In my last blog posting I stated that from my perspective as an educational psychologist there are many educational and psychological factors that interact with one another and influence how I view critical thinking. These factors include: 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. I then discussed issues related to the cognitive development of students as they progress towards and enter college. Today I would like to focus on what we know about how humans think and acquire knowledge in a “critical” manner as discussed in Diane Halpern’s (2014) text Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, 5th ed. (Psychology Press).
A majority of Halpern’s text focuses on ways to help college students develop critical thinking skills along specific critical thinking avenues such as: “Reasoning” (Ch. 4); “Analyzing Arguments” (Ch. 5); “Hypothesis Testing” (Ch. 6); “Understanding Probabilities” (Ch. 7); “Decision Making” (Ch.8); “Problem Solving” (Ch. 9); and “Creative Thinking” (Ch. 10). She also includes a well-organized Appendix (“Lists of Critical Thinking Skills”) that includes excellent summary charts for each chapter organized as follows:
Examples of Use
[The number of skills for each chapter summary chart varies]
These summary charts in the Appendix alone make a valuable resource for any teacher who wants to promote critical thinking skills of students in their classes. However, what I wish to mainly discuss in this blog are the first three chapters of Halpern’s text in which she lays out the psychological foundations for the subsequent chapters.
Halpern’s introductory Chapter 1 (“Thinking”) begins the text by describing the relationship between “knowing” and “critical thinking.” She acknowledges that one must have something to think about (e.g., content knowledge) before one can critically think about it, but she argues that knowing how to learn that knowledge and understanding how to critically think about that knowledge is more important than simply knowing the content. In addition, Halpern argues that for critical thinking to be of value, one must also be able to communicate, both orally and in writing to others, one’s critical thinking arguments, reasoned conclusions, and problem solving abilities.
Halpern defines acquiring knowledge as a mentally constructivist activity. A person constructs an understanding of something by imposing personal and cultural “meaning” to related bits of knowledge and experiences into organized cognitive schemas. However, one may or may not “critically think” about that acquired knowledge. According to Halpern, critical thinking is a mental activity that is effortful and consciously controlled. What makes critical thinking “critical” is the process of careful evaluation of knowledge based on a clear set of standards or criteria. So to think critically requires having an effortful attitude, content knowledge, and the skills to think critically to evaluate that knowledge. Halpern summarizes this in the following equation (borrowed from Russell, 1960):
CRITICAL THINKING = ATTITUDE + KNOWLEDGE + THINKING SKILLS
Thus, if one wishes to develop students to think critically, not only must they be taught the content (knowledge), students must also be motivated to learn it (attitude) and be explicitly taught critical thinking skills via instruction that engages them to use critical thinking strategies and processes to learn the content knowledge. This is particularly important if we wish to have students be able to transfer and use this knowledge in the “real world” in critical and meaningful ways.
The four-part model that Halpern suggests for critical thinking instruction is as follows:
1. Explicitly teach critical thinking skills to students so that they explicitly learn the skills of critical thinking along with content knowledge.
2. Help students to develop the disposition (i.e., attitude) for effortful thinking and learning. This includes (a) a willingness to plan by becoming self-regulatory in one’s learning; (b) developing an open-mindedness and flexibility in one’s thinking; (c) being persistent on difficult academic tasks; (d) developing a willingness to self-correct, admit errors and change one’s mind based on additional evidence; (e) being mindful of one’s thinking rather than being on “auto pilot” for tasks; and (f) working with others to see if consensus can be achieved.
3. Teach for transfer of critical thinking by providing specific instruction, practice in a variety of contexts, and feedback, so that knowledge and critical thinking skills can be used in future, varied, and novel situations.
4. Help students to develop the metacognitive skills of (a) an awareness of their thinking, (b) the monitoring of their thinking, and (c) the regulation of their thinking.
In Chapter 2 (“Thinking starts here: Memory as the mediator of cognitive processes”), Halpern reviews current learning theory as it relates to what we know from research on memory and the acquisition, retention, retrieval, and transfer of knowledge. She begins by summarizing the relationship between learning, memory, retrieval and retention of knowledge [see: Figure 2.1 (Halpern, 2014, p.59)]. The level or quality of retention of knowledge is defined as to the length of time between when one first learns knowledge and when one is still able to retrieve it from memory in an accurate manner. The key to this relationship is how well knowledge is embedded into memory when it is learned. How well knowledge is established into memory is based on how well organized the knowledge is and how well it is related or connected to other knowledge in memory (referred to a cognitive schemas and associative networks). This relates to the importance of explicitly teaching critical thinking strategies to students as we teach specific content knowledge. Knowledge that is closely related and connected to other meaningful knowledge is more easily recalled for later use (i.e. transfer of knowledge).
Some of the strategies that Halpern suggests that promote learning and memory and that should be taught along with the content being learned are:
Attention – One must pay attention to begin to store information into memory. One must also understand that there are limitations to how much information one can effectively attend to at any one moment. Research clearly demonstrates that information is retained at a more superficial level when one is trying to multitask and process multiple stimuli at one time. Also, one is most attentive to information that is meaningful and relevant to the person. Sustained attention requires effort.
Monitor Meaning – When one reads, listens to a lecture, writes a paper, or solves problems, one needs to develop strategies to monitor their understanding of the text, lecture, paper, or problem so that it has meaning to the person. This is determined by being able to elaborate on the information that is being learned or demonstrated.
Distributed Learning – This means that one learns and remembers best if the time for learning information is distributed across time and multiple sessions rather than trying to learn information at one time in one session.
Organization – The better one organizes and creates relevant and meaningful connections between bits of knowledge the better knowledge is embedded in memory and the easier it is to retrieve.
Generate multiple cues for retrieval – The more ways and the more connections we can make between bits of information, the easier it will be retrieved at a later time. Halpern provides several mnemonic devices and strategies that students can learn to create retrieval cues including the use of imagery, peg-words, method of loci, acronyms and acrostics.
Awareness of non-cognitive factors – If one is physically exhausted, sleep-deprived, or in a state of anxiety, it is much harder to learn.
In Chapter 3 (“The relationship between thought and language”) Halpern illustrates the importance of being able to communicate one’s thoughts and thinking processes to another via language, that is, through oral and written forms of communication. She argues that the reason it is important to be able to both use and interpret language effectively is in order to comprehend knowledge fully. Oral and written language must be able to be used so that others can comprehend and understand what we want to communicate to them, but also so that we can comprehend and understand what others are trying to communicate to us.
Because of this emphasis on comprehension, Halpern discusses several strategies that can be taught to students to improve their abilities to comprehend what they read and hear from others. The following are two of the many comprehension strategies she discusses and provides illustrations.
1. Re-representation – If one can create a “model” that represents the knowledge and connections relating relevant bits of information together this model helps to re-represent the information and that promotes comprehension of the knowledge.
2. Questioning and Explaining –Being able to formulate good questions about the information read in a text or heard in a lecture and then being able to answer those questions helps to improve comprehension. Although this can be done in isolation, research by King (1989, 1992) has demonstrated that when small groups of students reciprocally ask and respond to each other’s questions the depth and breadth of knowledge is expanded. This is described by King (1994) as “reciprocal peer questioning.” King (1990) describes a specific manner to facilitate this by teaching students to use a set of generic question stems to formulate higher-order and critical thinking questions such as the following as they read.
Generic Question Stems*
- How would you use … to …?
- What is a new example of …?
- Explain why …
- What do you think would happen if …?
- What is the difference between … and …?
- How are … and … similar …?
- What is a possible solution to the problem of …?
- What conclusions can you draw about …?
- How does … affect …?
- In your opinion, which is best: … or …? Why?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of …?
- Do you agree or disagree with this statement: …? Support your answer.
- How is … related to … that we studied earlier?
* [Source: King, A. (1990). Enhancing peer interaction and learning in the classroom through reciprocal questioning. American Educational Research Journal, 27(4), 664-489.]
Other comprehension strategies Halpern discusses to help students organize content include: Concept Maps, Linear Arrays, Hierarchies, Networks, and Matrices (such as the one illustrated in paragraph 2 at the beginning of this post).
In summary, I find Halpern’s text to be extremely informative in providing a firm theoretical foundation to helping students to develop critical thinking skills and providing very specific strategies to teach students specific skills to become better (more critical) thinkers.
Jim Allen, Professor of Educational Psychology, The College of Saint Rose