There are a number of ways of defining critical thinking, but it typically involves a learner's ability to do some or all of the following (Furedy & Furedy, 1985):
- identify central issues and assumptions in an argument
- recognize important relationships
- make correct inferences from data
- deduce conclusions from the information or data provided
- interpret whether conclusions are warranted on the basis of the data given
- evaluate evidence or authority
In a synthesis by McMillan (1987), composed of 27 studies on specific instructional interventions in colleges, no single instructional variable was found to consistently enhance critical thinking. One of the conclusions drawn from the study was that a semester is simply too brief and isolated to have an impact on critical thinking.
However, since McMillan used a box score approach, the findings are quite conservative. Another study (McKeachie. Pintrich, Lin, & Smith, 1986), looked at McMillan's study from a meta-analysis approach, which is far more liberal (Bayesian) and concluded instruction that stresses student discussion and places emphasis on problem-solving procedures and methods may enhance critical thinking.
In Pascarella and Terenzini's comprehensive book, How College Affects Students (1991, p146), they point out three strategies that relates to gains in critical thinking:
- The degree to which faculty encouraged, praised, or used student ideas (teacher behavior).
- The degree in which students participated in class and the cognitive level of the participation (learner behavior).
- The extent of peer-to-peer interaction (course design).
Winter, McClellard, and Stewart (1981) hypothesized that a strategy of integrating ideas, courses, and disciplines would enhance critical thinking over a more typical curriculum. So they created an experimental curriculum in which the learners took a group of two or more different, but complementary subjects areas. In addition, the courses focused on integrating the different disciplines. After the study, they concluded that integrating two or more disciplines at the same time elicits greater cognitive growth than simply studying the same material in separate courses without the integrative structure.
Winter, McClellard, and Stewart's study is quite interesting in that it ties in directly with John Locke's idea that "Knowledge is the perception of the agreement or disagreement of two ideas" (1689).
Perry (1970) takes this concept one step further by advancing intellectual development through stages (note that there are actually nine distinct stages):
- A dualistic right-verses-wrong stage. This is when learners basically see the world in dichotomies—black or white, right from wrong, best or worst, etc.
- A multiplicity stage in which facts are seen in terms of their context. In this stage the students learn that the world is little more complex than two different views in that there are sometimes more than a single viable position on an issue. They start seeing "shades of gray," however, once they realize there are multiple views, they conclude that no one view is really any better than another.
- And lastly, a contextual relativism in which the learner can make intellectual commitments within a context of relative knowledge by weighing all the variables and then debating and choosing sides based on that evaluation.
Thus, instructional strategies can indeed increase a learner's gain in critical thinking. Some techniques would be:
- integrate ideas, concepts, courses, and disciplines
- place emphasis on problem-solving procedures and methods
- encourage, praise, and use student ideas
- use methods that encourage students to participate
- create activities for peer-to-peer interaction (allow them to increase the number of different views they are exposed to)
And there is no reason to believe that discussions, either face-to-face or online, cannot carry some of these strategies. For example, start with a concept. Have them discuss with each other its advantages and disadvantages. Don't try to throw multiple concepts out there at one time— we learn by building upon what we know (scaffolding). Toss another concept into the discussion. Ask which one and why they think is the better one? Toss another one or two into the mixture (note we are taking them through Perry's stages). Ask are there now shades of gray? Is it possible that there might not be a best concept, at least for everyone? What methods can we use to help us through these multiple concepts. If we had to choose one or two best concepts to help us with our task, how would we go about it? Now start tying these concepts to another discipline.
For example, introduce the concepts of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, Herzberg's Hygiene and Motivational Factors, Douglas McGreagor's Theory X and Theory Y, and Alderfer's Existence/Relatedness/Growth (ERG) Theory of Needs; and then tie the various theories to learning, training, or education.
The Period of Formal Operations
Closely tied into critical thinking is Piaget's Period of Formal Operations, in which we use our past experiences to create logic, mathematical concepts, and rules of inference for advanced conceptualizations, to include reasoning about abstract content that is difficult, and in some cases nearly impossible, to represent concretely.
However, as Good (1990) noted, only certain individuals, perhaps a minority, develop well-functioning formal operations. The first studies on this were performed by Neimark (1975); Jackson (1965); Towler and Wheatley (1971).
In addition, an impressive body of evidence suggests that perhaps half of entering college students (or upperclassmen, for that matter) or not yet functioning at this stage (Piagetian Formal Operational Reasoning). While in college, the freshman-to-senior increase in formal reasoning is about .27 of a standard deviation (an improvement of 10.6 percentile points). Interestingly, 85 percent of the total gain occurs during the freshman and sophomore years, thus the gain in the junior and senior years are basically non-significant.
But why do only a minority ever reach the Formal Period? Is it because we do not do enough rote memory activities? I seriously doubt it as there is no casual connection between the two.
A number of researchers have proposed that our human cognitive architecture may contain up to five different memory systems: procedural, perceptual representational, primary (working memory), semantic (generic-knowledge), and episodic (autobiographical).
In addition, it is thought that memories are either "inceptive"—representations of the world stored in the way they were encoded at their inception (the time at which they were first experienced) or "derived"—higher level representation that was derived from inceptive memory stores but was computationally transformed to supply information in a form that minimizes the need for further processing by the decision rules that use it.
Thus, to reach Piaget's Formal period, one would more than likely need all memory systems fully functional, in addition to being able to transform inceptive memories into derived memories. According to Piaget, one of the requirements for proof of higher level conceptual thinking was the ability to withstand challenges (probing) designed to confuse those who do not have a firm grasp of the new concept. Thus, this type of thinking is often approached in stages: 1) be able to verbalize the concept, 2) indicate understanding when probed by others, and 3) readily accept counter-arguments by not readily backing down and/or reverting to lower-level concepts.
A couple of techniques that seem to help conceptual/abstract thinking is requiring collaboration when there is disagreement and playing devil's advocate (pretend that one's belief is opposite to their real one).
Part of the problem about this level of thinking is when exactly are children ready (called readiness)? Piaget theorized that it was about at the age of twelve, others have theorized it is much earlier. One thing appears to be certain—readiness needs to be forced. I know "force" appears to be a heavy-handed term, yet it is perhaps the best one. Why? Well, one thing is for certain—very few individuals reach the formative stage, thus sitting around and waiting for them reach it on their own is doing absolutely no good at all.
Now we take the jump from formal reasoning to what some have called "post-formal reasoning," which is perhaps best viewed as a model that is based on reflective judgment. In this scheme, reasoning is seen as developing along a multilevel continuum. At the lowest levels, reality is what the individual observes, and truth is what authorities say it is. Personal beliefs either exists as a given or are based on the absolute knowledge of an authority. At the highest level, personal beliefs are seen as variable approximations of an objective truth. Beliefs are justifiable to the extent that they are based on a rational process that involves appropriate forms of inquiry and use of the rules of evidence.
The studies (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005) show that students at higher levels of post secondary education had significant higher reflective judgment scores than did students at lower levels. Which probably does not surprise anyone. However, the best estimate (this is a fairly difficult one to measure) is that freshman gain about one standard deviation in reflective judgment and advance about half a stage on the reflective judgment schema. Thus, while being quite small, it represents a major shift in that reasoning moves from personal beliefs to the use of evidence in the making of judgments.
So what does all this mean? Children do make the shift to readiness, yet for the most part, there is a dramatic slowdown in the majority of individuals. For those who continue on to college, formal reasoning once again get a kick start, in addition, post-formal reasoning begins, then both tend to trail off.
When it comes to mastery of factual subject matter material, lecturing has been shown to be just as effective as other forms of instruction, however, it is less effective when it comes to higher order cognitive skills (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). It is estimated that the typical college classroom spends about 80 percent of its time in lectures. I'm not real sure what the grade schools' ratios are, but I tend to believe they are also close to the 80/20 ratio.
So I'm not saying that we do away with rote learning or subject matter expertise, however, I believe that the 80/20 ratio is way off for the knowledge and skills that we now need. In addition, while Piaget theorized that readiness is biologically determined, the real age for it has never been pinpointed, and more than likely, varies greatly for each individual. Thus, is it best to keep everyone in a rote learning holding pattern (lecture and rote learning) until a predetermined age or grade?
Also see Critical Reflection.
Brainard, C.(1997). Feedback, rule knowledge and conservation learning. Child Development, 48, 404-411.
Furedy, C. & Furedy, J. (1985). Critical Thinking: Towards research and Dialogue. In Donald & Sullivan (Eds.) Using research to improve teaching (New Directions for Teaching and learning No. 23) San Francisco:Jossey-Bass.
Good, T. (1990). Educational Psychology: A realistic approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
Jackson, S. The growth of logical thinking in normal and subnormal children. British Journal of Education Psychology, 1965, 35 255-258.
Kuhn, D. (1974). Inducing development experimentally: Comments on a research paradigm. Developmental Psychology, 10, 590Ð600.
Locke, John (1690) BOOK IV. Of Knowledge and Probability. An Essay: Concerning Human Understanding.
McKeachie, W., Pintrich, P., Lin, Y., & Smith, D., (1986). Teaching and learning in the college classroom: A review of the research literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, National center for Research to Improve post-secondary Teaching and Learning.
McMillan, J. (1987). Enhancing college student's critical thinking: A review of studies. Research in Higher Education, 26, 3-29.
Neimark, E. D., Santa, J. L. 1975. Thinking and concept attainment. Annual Review of Psychology, January 1975, Vol. 26, Pages 173-205
Pascarella, Ernest T. & Terenzini, Patrick T. (2005). How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Perry, W. (1970). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years: A scheme. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winstone.
Towler, J. O. and Wheatley, G. (1971). Conservation concepts in college students: A replication and critique. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 118:265-270
Winter, D., McClellard, D., and Stewart A. (1981). A new case for the liberal arts: Assessing institutional goals and student development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.