Teaching critical thinking

Last week a friend sent me the link to this article by Peter Ellerton, a lecturer in Critical Thinking at the University of Queensland, published by The Conversation. Ellerton questions what we mean when we say students are learning to think critically.

He points to the fact that educational outcomes often state that students will develop their ability to think critically, but this in itself is rather vague and not fully developed in any discipline, let alone in a cross-curricular context.

What Ellerton then proposes is a structure for approaching critical thinking across the curriculum. This structure is based on four key pillars:

1. Argumentation – “the process of intellectual engagement with an issue and an opponent with the intention of developing a position justified by rational analysis and inference.”

2. Logic – formal logic (deduction – the set of processes used in mathematics or a Sudoku puzzle) and informal logic (induction – how we generalise and analogise – often used in scientific processes).

3. Psychology – metacognition, “how our minds actually work”, and “the realisation that thinking isn’t so much something we do, as something that happens to us.”

4. The nature of science and statistics – learning about “the differences between hypotheses, theories and laws” to understand the credibility of science, and the use of statistics to empower students “to tackle difficult or complex issues.”

Ellerton is referring specifically to the teaching and learning of critical thinking at a tertiary level, but the structure that he proposes could be applied to a secondary or even primary school setting at an age-appropriate level. These four pillars could be defined in curriculum documents that propose the development of critical thinking skills, providing teachers from across disciplines a framework for explicitly targeting them throughout their programs. For example, it is incredibly empowering for a student to be able to understand and use metalanguage to describe and explain their cognitive and creative processes, or to analyse the processes used by others. Argumentation could take many different forms, from a debate, to an historical analysis, to a scientific report. Logic, the nature of science and statistics can also be embedded throughout the curriculum to teach critical thinking and enhance, not detract from, the content.

This isn’t to say that these skills are not being taught at all. What Ellerton is arguing for is the formalisation of a critical thinking curriculum in order to ensure that we are doing justice to what is an incredibly important and higher order thinking skill, and one that enhances content and allows our students to explore more independently and at a much greater depth.critical-thinking-cartoon

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