LONDON: The introduction of a “critical thinking” course in the Saudi curriculum has been hailed as “ground-breaking.”
The plans for critical thinking and philosophy to be taught in Saudi schools were first announced by Education Minister Dr. Hamad M. H. Al-Sheikh in 2018, who said at the time that the lessons would promote “tolerance and human understanding” and help eliminate intellectual extremism.
The new course, which has launched as part of the wider curriculum, tackles difficult issues and presents them to students as problems to which they should provide thoughtful — and independently formulated — responses.
As an introduction, students are told the story of Italian scientist, philosopher and astronomer Galileo, who invented the telescope, observed the stars, and ultimately came to be known as the father of modern physics.
The textbooks explain that Galileo was shunned during his time for producing work that contradicted popular sentiments, and his story is used to articulate the value of thinking critically and tolerating the ideas of others — even if they see the world differently.
The questions students must ponder are difficult. For example, one asks: “How can world peace be achieved?”
And they force young people to consider the world around them and how they interact with it. But they bring students to the realization that intolerance has no place in society nor globally.
In one example, students are prompted to think about the Charlie Hebdo scandal — referred to as a “global newspaper” in the text — in which the French satirical newspaper published extremely offensive images of Islam’s most revered figure, the Prophet Muhammad.
Students are asked how they can explain the magazine’s decision to publish these images, despite the backlash they received, and what kind of solution they propose toward balancing the centrality of respect for religion and its practices with that of freedom of speech.
Marcus Sheff, CEO of education monitor IMPACT-se, told Arab News that the introduction of the critical thinking course is a “ground-breaking” step for the Kingdom that will prepare its youth to thrive in the modern world.
“The act of young people in school being exposed to different ideas and thinking carefully about those ideas is important to their development. It’s important to their intellectual development, their academic development, but also their development as citizens,” Sheff said.
The method for teaching the principles is also critically important, he added. Students are not told what to think, but are taught to draw their own conclusions by analyzing and conceptualizing the information before them.
This form of education is key for those students who will one day claim their place as “citizens of a modern world,” Sheff said, and it will help them with “creating the kind of societies we want to see in the future.”
IMPACT-se carries out its analysis of textbooks and curriculums based on UN and UNESCO guidelines and recommendations for education that aim to promote respect, tolerance and peace within schools.
“These are very important standards to be maintained, and as Saudi Arabia looks forward, as it looks to its own future, I think what we can say with a great degree of confidence is that decisions have been made that young Saudis will be a part of this process,” Sheff said, adding that the introduction of the new course is in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform program.
“We do see great elements of Vision 2030 being rolled out into education, and specifically textbooks,” which have “an extraordinarily strong influence on students inside the classroom, and outside the classroom as well,” he said.
Textbooks, Sheff added, “transmit collective historical and political consciousness, but they also transmit a vision of a future society, and what the role of those young people is expected to be in that society.”
For that reason, the inclusion of critical thinking courses in the Saudi curriculum is “very important,” he said.
“This is quite ground-breaking for Saudi Arabia. One doesn’t take lightly the fact that it has been included.”