This headline caught my attention. Critical thinking is on every school’s agenda these days. And if not it certainly is on the National agenda. In Norway we are preparing for a school reform to be implemented next fall and here critical thinking plays a vital role. I wrote about that here. Here is an extract of what they have written in the report.
Critical thinking and ethical awareness
The teaching and training shall give the students an understanding of critical and scientific thinking. Critical and scientific thinking means applying reason in an inquisitive and systematic way when working with specific practical challenges, phenomena, expressions, and forms of knowledge.
The article that caught my attention was written in MindShift by Jill Barshay, Columnist for The Hechinger Report. I’m submitting parts from it here. See below for the link for the whole article.
Scientific research on how to teach critical thinking contradicts education trends.
Critical thinking is all the rage in education. Schools brag that they teach it on their websites and in open houses to impress parents. Some argue that critical thinking should be the primary purpose of education and one of the most important skills to have in the 21st century, with advanced machines and algorithms replacing manual and repetitive labor.
But a fascinating review of the scientific research on how to teach critical thinking concludes that teaching generic critical thinking skills, such as logical reasoning, might be a big waste of time. Critical thinking exercises and games haven’t produced long-lasting improvements for students. And the research literature shows that it’s very difficult for students to apply critical thinking skills learned in one subject to another, even between different fields of science.
“Wanting students to be able to ‘analyse, synthesise and evaluate’ information sounds like a reasonable goal,” writes Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “But analysis, synthesis, and evaluation mean different things in different disciplines.”
Willingham wrote a paper, “How to Teach Critical Thinking,” in May 2019 for the Department of Education of New South Wales in Australia. But it is entirely applicable to the American context.
But the bigger problem is that critical thinking varies so much. “Critical thinking is needed when playing chess, designing a product, or planning strategy for a field hockey match,” Willingham wrote. “But there are no routine, reusable solutions for these problems.”
And this is where content knowledge becomes important. In order to compare and contrast, the brain has to hold ideas in working memory, which can easily be overloaded. The more familiar a student is with a particular topic, the easier it is for the student to hold those ideas in his working memory and really think. Willingham uses chess as a good example. Once a student has a played a lot of chess, then he has many board positions memorized in his brain and can sort through which one is better in each particular circumstance.
At what age should teachers begin this subject-specific teaching of individual, discrete critical thinking skills? Some teachers might think it’s developmentally inappropriate, and possibly harmful, to engage in cognitive work that seems more appropriate for an older child. But research from the last 30 years shows that young children are far more capable in engaging in reasoning that we once thought. Scientists now think that cognitive development is more gradual and starts young. “In some circumstances, even toddlers can understand principles of conditional reasoning, and in other circumstances, conditional reasoning confuses adult physicians,” wrote Willingham. “It all depends on the content of the problem.