Critical Thinking

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):

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, conducted by McKeachie. Pintrich, Lin, and Smith, (1986), looked at McMillan's study from a meta-analysis approach, which is 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 aid critical thinking:

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:

  1. A dualistic right-verses-wrong stage. This is when learners basically see the world in dichotomies, such as black or white, right vs. wrong, worst to best.

  2. 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 often multiple viable position on an issue. They start seeing "shades of gray," however, once they realize there are multiple views, they often conclude that no one view is really any better from another.

  3. 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:

Thus, one teaching method to use is discussions, either face-to-face or online, as a good discussion may carry one of more of these strategies.

For example, start the discussion with a concept, then using small groups; have them discuss its advantages and disadvantages. Next, toss out another concept, Do not try to throw them too many concepts at a time—we learn by building upon what we know (scaffolding). Wait until they have nearly mastered the first, and then toss another concept into the discussion.

Finally, toss another one or two into the mixture (note that we are taking them through Perry's three stages). Some questions to ask are:

When the learners are ready, tie the 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 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), and Towler and Wheatley (1971).

In addition, an impressive body of evidence suggests that perhaps half of college students entering are not yet functioning at this stage (Piagetian Formal Operational Reasoning). While in college, the freshman-to-senior increase in formal reasoning is about 0.27 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?

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 representations that are 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 is the ability to withstand challenges (probing) designed to confuse those who do not have a firm grasp of the new concept.

Note: Probing develops greater understanding by experimentally testing the operational environment, such as asking questions, performing a Cognitive Task Analysis, or immersing oneself into the troubled environment to discover new information. See, Sensemaking and Visualization.

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). Both of these techniques are good at raising issues for better understanding.

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.

Post-formal Reasoning

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 research (Pascarella, Terenzini, 2005) shows that students at higher levels of post secondary education had significant higher reflective judgment scores than did students at lower levels. This 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.

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.

It is estimated that the typical college classroom spends about 80 percent of their time in lectures.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).

Thus, the need for other forms of instruction that involves learner participation, such as small group discussions, interviewing experts, and designing for higher order cognitive skills.

Next Steps

Also see Critical Reflection.


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Good, T. (1990). Educational Psychology: A realistic approach. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston.

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