Provisions Fellows Present on Critical Thinking

Our last Provisions session of the year included presentations from this year’s Provisions fellows on the topic of Teaching Critical Thinking.  Our three fellows for the year were Stephanie Bennett, Associate Professor of Sociology, James Allen, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Amina Eladdadi, Assistant Professor of Mathematics.

Dr. Bennett began her presentation with an overview of the year-long fellowship.  The fellows met bi-weekly and provided a bibliography and other resources for faculty, which included the four common texts that all of the fellows read in addition to those that they read of their own interest.  Dr. Bennett pointed out that even after this year-long fellowship the fellows are just beginning to understand the topic and how to incorporate it into their classes.  To that tune, she provided us with the mottos that they came up with, which are “change just one thing” and “less is more.”  Dr. Bennett explained that these slogans speak to the idea that it is more worthwhile to change and integrate new strategies slowly, and that everything does not need to be revamped right away; she explained that it is best to start small, and that introducing more critical thinking strategies is not something that has to be done radically and all at once.  Additionally, they believe that “less is more” is best practice as critical thinking lends itself to more in depth learning and less base-level learning, which in turn lends itself to a stronger base for a transfer of skills.

Dr. Bennett noted that the fellows came to a few universal conclusions in regards to critical thinking: that questions are important, that a collaborative work environment is imperative, and that teachers must make skills transferrable.  After describing a personal experience from her own classroom, Dr. Bennett concluded that she found collaboration was a good start, but that she needed to begin with this earlier in the semester and institute these more transferable techniques in class more often, instead of just making it a one-time thing.

Dr. Eladdadi’s presentation focused on her experience with teaching critical thinking through problem solving, and the idea that problem solving is only one skill involved with  critical thinking.  She explained how often, critical thinking is confused with problem solving and higher-order thinking, but that critical thinking involves many skills working in conjunction with one another, including reasoning, evaluating, analyzing, decision making, and problem solving.  She discussed George Polya’s four-step model of problem solving (read & understand, devise a plan, carry out the plan, and looking back), and came to the conclusion that in her personal practice, it was the guiding questions that were the missing piece in her pedagogical strategy, and that she needed to help create that stepping stone bridge between theory and practice for her students to help direct them towards thinking more critically.  Here is a slide from Dr. Eladdadi’s PowerPoint that illustrates various guiding questions that line-up with and fit into Polya’s model:

Picture1

Dr. Eladdadi then talked about how this adapted type of problem solving strategy, with guiding questions that help elicit that overlay of skills from students (as opposed to a very linear process of evaluation linked to solely problem solving), introduced and used to approach mathematical problems with real world applications, truly led to that all-important transferability of skills.  As with Dr. Bennett, Dr. Eladdadi also came to the conclusion that critical thinking is very closely linked to collaboration and that she needs to start using this adapted problem-solving method earlier in the semester.

Dr. Allen’s main point in his presentation was that the focus needs to be on the facilitation of critical thinking as opposed to the teaching of critical thinking.  He argues that it’s not what we “do” to students but what opportunities we give them to do things for themselves.  Dr. Allen stated that students are not learning for class, but instead they are learning for the transferability of skills in the discipline, across the discipline, and for life, both personally and professionally, which should be the goal of all education.

A main strategy linked to facilitating critical thinking that Dr. Allen pointed out is the importance of questions.  He stated that there is a lot of literature on the role of instructor generated questions, but not on student generated questions, where the latter is more beneficial for the student.  Dr. Allen discussed the Questioning Formation Technique and the Reciprocal Questioning strategy and their role in keeping students motivated and cognitively engaged, as well as how these questioning strategies can work positively when students are collaborating with their peers.  In the end, Dr. Allen concluded that facilitating critical thinking in such a way that helps students learn how to generate questions, learn how to do for themselves and how to collaborate with their peers, fosters an environment in which transferable skills will develop and in turn produce self-regulated learners.

To listen to a podcast of the session, click here!

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

By Dr. Amina Eladdadi, Mathematics Department

 “What was I thinking,” one of my Calculus students exclaimed when I pointed out the mistake he made while solving an applied math problem on free-fall motion that required both synthesis and analysis. “Well, I am glad you’re thinking at all, that’s a good place to start,” I replied with a sense of humor. Students do not develop problem-solving abilities, nor they become critical thinkers overnight. Critical thinking and problem solving are acquired skills that require instruction and practice, as well as time, involvement and devotion from both the students and instructors alike.  Although the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) recommends that elementary and secondary mathematics instructions address problem solving, quantitative reasoning and critical thinking, many of us at the College level still struggle to engage students in critical thinking and problem solving activities.  In this blog, I briefly reflect on how problem solving and critical thinking in mathematics – or any discipline for that matter – are intertwined.

Many students come to college ill-equipped to problem solving in mathematics as well as in other disciplines. Problem solving requires critical thinking and both are fundamental to learning mathematics. In fact, students must learn how to think critically to be able to acquire mathematical knowledge through problem solving.  This is why NCTM advocates that mathematics instruction should include problem solving, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking.  The Principles for Mathematics Curriculum and Assessment (2009) states:

  “… Students should have frequent opportunities to formulate, grapple with, and solve complex problems that require a significant amount of effort. They should then be encouraged to reflect on their thinking. Problem solving is an integral part of all mathematics learning.” (http://www.nctm.org/standards/content.aspx?id=23273)

While critical thinking has several definitions depending on the discipline, there is a strong consensus that critical thinking is the ability to use knowledge to conceptualize, apply, analyze, and synthesize information to successfully solve problems (http://www.criticalthinking.org/). Hence, for the students to be critical thinkers, they need to be able to both analyze and synthesize information.  Mathematics can be either analysis or synthesis, and sometimes both depending on the math topic. Nonetheless, both require critical thinking in problem solving.

Many problem-solving models have been developed. Some of these models are specific to a given discipline while others are all-purpose models. Two models that are worth noting are the Polya’s and Wallas’ problem-solving models. In his best-selling classic How to Solve It (Princeton University Press, 1945), George Polya (1887 – 1985), a Hungarian mathematics educator, identifies the four main steps that form the basis of any problem solving. These steps are: understanding the problem (identifying what is being asked), devising a plan (formulating a set of strategies), carrying out the plan (executing the selected strategies), and looking back (checking and interpreting the results). Polya also argued that a mathematics problem should not end just because the answer has been found, instead, there should be a constant probing related to the problem. This practice not only helps the students to develop critical thinking skills, but also allows them to increase their confidence, inspire and engage them in the subject. 

When I first started reading Diane Halpern’s (2014) text Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, 5th ed. (Psychology Press), suggested to us by our colleague and provision fellow Prof. James Allen, I skipped straight to Chapter 9 on Development of Problem-Solving Skills. Halpern describes how psychologists think of the word problem as “a gap or a barrier between where you are and where you want to be.”  She also gives a nice visual illustration of a “problem” in Fig.9.1 p. 453: one long rectangle/box divided by a vertical line into two blocks “X” and “Y” – you are at “X” (box left of vertical line) and want/need to get to “Y” (right box), how do you that? Well, you may be tempted to say, “Jump over that line!” – I can assure you that the “line” is so high for some students, that the “line” is the “problem” – Got the picture? …… Good!!  

Halpern examines the stages in the model of problem solving proposed by the English psychologist Graham Wallas (1858 – 1932), which is commonly known as the model of the process of creativity. These four stages are: preparation (definition of issue, observation, and study), incubation (step back from the problem and let the mind contemplate and work it through), illumination (the moment when a new idea finally emerges), and verification (checking it out).  Halpern argues that the incubation is the most difficult stage and the least understood and therefore devotes a whole section of this chapter to it.

Notwithstanding the many stages in the model, it all begins by looking for a clear statement of the problem, and defining it as accurately as possible.  Getting the student to interpret the problem is the first important step in successful problem solving. Once the problem is well stated, students will be engaged to think critically about the solution – hopefully!

Both critical thinking and problem solving are intertwined and similar in a way that they both involve steps and processes to tackle thought-provoking challenges such as applying solid reasoning, understanding the interconnections among systems, framing, analyzing and synthesizing information. So, when students participate in problem solving in mathematics or for that matter any other discipline, they are engaged in critical thinking in their analysis of the problems and in the synthesis and application of previously learned concepts. Moreover, students’ critical thinking abilities are improved when the solutions require knowledge and problem solving skills from more than one discipline such as physics, business, psychology, sociology, etc., and when the problems are ill- defined, as is the case for most real-world problems.

Problem solving and critical thinking are not only vital skills in all academic disciplines, but also life skills that students will continue to use throughout their lives. It is important that our students are challenged in ways that engage them in critical thinking and be metacognitive, that is, that they think about their thinking. 

In summary, I liked reading a couple of chapters from Diane Halpern’s text, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in integrating critical thinking into the classroom.

Likewise, I enjoyed re-visiting George Polya’s classic How To Solve It, which I have previously read (many times in French) during my undergraduate studies.  Finally, I would like to close this blog with one of Albert Einstein’s remarkable quotes: “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think“

Reference:

The Process of Learning about Critical Thinking

By Dr. Stephanie Bennett, Department of Sociology and Provisions Critical Thinking Fellow

Throughout the summer, last semester, and this semester, I have been delving into the academic world of critical thinking.  I found that the process could get overwhelming very quickly.  I started on a journey that took me into a variety of areas.  I choose for the group, Richard Paul’s Critical Thinking: What every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world.  Amina Eladdadi brought to the group Hunter’s A Practical Guide to Critical Thinking.  Paul and Hunter’s book brought me into Philosophy.  Jim Allen brought to the group Halpren’s Thought and Knowledge which revealed the Educational Psychology of critical thinking.  All us Provision Fellows read the Bean book Engaging Ideas which opened me up to understanding how to bring about critical thinking thru writing exercises.  From these core books I have found that Critical Thinking is truly interdisciplinary and that I could learn from all.

So after being overwhelmed with new ideas, new fields of study, and new ways to look at the issue I began to hone in my needs.  My need was how to get all this information into my understanding and bring it to a usable place for my students.  This led me into some more interdisciplinary work.

I found an author Elizabeth Barkley who just so happens to be a Professor of Music.  Barkley’s book Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty was really good for me.  The book illustrates real class engagement techniques that have been tried in real classes with success that have been selected from various sources. One specific example I liked was to set up book clubs for classes.  Allow students to collaboratively work on book with faculty guidance and then present an end of the year report.  I have sent students off to do book reports in groups, but I found with a little honing, I could get better outcomes.  The book is filled with several examples all providing step by step instructions.  I found it to be a great resource for transitioning from the wealth of knowledge I had gained to being able to translate it into my classrooms.

Comments on Diane Halpern’s (2014) Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking.

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:

Skill

Description

Examples of Use

A.
B.
C.
.

.

.

P.

[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

Critical Thinking in Mathematics & Sciences

By Dr. Amina Eladdadi, Department of Mathematics

As a mathematician, I am trained to think critically since critical thinking is the “quintessence” for doing mathematics. As a Bio-mathematician, I am trained to be a multidisciplinary critical thinker with collaborative skills so that I can communicate – mathematically speaking – with my colleagues in the biological and medical disciplines, where I apply mathematical and computational theories.

Being able to think critically is one thing, but teaching others to think critically is another matter. Critical thinking calls for many skills and abilities, and so does teaching it! I believe that teaching critical thinking in mathematics or for that matter any other discipline is essential in the development of successful students because critical thinking is becoming “the critical skill” that is highly sought after by all employers.

The ability to “think critically” is always listed as one of the main outcomes of undergraduate education. Some instructors teach this skill, together with the content of their discipline. However, most of the time the teaching of critical thinking skills is done so “indirectly” that students do not even pick up the signals of the “critical thinking skills” being taught implicitly.  The question then becomes, “how much of critical thinking skills should be taught directly along with the discipline content rather than implicitly with the content being taught? This brings up many other questions about teaching critical thinking skills that I briefly mention (though not answered) in the next sections of this blog.

I must say that it is not an easy task for me to promote critical thinking skills in my mathematics courses, even though mathematics is all about logic and evaluating arguments. Similarly, students seem to find it difficult to cultivate critical thinking abilities during their learning process; that is if they know at all that they are being taught something called “Critical Thinking.” So why is it so hard to teach critical thinking? Are instructors trained to teach critical thinking to their students? Does critical thinking vary from one discipline to another? These were a few of my pedagogical questions that I set out to explore during my 2013-14 Provisions Fellowship on Critical Thinking.

In this first blog, I focus on the last question that is: “does critical thinking vary from one discipline to another?” This is of great interest to me because I work on biological and medical problems where I utilize my mathematical and computational knowledge to solve some of the pressing health issues such as cancer. My interdisciplinary experiences taught me that biological/medical scientists and mathematicians think critically of course, but differently about the same phenomena despite that the common objective is to solve a problem, such as curing cancer.

In the field of mathematics, critical thinking and problem solving go hand in hand. In other words, the students must learn how to think critically for them to be able to acquire mathematical knowledge through problem solving. So, what is critical thinking? There are many definitions of critical thinking depending on which field you come from. As a Mathematician, where logical inquiries and deductive reasoning govern everything we do, I would interpret critical thinking simply as a “logical and active approach of thinking.”  This is only my interpretation of critical thinking within my field of mathematics. I am sure you will be able to find your own interpretation as well within your field. Try it!

Curious to learn more about how critical thinking is perceived by and used in other disciplines, I delved into the book titled “A Practical Guide to Critical Thinking: Deciding What to Do and Believe,” by David Hunter (Wiley Publisher, 2009).  First, I choose this book because it was sitting on my bookshelf for a quite sometime, and secondly, because it presents an interdisciplinary approach to critical thinking across disciplines which is of great interest to me. This book is primarily a textbook, which can be used for college courses on critical thinking and logic.

The author presents an interdisciplinary approach to critical thinking by giving examples from various subjects and fields of research such as business, education, and the physical and biological sciences. I found Hunter’s book to be well organized. Chapters include several sections discussing some aspects of critical thinking, summaries, examples, and exercises. Each chapter ends with four sections: from theory to practice, thinking critically – about ourselves, in the classroom and the workplace. As I was reading this book, I reflected on many aspects of critical thinking that I briefly summarize in this blog.

Hunter defines critical thinking, as “a reasonable and reflective thinking aimed at deciding on what to believe and what to do.” I don’t know why, but he starts every chapter with this same sentence. I did ask him and will let you know in my next blog if I ever hear back from him! He explains that for the critical thinking to be “reasonable thinking”, one must have reasons for their beliefs based on adequate epistemic reasons, which in turns requires reflection on the meaning of the concepts and claims.

Additionally, Hunter shows how different disciplines might approach the same phenomena using different conceptual frameworks. He explains that thinking critically within a given discipline necessitates reflecting on that particular discipline’s frameworks. He also describes that mastering a discipline requires mastering its key concepts, sources of evidence, and primary modes of reasoning in this order. For example, Hunter describes that while geologists and physicists are both interested in earthquakes, they think about this phenomenon differently.  Similarly, sociologists and psychologists are interested in family dynamics, they use different tools to describe, explain and investigate the family life. Another example is cancer and how it can be conceived by different disciplines.

In summary, this book was worth reading and definitely gives the readers many strategies that can help them to think critically at home, at work, in the classroom, and in life in general. The book ends with two appendices: one on mistakes that a good critical thinker should avoid, and the other on practical strategies the critical thinker should embrace in order to be more reflective and reasonable.

My Introduction to Critical Thinking Research

By Dr. Stephanie Bennett, Department of Sociology and Provisions Critical Thinking Fellow

When I first engaged in researching for the Provisions Critical Thinking Fellowship, I started like any other academic.  I went into a variety of databases for academic articles in my field.  In my discipline specific searching, I found a wealth of information on Sociologists interpret critical thinking.  But I did know that my search needed to move from a discipline specific search to a more interdisciplinary search to fit to be able to engage in a campus wide conversation.  So I moved to a more general search, and yes I will admit it moved me to a Google search.

Regardless of the search terms I put in, one of the first results was the Foundation for Critical Thinking.  I found Richard Paul philosopher, author of a variety of books, and a founder of the foundation.  His name was familiar as it was referenced in other critical thinking articles with a co-author Linda Elder.  The Paul-Elder model of critical thinking had become a standard.  For me, I needed to know what they believes were.   I felt that if I was going to provide resources for others on campus, there was no way I could overlook such a prominent name.

So I choose the book, Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs To Survive in a Rapidly Changing World.  I choose this one of all his books, because it was a collection of his what he believes are his “major” papers.  I started reading articles on education.  While I found that many of the articles on teaching were centered on k-12 education, I found the critique in the articles was relevant to all structured education.  Paul criticizes the lack of deep learning emphasis today and proposes a more Socratic method.

The more I read of the articles the more I began to understand the Paul-Elder model.  He believes that critical thinking is a way to reconstruct the way one thinks.  “In thinking critically we take command of our conceptual creations, assessing them more explicitly than is normally done.”

I found that reading the articles I got a deeper understanding of Paul’s belief system and his outlook on Critical thinking.  I feel there are parts of his theory that have opened my eyes to further understanding of the wide definition of Critical Thinking.  He not only critiques the lack of Critical thinking in society and education, but he also suggests ways to change this.  It was worth the read for me.

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.