Blogbox | Youth2020

Critical thinking skills, critical in times of COVID-19

By - 09.09.2020

Lack of media literacy and critical thinking is an old problem in the new normal.

It must be quite rare to be living in Kosovo during the times of COVID-19 and not to hear all kinds of conspiracy theories about the pandemic. 

“COVID-19 is not real. It is an intentional, man-made creation.” Or: “People are dying of other causes but the government is giving 3,000 euros for the family of the deceased when the death is declared as caused by COVID-19.” Or the morbid: “It’s real, but the Kosovo government is getting money for every person declared infected or dead from it — so they are intentionally killing people.”

I recently did a simple poll on my Instagram account asking people if they’d heard about any of these theories and 89% of my friends who answered had. Yet, when you ask people who believe in those theories where they read or heard such information, the answer usually goes: “Someone’s cousin told my cousin” or “on the internet,” or “on an online portal.” 

The world has become infused with the media, yes. We can access content almost anywhere, anytime. However, someone who has gotten a proper education tends to look at information through a lens of curiosity and to take it with a grain of salt, continuously questioning and trying to validate it — at varying degrees, of course, depending on the source. 

This rarely happens in our society in Kosovo. Information is easily consumed and interacted with, while hardly any type of analysis takes place. 

I have noticed now and before COVID-19 — in personal and professional conversations, on social media as well as some traditional media — how difficult it is to have discussions that are based on facts and logical reasoning. Signals like this serve as proof that Kosovo’s labor force is not only largely unequipped with the required skills and knowledge for the modern world economy, but quite a lot of people are not equipped with basic skills such as critical thinking and media literacy. 

But this problem isn’t new. It’s just an old problem in the new normal. These flaws in thinking are in large part due to an education system that does not instill basic skills into its participants. The pandemic has just brought to the surface some of the deeply rooted issues we face as a country. 

Deep-rooted issues in the education system

You may ask why I’m bringing the education system into all of this, as if the COVID-19 infused situation isn’t already complicated enough? Well, because they are very much related. Here’s a story as an illustration. 

“Please take out a piece of paper and a pen. Today we will do a free writing style essay.” This  sentence, which I heard time and again during my years of schooling in Kosovo, would come from my various professors of Albanian language. To clarify: I completed grades 1-11 in Kosovo; so that’s primary all the way to high school. And to those who did not go to school here, these sentences might sound perfectly normal. But to those of us who went to school here, it’s a reminder of how things like this have held us back for years. 

The instructions would follow with: “Today’s topic: A spring day in my city.”

Here’s how: This was one of those core classes which was supposed to teach us the fundamentals of reading and writing. When we were required to read books for these types of classes, whether they were creative works or works of nonfiction, the information we were asked to withdraw from reading them was not aimed at developing skills.

We were never taught to set reading goals or to highlight text and write notes, all of which helps with staying focused and improving comprehension. We were never asked to extract associations and comparisons with current events, to identify common themes or ideas, or to critically approach a topic.  

Sadly, it was the same with writing. We were not taught the structure of an essay (beginning, thesis, body, and ending) or sentence structure. Similarly, we were not taught to cite sources or even more importantly, how to identify and choose credible sources of information. And the list goes on. 

“Today we will do a free writing style essay,” the teacher would say. The instructions would follow with: “Today’s topic: A spring day in my city.” We would all start scratching down word after word after word, and the chaotic, structureless piece of writing would be produced. Often, many of us would steal sentences and paragraphs from books and poems, never citing them, never knowing we were supposed to do that. 

When done with writing, we would proudly read out our essays in class, in front of everyone. A student would be selected for the best piece of writing. We would never find out what criteria that decision was based upon; thus having no guidance, no way to improve ourselves for next time. This would make it hard to dream to be the best one day, as you’d see no way of getting there.

“Today we will do a free writing style essay” is one of the reasons why when Kosovo first participated in 2015 in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — an international education assessment in science, reading and mathematics — it ranked in the bottom five globally, and in last place in the region.

The same conclusion is supported by the renowned World Bank Human Capital Index, released in 2018, which shows a learning gap of 5.1 years for a child in Kosovo. The recent 2018 results for PISA show a similar picture, with Kosovo’s students scoring way below the OECD average in all three categories. 

“Today we will do a free writing style essay” is a small detail in the school routine that is easy to overlook, but it manifests later. 

To clarify: the point of this is not to refute or endorse any of the theories generated during this COVID-19 situation, but to show how fundamental underlying issues, such as lack of quality education, will haunt us as a society in one way or another. And, the even more important point is that this needs to change now. 

A personal reflection

As I try to make these points, I want to acknowledge my individual privileges. Fortunately, I did not have to go to university in Kosovo. I pursued my last year of high school as well as my bachelor’s and master’s studies in the U.S. and the U.K. But it was exactly the issues I am talking about in this blog that pushed me to go searching for a quality education somewhere else. 

At age 17 I was not satisfied with the course of our country and the slow rate of progress.  I realized it was up to my generation to make things better, so I was trying to find a way to contribute. But I felt like the education system was not providing me with the necessary skill set to push any causes forward, so I found a way to continue my studies in the U.S., in order to return and contribute to the state-building process in Kosovo.

Still, I’ve heard countless stories from friends and relatives about the horrors of attending public university in Kosovo. My perspective is also informed by my learnings from working with communities of youth, community engagement and my own personal and professional efforts,  alongside other people, to ameliorate this flawed education system. 

And see, a quality education is not just about skills. Obtaining an education in developed countries convinced me even more about the positive and life-changing effect a quality education can have on an individual, their life journey, as well as the benefits that larger circles of people have from their vision and energy. 

Luckily, there are civil society initiatives that are working to address shortcomings of the education system in Kosovo.

The differences between me and many of my peers who got educated in Kosovo are apparent in a plethora of ways: in my opportunities for employment compared to theirs, in my independence and can-do attitude as an individual, my approach toward life and especially my confidence in being capable of changing the course of my life and that of our country if we all work together. 

To set this straight, I am not saying that this issue of critical thinking and media literacy is prevalent only in Kosovo. The new media tools have shifted power dynamics, altering who has the platform to shape public opinion and the authority to decide what is true and what is not. This, in return, has caused issues everywhere. However, this is just one more reason for our government to put even more effort into education policy in order to prepare us for the times we live in. 

What you can do to contribute

While this story did not start with a very optimistic outlook, all is not gloomy. Luckily, there are civil society initiatives that are working to address shortcomings of the education system in Kosovo. Here are some of them: 

The PONDER program from UNICEF Innovations Lab / PEN NGO, which aims to improve the life skills of adolescents by fostering media literacy and critical approaches to information, empowering adolescents to approach information critically, to identify and examine bias, and to judge the value, authenticity, and authority of the information they encounter

The Changemaker S.K.I.L.L.S program from 4-H Kosova NGO, an informal after-school platform aiming to equip Kosovo’s young generation with the skills required to be a proactive member of society. Some of those skills include complex problem solving, critical thinking, people management, emotional intelligence and service orientation.

Organizata për Rritjen e Cilësisë në Arsim (ORCA) NGO, whose mission is to oversee academic processes in higher education in Kosovo and to lead coordinated responses to improve the quality of teaching at the public university.

Platorma AKADEMIA, which has published the first version of the anti-plagiarism system with control capabilities in Albanian and a number of other languages. 

BONEVET, a children-friendly environment designed to encourage children to actively play, make their own games, work together with other children, program robots, make prototypes with 3D-printers and CNCs, solve riddles and puzzles, design and make puppet shows, understand the importance of values, develop their communication skills, read books and learn languages. 

If you are a young person in Kosovo, please check out these initiatives and use them for your benefit. If you are someone else, please check them out anyway and explore how you can support them.  

Lastly, we need to more actively demand from our state leaders concrete actions, policies and support to put an end to this vicious circle of no pragmatic reform and little progress in our education system. 

Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.