultural tensions. In the contemporary global society, communicative challenges represent a serious issue, and implementing a critical thinking approach in language education is an essential step towards resolving it.

Social Impact of Critical Thinking in Education

As the educational goals have changed considerably since the beginning of the 20th century, so has the scope of responsibility of the educators. Rather than putting another brick in the wall, modern teachers have to ensure their students become autonomous members of the society, who can think independently and work together for a better future (Johnson & Morris, 2010). The concept of critical thinking is central to achieving the modern goals of education, and language studies play a particularly important role in it. Ali (2011) states that “the nature of contemporary society makes critical language awareness more necessary than ever in order to create citizens for an effective democracy” (p. 30). Ability to think independently, resist manipulation, and understand sociopolitical discourse are the key qualities of a member of a democratic society. Hence, national education systems and teachers need to focus on instilling these traits in the students.

Globalization is an irreversible process that has significantly changed the perceptions of national identity and culture worldwide. Despite this fact, even in developed countries, chauvinism remains one of the most pressing issues. Research shows that teaching critical thinking in school can significantly reduce anti-immigrant attitudes among the students (Hjern et al., 2018). This approach has proven to be particularly effective in challenging learners’ stereotypes and prejudices, as it prompts them to treat immigrants as individuals rather than members of a group (Hjern et al., 2018). Promoting critical thinking and multicultural education in schools is a step towards a future where cultural diversity is celebrated, not feared.


Educational theory and practice largely define the future of people and society as a whole. The current educational theory emphasizes the importance of teaching critical thinking since critical tools can be applied efficiently in all areas of study. Moreover, numerous scholars have proven that this approach can be beneficial not only in academic practice but in other areas of individual and social life. Ability to think independently and reject stereotypes is essential in building a tolerant, multicultural, democratic state. Individuals that apply the principles of critical thinking tend to make informed choices that have a positive influence on their quality of life. Overall, the model of education based on critical thinking promotes important values that are integral to the principles of freedom and democracy.


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