Critical Thinking: An Essential-Yet-Missing Skill Among Cambodian Students

Chhengleang Sok
Cambodian Education Forum
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

© Cambodian Education Forum 2021
K. Heng, S. Kaing, D. Kao, M. Muong, B. Doeur, & T. Lor (Eds.), Online learning during COVID-19 and key issues in education.


Globalization, technological advancement, and communication evolution have improved our living standards; however, these developments have also brought about challenges for us to overcome. To stay current with these fast-paced developments and to tackle the pressing problems, we need to upgrade ourselves with flexible and advanced skills and knowledge. Critical thinking skills must be taken into account to generate well-informed decisions, minimize unintended consequences, and produce common social benefits. Apparently, lacking this type of critical skill will make it difficult to build human capital needed to drive socioeconomic development.

This chapter puts critical thinking skills into perspective by discussing its importance in the 21st century. It also examines how this skill is learned and taught in the Cambodian context. The chapter argues that there is a lack of critical thinking skills among Cambodian students. Based on this argument, this chapter offers several suggestions on how to promote critical thinking skills among Cambodian students.

Defining Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has been defined based on different contexts and perspectives by researchers in the field. According to the American Psychological Association (2020), critical thinking is defined as “a form of directed, problem-focused thinking in which the individual tests ideas or possible solutions for errors or drawbacks. It is essential to such activities as examining the validity of a hypothesis or interpreting the meaning of research results” (n.p.). Critical thinking can be about trying to solve a problem with logical thoughts and considerations for the consequences. In a philosophical context, Ennis (1987) defines critical thinking as “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” based on five key ideas: practical, reflective, reasonable, belief, and action (p. 10). In a cognitive psychological context, critical thinking is defined as “seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth” (Willingham, 2008, p. 8). In the academic world, critical thinking can involve identifying links between ideas, analyzing points of view, evaluating arguments, supporting evidence, reasoning, and drawing conclusions (Cambridge University Press, n.d.).

Fisher (2011) considers critical thinking as “critico-creative thinking” because of two specific reasons (p. 14). One is because it focuses on our only interest in criticizing people’s ideas and opinions, whereas the other considers it as thinking creatively and imaginatively by looking at alternative options, considerations, and possibilities beyond faults. The individual level of critical thinking ability can be recognized through various characteristics as seen in Table 8.1.

Table 8.1

Characteristics of Critical Thinking (Baker et al., 2001, as cited in Rahmatina el al., 2019, p.3).

No.Indicator Sub Indicator
1Analysis1.1Identifying unstated assumptions
1.2Identifying logical fallacies
1.3Identifying ambiguous claims or arguments
2Inference2.1Distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information, claims, and reasons
2.2Distinguishing between verifiable facts and value claims
3Evaluation3.1Determining factual accuracy of a statement
3.2Determining credibility of a source
4Inductive Reasoning4.1Determining the strength of an argument or claim
4.2Detecting bias
5Deductive Reasoning5.1Recognizing logical inconsistencies in a line of reasoning

The Demand for Critical Thinking Skills

The demand for critical thinking skills among individuals has increased over the years. A report by the Foundation for Young Australians (2015) noted that the demand for critical thinking skills in new graduates has risen by 158% in three years from 2012 to 2015. The report also revealed that critical thinking has been anticipated to be an in-demand skill in the lead up to 2025 by employers (World Economic Forum, 2020). A study about the importance of critical thinking perceived by 189 European employers also found that critical thinking is valued not only for professional success, but also for personal improvement and the common good (Penkauskienė et al., 2019).

However, not all countries have a better rank for critical thinking skills despite seeing the trend of having to equip students with the skills for employment or development purposes. Research has shown that 85% of teachers worldwide felt critical thinking skills were missing among students before the beginning of university (Stewart, 2014). In Thailand, there has been a concern that the country’s competitiveness will continue to drop due to the lack of emphasis on the teaching of critical thinking skills (Chaitrong, 2019).

Why Are Critical Thinking Skills Necessary?

Critical thinking skills can make positive impacts on individuals and societies. When individuals are well-aware of how to apply critical thinking skills in their lives, challenges can be viewed as opportunities. Considering how decisions are made on a daily basis, critical thinkers will not reach the decision that is hasty or based on inadequate details. They usually collect relevant information as much as they can and then analyze the data to weigh the risks against the benefits so that they can make informed decisions. Another instance is that we can look into how different it is between critical thinkers and people with less critical thinking when making decisions on any issues. In classes, critical thinking has been found to be strongly associated with academic performance (Ghazivakili et al., 2014). With critical thinking skills, students can think effectively and rationally to find the best actions or solutions possible, which is vital for academic success (Cambridge University Press, n.d.). In workplace settings, even though critical thinking is not usually explicitly required for recruitment, people with critical thinking skills are desired because this skill can increase the productivity and capabilities of employees (Murawski, 2014). In essence, this skill is helpful for individuals’ success, problem-solving skills, readiness, decision-making, and competitiveness to match the future job markets.

Moreover, when people have much understanding of critical thinking in their daily life, they will help foster a healthy social environment. Current social problems might occur due to misunderstanding and confusion among individuals or groups, potentially leading to chaos in society. It is possible to say that unclear assumptions and fallacies are often committed when people do not think critically or have an in-depth understanding of an issue before reaching a decision. Noticeably, the so-called bandwagon effect, a tendency in which people primarily follow the majority on certain beliefs and behaviors (American Psychological Association, 2020), often happens in Cambodian society where fake news is relatively rampant. This cognitive bias can cause damage to society if many people consume fake news without considering the credibility of the sources of information. Thus, using critical thinking skills is considered to be the most important tool to fight fake news (Machete & Turpin, 2020).

In addition, emphasizing critical thinking in education can potentially increase society’s effectiveness in addressing national and international issues. It is believed that utilizing critical thinking skills helps people know how to deal with the challenges in their lives. They will become logical and rational people who can take part in solving problems together with critical analysis. Critical thinking also promotes economic dynamics and can strengthen individuals’ competitiveness for employment opportunities. Moreover, the interconnection between STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and critical thinking is undeniable because critical thinking is related to analyzing information to discover alternative solutions or ideas. In fact, critical thinking matches the nature of STEM that actively involves students in applying concepts and knowledge from various disciplines in an integrated way to solve problems (Hafni et al., 2020).

Critical Thinking Skills in the Cambodian Context

The Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MoEYS) has integrated some strategies in the policy plan to develop human capital required to support Cambodia’s vision to become an upper middle-income country by 2030. For example, MoEYS developed the Teacher Professional Standards guidelines to encourage all educators to give students opportunities to learn about problem-solving as well as critical and creative thinking skills to expand their capacity to match the trend of globalization and the demand for quality human resources (The Phnom Penh Post, 2016). In the Education Strategic Plan 2019-2023, MoEYS mentioned it has continued to minimize skills gaps by encouraging the development of teaching methods that favor high order thinking skills (i.e., critical thinking and creative thinking), inquiry-based learning, and STEM approaches to strengthen the quality of education (MoEYS, 2019).

Despite these efforts, students may not be really interested in cultivating this important skill because of the practice of traditional teaching methods which centers around memorization and rote learning rather than critical thinking and inquiry-based learning. There is a Cambodian conservative idea that education means introducing traditional beliefs and disciplines (Chea & Chen, 2021). Many teachers still have weak curriculum knowledge, deficient pedagogical skills, and limited professionalism and professional development opportunities (King, 2018). The concern on the lack of critical thinking among Cambodian students is also felt in higher education. It has been reported that some university lecturers had expressed concerns that students were unable to think critically and express their ideas clearly (The Phnom Penh Post, 2020). In consequence, actions should be taken to promote critical thinking skills among Cambodian students.

Suggestions to Promote Critical Thinking Skills Among Cambodian Students

First, the government and relevant ministries, specifically MoEYS, should consider improving school curriculum to introduce the concept of critical thinking skills as early as possible. By promoting the study of critical thinking skills in the school curriculum, students will have ample opportunities to learn and develop critical thinking skills needed to succeed in higher education and in the world of work in the future (Kenney, 2013). There is also a need to promote extra-curricular activities in schools to provide students with hands-on experience that can help them connect their thinking to the real-world context. MoEYS should also continue to invest in teachers’ capacity development to enhance their skills, including technical and pedagogical skills, to ensure the lessons can be effectively conducted and students can learn to develop their critical thinking skills successfully.

Second, teachers should promote thinking-based discussion, self-assessment, and reflection in delivering their lessons. Walker (2003) has provided three instructional methods applicable to promote critical thinking and problem-solving in the class. They include questioning, classroom discussion, and debates, and written assignments. Some positive attitudes toward students from teachers such as encouraging students to question and challenge existing beliefs, structures, and practices will also help them to develop critical-thinking skills (Smyth, 2000).

Third, students themselves can improve their critical thinking skills by learning to ask questions, identify assumptions, gather as much information from credible sources as possible, and draw out implications when analyzing the context or making a decision. In fact, these skills can be practiced even in our daily life when we need to make a decision. Training ourselves to be a critical thinker takes time because this skill is built on self-practice and experiences, but once we can apply this, it is certain that we will possess one of the most valuable treasures in our life.


Indeed, the need to promote critical thinking is necessary for the future of Cambodia because of its immense contribution to the growth of individuals and society. As STEM education is being promoted, critical thinking should be considered as a basis for the improvement of the education system. Promoting critical thinking will help increase opportunities for students or individuals who later serve as catalysts for development and solutions to the challenges which may arise in the near and far future.

In conclusion, this chapter has not only discussed the importance of critical thinking in this ever-evolving society but also identified the current challenges and suggestions that should be considered to ensure that students can improve their critical thinking skills. However, as the arguments in this chapter are extracted from secondary sources, future research should be conducted to explore strategies that can be implemented to promote critical thinking skills among Cambodian students.


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