Critical Thinking and Development of Understanding of Knowledge

As I begin this blog about “critical thinking” I thought that I would first provide my general orientation and perspective of the subject. By profession, I am an educational psychologist that was trained to think about educational topics such as “critical thinking” from a multi-psychological perspective that includes most fundamentally the developmental, learning, and assessment factors that impact how one learns particularly in educational settings. This means that when I think about fostering the “critical thinking” abilities of students in my college classes I first try to consider the following three questions:

(a) How does one learn to critically think about what they are learning?

(b) How does critical thinking develop over time within an individual (particularly in a short 15-week semester time-frame)?

(c) How does one assess and self-evaluate if one is thinking in a critical manner?  There are many other educational and psychological factors that relate to and influence the answer to these three questions such as: individual, group, and cultural differences among students; motivational levels and processes involved with learning; instructional practices and class activities initiated by the instructor; the quality of student-teacher relationships; and even influences of technology. As an educational psychologist, I believe that all these factors interact with one another, so in order to think critically about “critical thinking,” it is best to remember that critical thinking is a complex phenomenon made up of many components. So, where to begin?

My general plan is to try to use this blog to clarify my thoughts as I write about what I currently know about critical thinking and what I am learning about it during my tenure as one of the “Provisions Fellows” during this 2013-1014 academic year. So I thought I would start with writing about a “developmental” model of critical thinking that I find helpful in thinking about where many college students might be “developmentally” in the way they understand knowledge as they enter my classroom. In later blogs I hope to address some of the other factors related to critical thinking as listed above.

The developmental model I’ll be referencing is summarized in the chart below.

Levels of Epistemological Understanding

Level Assertions Knowledge Critical Thinking
Realist Assertions are COPIES of an external reality. Knowledge comes from   an external source   and is certain. Critical thinking is   unnecessary.
Absolutist Assertions are FACTS that are correct or   incorrect in their representation of reality. Knowledge comes   from an external source andis certain   but not directly   accessible, producing false beliefs. Critical thinking   is a vehicle for comparing assertions to   reality and determining their truth or falsehood.
Multiplist Assertions are OPINIONS freely chosen by and   accountable only to their owners. Knowledge is generated by human minds and   therefore uncertain. Critical thinking   is irrelevant.
Evaluativist Assertions are JUDGMENTS that can be evaluated and compared   according to criteria   of argument and evidence. Knowledge is generated   by human minds   andis uncertain but susceptible to evaluation. Critical thinking is valued   as a vehicle that promotes   sound assertions and enhances understanding.

Source: Kuhn, D. & Dean, D. (2004). Metacognition: A bridge between cognitive psychology and educational practice. Theory into Practice, 43(4), 268-273.

Kuhn and Dean (2004) argue that there is a natural developmental progression of how one understands knowledge through the first three levels of the model that is related to the cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget. In general, children before the age of 4 or 5 are realists because their understanding of the world is based on their “immediate reading” of what they see. As Kuhn and Dean state: “Beliefs are faithful copies of reality. They are received directly from the external world, rather than constructed by the knower. Hence, there are no inaccurate renderings of events, nor any possibility of conflicting beliefs, since everyone is perceiving the same external reality” (p. 270) and “critical thinking is unnecessary” (p. 272).

As children enter school, they naturally develop to become absolutists in the manner in which they think about what is known and view ideas as true or false, right or wrong, as established by some external source or authority. In school settings this has traditionally and primarily been teachers or textbooks, although one might argue that technology and access to electronic sources in various forms and formats has added an additional source of external “authority” of what students “know.” According to Kuhn and Dean, students believe “knowledge is an accumulating body of certain facts” (p. 271). Therefore critical thinking is simply “a vehicle for comparing assertions to reality and determining their truth or falsehood” (p. 272).

As students move into secondary level education there is again a natural progression of adolescents being capable of understanding that there can be multiple views and perspectives about knowledge generated and supported by others. At this stage in their cognitive development they become multiplists, or relativists, where anyone and everyone can have their own opinions, and one is no more right or wrong than another. “In a word, everyone now becomes right … this lack of discriminability is equated with tolerance: Because everyone has a right to their opinion, all opinions are equally right” (p. 271) and “critical thinking is irrelevant” (p. 272).

The last level of understanding knowledge from an evaluativist perspective requires an understanding that knowledge is often uncertain but various views can be evaluated according to a set of criteria and evidence and “critical thinking is valued as a vehicle that promotes sound assertions and enhances understanding” (p. 272). Kuhn and Dean argue that although there is a natural progress through the first three levels of how one understands knowledge, the last transition from multiplist to evaluativist is not a natural progress but often needs to be facilitated. In fact, they argue that many adults never become evaluativist in their understanding of knowledge but continue to understand knowledge at either an absolutist or multiplist level throughout their life. As Kuhn and Dean summarize this point they point out that: “It is helping young people climb out of the multiplist well that requires the concerned attention of parents and educators, especially if it is this progression that provides the necessary foundation for intellectual values” (p. 272-273). (emphasis added by this author)

This brings me to the major point of today’s blog. I believe that the major role of a college education is to foster a set of “intellectual values” based on sound critical thinking related to discipline knowledge. However, from a cognitive developmental perspective, college students and college professors are often at different levels of how one understands knowledge and thus how one values it. Many of the students that enter into our college classrooms enter with either an absolutist or multiplist developmental level of their understanding and value of knowledge. Yet most of their professors have been deeply trained during their doctoral studies to understand and value knowledge at an evaluativist level. Recognizing this developmental difference is important since within the context of any college course, college professors can be a determining force in helping their students move up to an evaluativist level of understanding through “concerned attention” to how they engage students in their classrooms to provide the “necessary foundation for intellectual values” related to the discipline subjects they teach. The shift in students’ understanding of how they can think about and value knowledge at an evaluativist level requires helping students to be metacognitive about the way they think. Helping students to be better at critical thinking goes hand-in-hand in helping students to learn to be more metacognitive and self-regulatory learners. I hope to reflect on these points in future blog posts.

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