Science of Learning: Thinking & Understanding

In addition to teaching content, the primary, avowed purpose of higher education is to teach people how to think, and take information and turn it into knowledge. The difference between information and knowledge is understanding. Knowing that 2X2=4 is nothing more than information if you really don’t understand that 2X2 means two groups of two things, which leads us to four things in total.

It is true, that people often think about what they learn, however, that is not the same as learning how to think. Thinking is a skill. As Henry Ford said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.”

When I talk about thinking here, I’m really talking about higher order thinking skills.

The problem with both thinking and understanding is that the assumption in higher education is that it just happens in an implicit way. As students engage in education, they will think about what they are learning and naturally develop understanding and higher order thinking skills along the way. The other thing that higher education teachers think is that students should arrive at university or college having already mastered these abilities. They don’t arrive with these skills because, as I have written about before, brain development precludes the learning of higher order thinking skills until adolescence and young adulthood.

Higher order thinking skills are a set of skills that involve the understanding, use, and manipulation of multiple abstract concepts simultaneously. I will go over the list of thinking skills – with some repetition from earlier articles – one by one. Metacognition, critical thinking, reason, hypothetico-deductive reasoning, complex inductive reasoning, logic, rational thinking, and creativity are all necessary to address the complex problems we face today.

Metacognition is the ability to know, think, understand and reason about our own cognitions (talk about abstract concepts). It is thinking about thinking. This is one of the most difficult of the higher order thinking skills to both measure and develop. Because it is the enveloping higher order thinking skill, it can be ephemeral and elusive to try to comprehend.

At it’s simplest, Metacognition can be defined as knowing about knowing, or knowing what you know. This aspect of metacognition is the easiest to measure and fairly simple to develop. However, it is only a foundation of the ability to comprehend and direct our cognitive abilities, and without metacognitive abilities, none of the other higher order thinking skills are really available.

Although the following list of the impact of metacognition has been published in an earlier article, it is worth revisiting here in order to judge the impact of metacognitive thinking on higher order thinking skills:

  • Academic success depends on thinking – if IQ is the engine, metacognition is the driver.
  • Intellectual ability contributes for about half as much as metacognition to learning something.
  • Cognitive flexibility requires you to know what cognitive options you have available = metacognition.
  • Deep reasoning involves real thinking about what you already know = metacognition.
  • Critical thinking and analysis are all about evaluating the new against what you already know about the subject = metacognition.
  • Logical thinking requires you to know how you think = metacognition.
  • Making rational decisions requires you to think about what you already know = metacognition.
  • Creativity – becoming aware of yourself enough to stop imitating others = Metacognition.
  • Mindfulness – an awareness of the moment requires you to be aware of your own thought process = metacognition.
  • Increases in metacognition significantly reduce relapse in people who suffer from depression.

For the purposes of this article, I will define critical thinking skills by combining two of the quotes by Halpern and Willingham. My definition is:

The use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome and the ability to see both sides of an issue. To be a critical thinker, you must be open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, be able to reason dispassionately, demand that claims be backed by good evidence, be able to deduce and infer conclusions from available facts, and solve problems through the use of the afore mentioned abilities.

Using this definition, critical thinking overlaps with a number of the other thinking skills on the list.

Reason is another encompassing thinking skill that is necessary for and relies on most of the other forms of higher level thinking. According to the font of all knowledge (Wikipedia), reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information. Because reasoning is a conscious process of thinking, that means that we exert control over our thought process and give explicit direction to what we are thinking about. It is the thinking skill that underlies the hypothetico-deductive method of thinking, inductive reasoning, and relies on logic to arrive at rational conclusions. As described above, reason is the thinking ability that is the foundation of the scientific method of finding the truth.

Logic is used in rational and critical thinking and using logic allows for eventual agreement about a truth between opposing arguments. logic is reasoning that follows a strict set of rules that have been developed through the ages and is a method of thinking that, if strictly followed, is used to verify the truth or falsity of an assertion. Logical thinking can be used in thinking other than higher order thinking, but the full application of logical thinking would be considered a higher order thinking skill.

Rational thinking is using reason and logic to arrive at true beliefs. Like logic, simplistic rational thinking can be used if a person is not trained in the use of formal operational thinking skills. However, rational thinking is considered a higher order thinking skill. There are several other ways that we arrive at what we think is the truth that don’t rely on reason, rational thinking, or logic. The method of authority encompasses the beliefs that we acquire from a trusted source. Most of the knowledge we have, and most of our beliefs, are acquired through the method of authority. The method of tenacity is used to acquire beliefs are just beliefs that we acquire through our non-critical approach to naturally occurring world experience. Beliefs acquired through the method of tenacity are extremely resistant to change, even in the light of evidence to the contrary. Racism is an example of knowledge acquired through the method of tenacity. The a priori method of gaining knowledge would be our belief system that seems reasonable and usually is occurring within the context of our culture. As an example, in western democracies, it seems reasonable to believe that a democracy is the best form of government. Rational thinking is not used in establishing truth using any of the methods of authority, tenacity, or a priori thinking.

Hypothetico-deductive reasoning is used to describe the scientific method of acquiring knowledge. This type of thinking requires the formation of a reasonable hypothesis deduced from a theoretical model that can be falsified through observation made through the collection of data. The hypothesis then must be tested by collecting data and interpreting the results. Finally, through the use of logical reasoning and rational thinking, conclusions are then drawn from the process and used to either confirm or disconfirm a theory. Some of this type of reasoning is included in the definition of critical thinking.

Complex inductive reasoning would be considered related to both critical thinking and the hypothetico-deductive method. Inductive reasoning arises naturally as the brain develops. To induce something means that observations are used to formulate a theory. This can be as simple as a child figuring out that “burned fingers teach best”. Through the observation of experiences, a child can draw a theoretical conclusion that might say something like “don’t touch things that are hot or you will get burned”. Complex inductive reasoning is the use of observations that are abstractions from physical (or hypothetical) phenomenon that lead to the abstraction of a theory to explain the observations. The systematic testing of the observations that are derived from the theory that has been arrived at through complex inductive reasoning is called hypothetico-deductive reasoning.

Both complex inductive reasoning and the hypothetico-deductive method of thinking involve multiple, often abstract concepts to draw theoretical conclusions. As stated above, the manipulation and understanding of multiple abstract concepts define higher order thinking skills that can only be taught after a person reaches what Piaget called the formal operational stage of thinking. Remember that the ability to think using formal operational thinking (higher order thinking), emerges either in adolescence or early adulthood, and as it is not a naturally occurring, it must be taught. Research demonstrates that by about the age of 18, following secondary school, about 60% of people can understand and manipulate, on average, two abstract concepts. Following a university degree, about 40% of graduates are no better at using abstract concepts than when they started university.

The ultimate expression of creativity would be considered a higher order thinking skill. Although some form of creativity can be observed without being trained in higher order thinking skills, higher order thinking skills take creativity beyond simple artistic expression and it is used in the creation and expression of new thoughts, forms, and connections between concepts and ideas. One of the hallmarks of creativity is the use of imagination to formulate novel, usually abstract concepts. Creativity leads to new ways of thinking and doing that can turn abstract ideas into reality. Conformity destroys creativity.

Creativity, combined with critical and rational thinking underlie the most important discoveries, inventions, and ideas that have emerged through history. Higher order creativity is critical in driving innovation and inventiveness.

Many higher education professionals would call this collection of skills critical thinking. Drawing from Halpern and Willingham. My definition of critical thinking is:

The use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome and the ability to see both sides of an issue. To be a critical thinker, you must be open to new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, be able to reason dispassionately, demand that claims be backed by good evidence, be able to deduce and infer conclusions from available facts, and solve problems through the use of the afore mentioned abilities.

Educators from high school teachers through to university professors all claim that critical thinking is central to the outcomes of their teaching. However, simply asking the student to engage in critical thinking, doesn’t mean they have been taught or learned how to engage in critical thinking.

Often, I find that students in university will engage in a version of critical thinking that they have been taught – by a teacher who has no real idea what critical thinking is. Students regularly engage in a type of critical thinking that involves finding the flaws in whatever they are evaluating. They have been taught that critical thinking involves criticizing something. Unfortunately, too many of the learners with this fundamental misunderstanding go on to become the teachers of tomorrow, so a whole new generation of criticizing thinkers are trained.

Along with my own observations, I have talked to a number of astute professionals in higher education, and every one of them agrees that fewer than half of those who work in HE really know what critical thinking is. They may engage in the practice, but they are unable to articulate what critical thinking is. If they can’t articulate it, how can we expect them to teach it?

The core component of critical thinking is evaluation. Evaluating what is good, what is bad, what is irrelevant? An evaluation involves looking for the why. Why something is good, why something is bad, why something is irrelevant, why something is important. It is answering the why questions that provide a thinker with an evaluation. It is the evaluation that guides the thinker toward whatever goal the critical thinker established as the reason to engage in critical thinking. Moving towards the goal is what increases “the probability of a desirable outcome”. This is really what we all want – a desirable outcome for whatever goals we have.

The first thing to consider when asking why we don’t do this are the institutional restraints and formalized systems of doing things usually disallow the development of higher order thinking skills. The single largest obstacle to teaching people to think lies in the professoriate. This self-constraint is evident when teachers focus on teaching information and using traditional educational philosophies and traditions for teaching. The Science of Learning should be the foundation of our profession, not the art of teaching.

Recently, upon seeing the number of teachers who still equate memorization with learning I collapsed into a heap of despair. I know that there is information that must be memorized in order to learn to think, but memorization is the be all and end all for far too many higher education professionals. Of course, it doesn’t help that the majority of higher education professionals teach because it a required part of their job. Because virtually all of the recognition and career development in higher education, in general, goes with research and its associated activities, teaching is a necessary sideline used to provide funding for the real purposes of the universities (and too many colleges). For both of these groups (shallow teachers and researchers who have to teach), who make up the majority of instructors in higher education, the conversation about teaching people to think is a waste of time and not worth their notice.

The second, very real obstacle is that popular culture presents serious thinkers in every negative stereotype possible. They are nerdy geeks, calculating evil geniuses intent on destroying the world, the Spock’s of the world, who have no feelings but run entirely on logical thinking routines. Popular culture has destroyed any desire in normal human beings to become capable of real thinking. There is some evidence that suggests that some very bright high school students purposely sabotage their work so that they will not appear to be different from their peers (conformity). They will miss critical exams or leave out parts of assignments so that they get the grades that their friends get rather than appear too smart.

The final hurdle to changing the system we currently work under can be found in Edison’s quote:

Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.

The five percent who can think usually hide in an ivory tower somewhere to avoid the cacophony of the real world. The ten percent who think they think have taken control of both society and our institutions (the administration) and have convinced the other eighty-five percent that the five percent are the educated elite who have taken control of and ruined the world for their own selfish and devious ends.

The five percent who care and can think need to come out and begin to assert themselves in order to change the world in new, more positive ways where real thinking will be viewed as a positive characteristic rather than the elitist activity that it is currently viewed as being.

The ten percent who currently run most institutions need to begin to actually think, and not just think they think, about what it is that we are doing in higher education. We need to become the primary institution for building a better world. Society has been lulled into thinking that economic activity is what society is all about. Many of those who lead and direct in higher education not only believe this but have become some of the loudest cheerleaders. The primary purpose of higher education today, according to the leadership we currently enjoy, sees higher education simply as one of the primary drivers of economic activity.

We must change this. What we have now is mass teaching. What we really need is mass learning. We have the tools we need nad now we need to use them. We have the ability to make it happen we need to just do it! Higher education must become the primary driver for making the world a better place. To pick up where Michael Jackson left off, we must become instrumental in healing the world.

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