Thinking is taught...
It is the general consensus of researchers in Thinking, be it Critical, Creative or Applied, that Thinking can be taught (Gormley, 2017; Sawyer, 2012; Hattie, 2009; Pinker, 2009; Sternberg, 2003; Torrance, 1972. See Cropley, Kaufman & Cropley, 2008, for an interesting review on how creativity is taught and used for acts of terrorism and crime.). The key issue and the disagreement among theorists and practitioners is whether Thinking skills should be developed in a stand-alone programme or integrated within the curriculum for each subject. Critical, Creative and Applied Thinking skills are domain-specific, and training within domain-specific areas tend to yield far higher effects than those in domain-general ones (Dow & Mayer, 2004; Baer, 1998; Jay & Perkins, 1997). Domain-general Thinking skills development programmes have yielded mostly mixed results (Nickerson, 1999). On the other hand, a strong case is made by Van Gelder (2005) and Halpern (2001) on the necessity of a stand-alone course where Thinking skills and abilities are emphasized outside of content and subject matter. For reasons such as time constraints, teacher expertise or a lack of buy-in into the importance of Thinking skills at the school level, the frequency of infusion of thinking skills into the subjects is low and highly-irregular. As such, Halpern (2001) argues that instruction on general thinking skills as a broad-based, cross-disciplinary course would mitigate the issues encountered by schools in teaching Thinking skills effectively. Two major meta-analyses of the curriculum organization (Abrami et al., 2008; Kennedy et al., 1991) found that a mixed approach utilising both general and subject-infused courses was most effective in developing critical thinking among students. Lastly, providing a stand-alone course where learners can understand how various forms of thinking like Design Thinking are directly relevant provides an anchor point for these Thinking skills to enter classrooms legitimately (Kimbell & Perry, 2001).
The benefits of Thinking are almost self-evident, and all civilised peoples and societies define themselves not by their achievements but by their ability to reason. On the other hand, in the field of Education, the need to present the benefits of Thinking in order to justify its existence within a school curriculum is in remarkable contrast, especially in the areas of the benefits of Thinking as a standalone programme in relation to traditional subject matter like languages, mathematics and the sciences. The greatest challenge that any Thinking programme has to face is its impact on traditional assessment in the traditional subject areas. Given the climate of accountability through test scores and the tendency to teach to the test, what chance does the teaching of Thinking as a standalone course have in the wake of such pressures? After all, the emphasis on Math and Reading as the sole determiners of a school’s performance at the elementary school level has already resulted in the absence of Science as a subject in Californian elementary schools (Gormley, 2017), and it is also evident in parts of Western Pennsylvania where I am based. Interestingly, the development of Thinking skills, be it Critical, Creative and Applied, have a multiplier effect on academic achievement. Whimbey’s summative study (1985) demonstrates that when Thinking Skills become an integral part of the curriculum and instructional practice, test scores in academic areas increase. The impact on those scores is perhaps even more significant in an age where educational assessments are geared towards non-routine or non-conceptual testing. Likewise, in an early study on critical thinking, Andre (1979) proved that when thinking is taught as a strategy of reading, students’ comprehension ability is enhanced. Costa (1984) argued that Thinking courses that are designed with problem-solving strategies generated by students resulted in a corresponding rise in their use of metacognition, a key focus of learner traits in the 21st century. The link between metacognition and academic achievement is high, with Hattie’s (2009) meta-analysis on teaching students metacognitive strategies revealing an effect size of d = 0.69, an extremely high impact on the learners’ progress.
Beyond the academic benefits, teaching Thinking Skills to children reduces the occurrence of negative intellectual traits among learners. Presseisen (1985) summarised the views of leading educational psychologists and philosophers by stating that poor problem-solvers of all ages are inclined to make superficial, sporadic attempts at a solution, and poorer thinkers often exhibit a high degree of impulsivity. He notes that effective problem solvers, in contrast, view problems as challenges and are persistent in seeking solutions and if a particular strategy is unsuccessful, they take a different approach. Developing Thinking skills also increases self-awareness, and this in turn reduces what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Kruger and Dunning (1999) found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humour, grammar and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. The least skilled not only reached erroneous conclusions and made unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robbed them of the metacognitive ability to realize it (Kruger & Dunning, 1999). An intervention using metacognitive Thinking and improving the skills of the participants resulted in their recognition of the limitations of their abilities (Kruger & Dunning, 1999), thus creating a virtuous cycle of development rather than a vicious cycle of ignorance and arrogance.
In short, instruction in Thinking Skills will have lasting benefits. Students will be better able to acquire new information, to examine complex issues critically, and to solve new problems if they have been taught to think. As such, overwhelming evidence suggests that a Thinking Programme should be long-term, stand-alone, multi-faceted and domain-specific, instilling positive habits of mind and supporting an examination of inter-disciplinary challenges and solutions. Thinking skills such Making Thinking Visible’s Thinking Routines and Richard Paul’s Elements of Reasoning (Paul, 1995) can and should continue to be infused within the various subject matters, but a stand-alone Thinking Programme which explicitly teaches the tripartite aspects of Thinking, namely Critical, Creative and Applied Thinking, would appear to be the most effective approach.
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