Cognitive Enablers, Critical Thinking, The Science of Learning, Thinking & Learning

Critical Thinking

Ninety-nine percent of teachers and professors list critical thinking as one of the most important skills that students should have or need to acquire before they leave college or university. That is pretty well all. In fact, I wonder who the 1% might be that are the holdouts in this statistic. I would imagine that the 1% are those who have so much content to cover that critical skills can’t possibly impinge on the content that needs to be memorized and regurgitated. I don’t want to look at the 1%, but want to look a little more closely at the 99% who feel that this is one of the most important skills that a graduate needs to acquire before they graduate.

I happen to agree that critical thinking (along with the handful of other higher order thinking skills) should be the core focus of a higher education degree. One of the most common laments that emerges from and throughout the halls of academia is the lack of critical thinking abilities that newly arriving undergraduates possess. Why don’t the secondary schools properly prepare the students with critical thinking skills prior to their arrival? Well, there happens to be one very good reason. It has to do with a little problem that the secondary schools also ignore completely – brain development.

Critical thinking skills involve the understanding and manipulation of multiple abstract concepts. As I have written numerous times before, the brain development that allows this kind of activity begins to emerge during the hormonal changes that accompany the arrival of adolescence. By the time students finish secondary school, about 60% are able to understand and manipulate two (a small definition of multiple) abstract concepts simultaneously. They have a long way to go before they can grasp, let along master, critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is a higher order thinking skill. Higher order, for which the higher in higher education stands for. Critical thinking cannot live in the secondary education abode – even if millions of school teachers would say otherwise. The students physically can’t do it.

I have reviewed, literally, hundreds of class outlines, submissions, and syllabi and can say, hand on heart, that at least 90% have the word pair “critical thinking” embedded somewhere in the documentation. Either the professors and teachers in higher education want the students to demonstrate their critical thinking abilities, or the class will, somehow, strengthen the students’ ability to engage in them. Admirable and wonderful goals and expectations. Unfortunately, not embedded in reality. I have yet to see any documentation that claims to teach critical thinking skills – except in a skills class that listed critical thinking as one of about a dozen skills the students would emerge with like public speaking, computer proficiency, superb writing, good primary source identification and on and on. That is the only class I have ever seen that actually teaches students critical thinking, with the skill was so cleverly embedded in the (this is no joke) “this is a computer mouse” instruction that I failed miserably to identify where the instruction would even provide a definition for critical thinking.

Speaking of definitions, I would be willing to wager more than my months salary that very few of the 99% of the professors and teachers in higher education (or secondary school, where many claim to be able to teach the skills) could actually identify the six critical components that are necessary for critical thinking. If you were to line up a hundred professors in a row, I doubt that there would be 10 who could provide a passable definition of critical thinking (thinking hard doesn’t count), and of the 10 who could provide a passable definition, I doubt that even 0.37 of them could list the six abilities necessary for critical thinking.

So what are the six abilities that have been identified as the abilities that contribute to the skill of critical thinking? They are:

  • ·     planning
  • ·     cognitive flexibility
  • ·     persistence
  • ·     willingness to self-correct
  • ·     directed and focussed attention
  • ·     consensus seeking

I suppose that, in addition, all of these would have to be directed at a problem or goal.

So, the question that we all need to ask ourselves is, “Where do I teach these to MY students?” Are the requirements for your students to simultaneously engage in these activities interwoven in your curriculum? Is it expected that when you wrap up your last lecture prior to your multiple choice mid-term that your students will suddenly find themselves required to use these abilities to prepare to regurgitate your material? Are the abilities of cognitive flexibility, willingness to self-correct, and consensus-seeking built into the paper you require them to submit (even if it is 20 pages long)?

Expecting students to use these abilities is one thing, but actually explicitly outlining what these abilities are and how you acquire them is something quite different.

Additionally, all of the higher order thinking skills tend to be domain specific. How can we expect that secondary school will prepare your students with the skills focussed on your subject matter? Certainly, in the entry-level classes with hundreds, if not thousands, of students packed into a lecture theatre, nobody would actually expect critical thinking skills to emerge, in spite of what the course outline might say. These skills must then be taught in the classes where specific sub-domains of a subject are introduced, except that there is a lot of content to be covered, and there is not really enough room in the syllabus for critical thinking skills to actually be taught. This means that the intermediate classes, where disciplines tend to really narrow down must be the place where critical thinking skills are taught – except this is where the students really hone the skills necessary to really study their subject are learned. Of course, that means the skills emerge magically in the senior level classes where these subject-specific methods are practiced. If the final few minutes in the years worth of instructions are when these skills are suddenly acquired and used, how is it hat 99% of teachers and professors list this skill as one of the most important skills for their students to use in their classes?

Teaching these skills are not difficult to do, the responsibility is just always someone else’s responsibility. We need to decide that, maybe, the buck stops with us. Maybe we need to step up and ask the questions in our departments and programmes. The research tells us that there are not many graduates who leave higher education with well developed critical thinking skills.

We can do better than this. I believe in us, and I know that with almost no more work than what you are already doing (if you teach well) in your classes (with under 100 students) you can teach, expect, and receive work demonstrating critical thinking and several other higher order thinking skills. Not only that but the students (those who want to learn) will relish the experience.

We can do it, all we have to do is do it.

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