Iraqi higher education needs to develop a culture of critical thinking

The country’s cultural deference to authority means students lack the courage and the motivation to challenge current thinking, says Aus Abdulwahhab

December 4, 2022
Signs pointing in various directions, illustrating critical thinking
Source: iStock

During the seven years I spent in the US as a PhD candidate in the University of Kentucky’s educational policy studies department, I could not escape the endless contrasts between the active way of learning I encountered there and the passive approach I had been used to in my home country of Iraq.

The key missing ingredient in Iraq is critical thinking. Michael Scriven and Richard Paul defined critical thinking in 1987 as an “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action”. A more concise and recent definition, provided by Robert Ennis, says it is “reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do”.

Numerous studies have highlighted the importance of critical thinking in cultivating learners’ capacities for higher-order thinking, evaluation and self-questioning. Promoting it is an integral part of educational policies and strategies in many countries around the world, while individual universities and colleges adopt it in their mission statements and study programmes. However, in Iraq, critical thinking remains largely conspicuous by its absence, despite the wide expansion and proliferation of both public and private universities.

Traditionally, the role of instructors in Iraq is to convey knowledge to their student recipients. There has been little structural change in the curriculum, instruction or assessment methods for many decades. During my MA studies in Iraq, and before that during my undergraduate studies, most of the students, including myself, were not given the opportunity or the motive to question the topics we covered during the classes. We were merely expected to read the assigned topics and do our best to memorise what the authors said.

It was a revelation to me when, after I moved to the US in 2014, I was asked to provide my own critical perspectives on the readings set by the professor and even come up with opposing views. Adapting to this approach was not easy, requiring a lot of time and effort on my part. But it was worth it, and I returned to Iraq a much better scholar.

I want to pass on the experiences and skills I acquired in the US to students in Iraq, but it has not been easy. While no systemic or large-scale study has examined the teaching practices in Iraqi universities, my experience is that critical thinking, as both a concept and a practice, remains largely alien to Iraqi colleges and universities. The country’s cultural deference to authority means that students still lack the courage and the motivation to challenge and defend opposing points of view. Indeed, a 2010 study of the English department at the University of Basra found that even the instructors do not possess the required knowledge and ability to teach critical thinking.  

Nevertheless, we should not give up hope of seeing at least a relative change in the conditions in Iraqi higher education. I believe that we need an orchestrated plan to adopt critical thinking across the curriculum as an independent subject, beginning with graduate studies and then moving to undergraduate study.

Universities need to develop training programmes for instructors to teach them how to infuse the theory and practice of critical thinking into their subject matters. A useful coursebook would be Richard Paul and Linda Elder’s The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools; its metacognitive approach, pushing students to think about their thinking and question the information received and produced, could be taught to students in all majors, from medicine and chemistry to history and sociology. 

I recently attended a conference at Al-Muthanna University in the south of Iraq aimed at presenting unconventional ideas to develop education in Iraq. PhD graduates from US, British, Australian and French universities were invited. I submitted my vision alongside the others to be sent to the Ministry of Higher Education in Baghdad for consideration.

Through such a promising initiative, we hope to improve learning outcomes for all students in Iraq and create minds that can think freely and independently.

Aus Abdulwahhab is a teacher in the department of translation at the University of Mosul.

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Reader's comments (2)

There are so many fundamental challenges facing HE in Iraq given the recent history of wars, social and economic instabilities, and regional conflics. Reform and even structual change is seriously needed.
Iraq is, from my own experience, a special case, but there is a real problem in religious countries as religion and cricical thinking are fundamentally contradictory.