Monday, March 4, 2013

How Important Is Critical Thinking?

Six Thinking Hats®
Six Thinking Hats® (JadiKreatif)
by Rene Armbruster

What is critical thinking? Simply put it is looking at both sides of an issue then weighing your position based on factual evidence you have gathered on the subject matter.

What is prior (background) knowledge? Prior knowledge is information you know about any given subject prior to learning a more difficult concept. For instance, you must know the answer to 2+2 before you learn 2X2.

You might hear critical thinking being referred to as higher order thinking. The two terms are interchangeable.

These thinking skills require the person draw inferences from the information they've been given. The person must also use deductive skills from all of the gathered facts in order to make an informative decision or to take a position on the subject.

A person who is passionate about history will think differently from someone who takes science more seriously. Thus the sayings, "Think like a historian", or "he is thinking like a scientist."

The 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, showed that only 1/5 of 17 year olds could write a persuasive essay and that only 60% of students could draw inferences. Businesses demanded that critical thinking skills be taught. And for almost 30 years since that report our schools have been pushing this "absolutely essential skill" which we know as Critical Thinking Skills.

Are our students doing any better? Is this skill helping our high school graduates with their concentration and understanding of college material? Has it helped boost our educational ranking in the world? The answer is "NO" to all of these questions.

Dr. Daniel T. Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, stated that the ability to think critically depends on the person's background knowledge of the subject. He also stated that problems usually have a deeper structure than what most people see.

Here is an example from his article in American Educator, Summer, 2007:

A treasure hunter is going to explore a cave up on a hill near a beach. He suspected there might be many paths inside the cave so he was afraid he might get lost. Obviously, he did not have a map of the cave; all he had with him were some common items such as a flashlight and a bag. What could he do to make sure he did not get lost trying to get back out of the cave later?

Willingham says that the prior knowledge of the story of Hansel and Gretel gave the students the idea of leaving some type of trail. Those that didn't know this story did not suggest leaving a trail of sand.

The deep knowledge was being able to associate what Hansel and Gretel did to what this treasure hunter needed to do or in other words seeing that Hansel and Gretel's predicament was the same as this treasure hunter's problem.

Dr. Willingham also has this to say:

People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge). Thus, if you remind a student to "look at an issue from multiple perspectives" often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn't know much about an issue, he can't think about it from multiple perspectives. You can teach students maxims (a brief statement of practical principle) about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.

According to researchers, the few studies that have been conducted about the effectiveness of teaching critical thinking skills show that these programs took lots of time and produced modest benefits. Critical thinking skills are only going to be as good as the person's prior (background) knowledge and only as good as the teacher.

So should critical thinking skills be taught? Math concepts won't work when a student is learning what caused WWII and how it could have been stopped. There isn't one set of critical thinking skills that will translate to all subjects. However, with this said, there are ways we can help students to start thinking more critically.

Critical thinking strategies (reasoning, problem solving and making judgments or decisions) shouldn't be taught separately but should be a natural inclusion into the curriculum. The critical thinking strategies that students learn will only be as good as their teacher.

One of the ways this can be done is by using puzzles and reading mysteries. Asking students probing questions is another way to help them gain critical thinking strategies.

Including critical thinking strategies into each subject is very time consuming because each subject has its own set of questions that will promote critical thinking. While including these skills daily into each subject, teaching information that students will need to gain more knowledge can't be excluded.

One thing I think is important to remember is that all of us come from different backgrounds. We are all influenced by behavior around us. We are influenced by:

1) our ethnic group, 2) our personal philosophy of life, 3) religious beliefs, 4) socio-economic status, 5) family history, 6) our personality, 7) our intellect and how we use it, and 8) our work ethic.

Every teacher could teach these essential critical thinking skills but since every one of us is influenced by so many different variables, not everyone is going to learn these skills the same way or implement them into their life.

Having a happy marriage between critical thinking skills and teaching knowledge is in the best interest for the student's academic success.

The Internet Virtual Special Ed Reading Specialist
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