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Thinking Skills

June 3, 2011

A very common justification for removing content from teaching is in order to encourage students to think. This results in the teaching of a non-subject  which is  given a title such as “thinking skills” or “critical thinking”. Oakeshott(1975)  commented on this idea:

[Liberal learning] has come to be thought of as a general education; that is as learning not only liberated from the here and now of current engagements but also liberated from an immediate concern with anything specific to be learned. Learning here is said to be “learning to think for oneself” or to be the cultivation of “intelligence” or of certain intellectual and moral aptitudes – the ability to “think logically” or “deliberatively,” the ability not to be deceived by irrelevance in argument, to be courageous, patient, careful, accurate or determined; the ability to read attentively or speak lucidly, and so on. And, of course, all these and more are aptitudes and virtues that a learner may hope to acquire or to improve. But neither they, nor self-understanding itself, can be made the subject of learning.

He continues, complaining that what is to be learnt, indeed the whole of culture, is claimed to be a “set of abstract aptitudes” and not “substantive expressions of thought, emotion, belief, opinion, approval and disapproval, of moral and intellectual discriminations, of inquiries and investigations”.

Willingham (2007) asks:

Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. 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 about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize. Just as it makes no sense to try to teach factual content without giving students opportunities to practice using it, it also makes no sense to try to teach critical thinking devoid of factual content.

Of course, even though there are no compelling philosophical or psychological reasons to think that the ability to think can be divorced from knowledge of what is being thought about, it is still expected that teachers can do exactly this. A good teacher should be insulted at the mere suggestion that mastering their discipline is not thinking.

A number of suggestions are made to teachers about how they should encourage students to think. It is suggested that children be taught philosophy from an early age. Personally, I suspect that most children don’t have enough Greek, and it is not universally accepted by philosophers themselves. One of the most influential philosophers of the last thirty years, Alasdair MacIntyre, objected to teaching philosophy before graduate level:

Q: Do you think there is a strong case to be made for teaching philosophy in schools? How would you state it?

A: Introducing philosophy into schools will certainly do no more harm than has been done by introducing sociology or economics or other subjects with which the curriculum has been burdened. But what we need in schools are fewer subjects, not more, so that far greater depth can be acquired. And philosophical depth depends in key part on having learned a great deal in other disciplines. What every child needs is a lot of history and a lot of mathematics, including both the calculus and statistics, some experimental physics and observational astronomy, a reading knowledge of Greek sufficient to read Homer or the New Testament, and if English-speaking, a speaking knowledge of a modern language other than English, and great quantities of English literature, especially Shakespeare. Time also has to be there for music and art. Philosophy should only be introduced at the undergraduate level. And then at least one philosophy course, and more adequately two, should be required of every undergraduate. Of course an education of this kind would require a major shift in our resources and priorities, and, if successful, it would produce in our students habits of mind which would unfit them for the contemporary world. But to unfit our students for the contemporary world ought in any case to be one of our educational aims.

 Quoted in Knight (1998)

Philosophy as an abstract form of thinking is unhelpful even at the highest level, as is a sketchy knowledge of philosophical ideas. Philosophy is only truly illuminating when applied to distinct areas of human thought, for example: politics; linguistics; history; mathematics; ethics; psychology; science, or religion. While it might be worth teaching students about these subjects, this is quite distinct from teaching philosophy.

Often it is suggested that they think about their own thinking (sometimes this is given the label “metacognition”). This could be a good idea if what teachers knew about thinking was a useful body of knowledge. However, we have already established that many of the educational ideas about thinking are pseudo-science or dogma. Believing children have “learning styles” is a mistake. Telling them they have learning styles is positively harmful. I have had students tell me that they must chat with their friends, or listen to music during my lessons because it is part of their learning style. The worst part of telling them the current fads about thinking is that it spreads the myth that learning is not difficult. There are no magic formulas to take the hard work out of difficult subjects. The very idea is harmful when told to new teachers and it is positively toxic when told to students. How is anyone to motivate students to work hard, if they are told the lie that there are abundant shortcuts that will make it easy? There are a few study skills that can be taught, such as note-taking or tricks to aid with revision, but these fall far short of a significant body of teachable “metacognitive” skills.

Finally, there are individual techniques that are meant to encourage thinking. Most of these are simply what good teachers have always done: asking questions; reflecting on learning; setting problems that involve more than repetition; setting challenging work. Some techniques that are supposed to promote thinking are nonsense, such as the belief that a question without one correct answer involves more thinking than one with a single correct answer. (Presumably, being asked to name a TV programme is more intellectually demanding than finding the square root of 6561.) Some techniques are just the existing stalwarts of progressive education such as groupwork, or discovery learning. Efforts to reduce the authority of teachers, or to reduce subject content, have always been justified by the suggestion that students are left to do more thinking, or to think in different ways (e.g. “creatively” or “independently”). As ever the ideas are not remotely coherent. How could groupwork possibly encourage independent learning? Why should creative thought be considered superior to logical thought? Labels such as “thinking skills” should not be allowed to cover up dumbing down.

References

Knight, Kelvin, The MacIntyre Reader, Polity, 1998

Oakeshott, Michael, A Place of Learning, 1975

Willingham, Daniel T., Critical Thinking in American Educator, Summer 2007, American Federation Of Teacher s, 2007

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66 comments

  1. First line says it all. We’ve had to write SOWs with two objectives – one of them being the dreaded PLTS.
    My son thinks it’s part of his learning style to be on facebook when he is revising. I’ve had to ban him to his bedroom to revise WITH A BOOK, then I will TEST his KNOWLEDGE.


  2. Congratulations on another great discussion topic and an interesting set of sources. I read this section “Thinking like a scientist” in Dan Willingham’s book quite often”.

    I suspect that some of the issues and disagreements that arise are more related to definitions than anything else. Dan Willingham addresses the issue of interpretation of the term “critical thinking” by cognitive scientists and I feel this may shed some light.

    I believe that just because one does not agree with justifying activities on a 3 part lesson using VAK, does not mean that there is nothing to be gained by thinking about the ways that individuals prefer to learn or learn most effectively.

    I cannot (but I will give the matter some thought) see why we cannot teach “critical thinking” but this may mean that we have a different understanding of the term.

    As a constructivist I see teaching as my facilitating a learner’s development of knowledge, understanding and skills. I see my job as providing carefully designed opportunities for learning, including opportunities for the development of critical thinking skills.

    Examples of where I am coming from…

    I can help learners improve their problem solving skills. I can hep learners to understand how to understand how they can improve their problem solving skills.

    I can explain, model and give opportunities to apply deductive and inductive reasoning. I can explain, model and give opportunities to use logical syllogism as a method in reasoning.

    I can help learners to improve their ability to present well reasoned arguments.

    For me these are all “critical thinking”.

    I can do this in particular subjects or more generally.

    As a result of this one I will do several things..

    -read this section of Willingham’s book again, always worth it
    -ponder the ideas presented in the first two posts
    -get hold of Oakshott, you quote him often so he must be worth a read
    -keep looking in to consider comments added

    I feel that this and the previous post get to the heart of what teaching is about as a profession.


    • Have you read the post you are commenting on? The whole argument is that there are no such thing as generic, teachable problem-solving skills.


      • Of course I read it. I simply didn’t find much of an argument “that there are no such thing as generic teachable problem solving skills”.

        This is why I spent my valuable time explaining that I believe there are. I did however concede that your definition of “generic teachable problem solving skills” may be different to mine.

        A couple of examples..

        ‘Believing children have “learning styles” is a mistake. Telling them they have learning styles is positively harmful’

        This one is not in any way proven in fact there is a good deal of evidence that pupils do have learning styles (dependent of course on one working definition of learning style).

        “As ever the ideas are not remotely coherent. How could groupwork possibly encourage independent learning?”

        If this refers to learning independent of the teacher, I believe it is self evident.

        “The worst part of telling them the current fads about thinking is that it spreads the myth that learning is not difficult. There are no magic formulas to take the hard work out of difficult subjects. The very idea is harmful when told to new teachers and it is positively toxic when told to students. How is anyone to motivate students to work hard, if they are told the lie that there are abundant shortcuts that will make it easy? ”

        What has this to do with teaching critical thinking. Quite often critical thinking skills lead to more ambitious problems being tackled and more hard work not short cuts and less work. Maybe this view reflects your personal view of critical thinking.


        • There is something strangely familiar about your style of argument. Particularly:

          a) the way you seem to think that what needs to be explained is the mere fact that you disagree with me rather than any justification for your disagreement

          and

          b) the way you seem to be quoting fragments of my post and then asking what it has to do with my argument rather than simply reading my argument and finding out for yourself.

          Anyway, in the absence of anything resembling a justification of your position in your contribution, can you at least provide this “evidence” that pupils do have learning styles?


  3. “It is true that all people have varying abilities in these methods. Someone who has robust auditory abilities is likely to pick up a French accent faster than someone who doesn’t, he said, and strong visual abilities will help someone memorize a map of Africa.”

    Dan Willingham

    “It is true that you might be better than I am at being a visual imager,”

    Dan Willingham

    I would however agree that teaching to an individuals cognitive strengths is often counter productive and the nature of the content is more important when considering teaching strategies.

    My apologies if I appear to be arguing for the sake of it, I really am not. It is just that I had read your argument several times and again since you suggested I might not have read it.

    I did give examples for my disagreements and I did think that some points were irrelevant to the argument.

    I am very happy to supply the reasons for my position if you wish. Just tel me something you want me to justify and I will do so, if I have not already.

    “I can explain, model and give opportunities to apply deductive and inductive reasoning. I can explain, model and give opportunities to use logical syllogism as a method in reasoning.”

    This is an example of teaching critical thinking that I supplied to support my position. It seemed very simple to me.

    These are interesting discussions.


    • Willingham is observing that we have different abilities to remember different types of content, not that we have different learning styles which can be used to learn the same content in different ways. In fact that is exactly what he is denying and if this is your evidence for learning styles it would suggest that again, you are interested in fragments of text rather than following an entire argument.

      With regard to your examples of critical thinking. The whole point is that there is no generic “inductive reasoning” or “deductive reasoning” skill and no generic method of applying those forms of reasoning. Saying that you teach such skills is simply to claim my argument is incorrect, without actually providing any argument of your own.

      As to whether teaching elementary logic could be labelled “thinking skills”, this is another point. I have only commented on the proposals for teaching thinking skills that I have encountered. Logic is a discipline in its own right and I would no more seek to rename it as “thinking skills” than I would rename “literacy” or “numeracy” as “thinking skills”.


      • Seeing as remembering is learning, if we have different abilities to remember then surely we have different abilities to learn. For me this is learning style. Where Willingham talks about the ineffectiveness of planning all teaching for an individual based upon their strengths I would have to agree with him, but this does not mean that the differences and hence an individuals preferred approach or style does not exist.

        You have an advantage over me here. I have been under the impression that inductive reasoning was “reasoning from detailed facts to general principles” and that deductive reasoning is about “moving from general to the particular” and I have taught both using these definitions. Having taught the concepts I have found it useful to apply them in a range of situations in a variety of subject areas. Often the more complex the situation and the more subject content knowledge required the less familiar the situation and the more difficult the application.

        I would not suggest that you can assume to use any method in any new and unfamiliar situation if that is what you mean by generic. What I can do however is to teach the concepts and use them in a guided way with learners in familiar and unfamiliar situations to enable them to form their own understanding and develop approaches to use (and yes I would refer to this as metacognition). I would add however that as hids can use inductive and deductive reasoning from an early age, in the main I help them to understand the concepts and increase the range of situations in which they can use them.

        “Saying that you teach such skills is simply to claim my argument is incorrect, without actually providing any argument of your own.”

        I was simply pointing out that I, and many others (including yourself I think) teach critical thinking skills (as I understand the term). I was simply exemplarising to illustrate my understanding of the term as it may well be that we have a different understanding of the term “critical thinking skills”. I was attempting to find a line of reasoning against teaching critical thinking skills but could not which is why I listed the issues.

        “As to whether teaching elementary logic could be labelled “thinking skills”, this is another point”

        Of course, and I have nailed my colours to the mast. You will probably say that I am imply taking issue for the sake f it, but I cannot see any justification at all for suggesting that some elements of the use of “Logic” could not also be included in the definition of critical thinking skills. I do not believe them to be mutually exclusive. So it is with literacy and numeracy.

        I do not consider these discussions here to be adversarial in nature. Indeed it is that I wish to understand the arguments which helps me to learn which motivates me to post. It is where I do not understand the line of argument or when the argument seems to fly in the face of experience that I try to tease out (for me at least) the issues.


  4. It’s refreshing to find that you’ve come to the same conclusion (at least I think you have!) as I have.

    I think that critical thinking can be known when you see it happening and to a degree nurture it. I’m not sure that many people ever actually ever do it. But to teach it directly, well, no.

    That being said, I’d love to see a “standardized test” on critical thinking. Actually, I wouldn’t, but the thought of it is tragically amusing.


    • Drew

      I am not asking this question as I disagree, I think that if i understand your terms I may in fact agree and I will certainly have a better understanding. This may for me be the crux of the issue.

      What is the difference between “nurture it” and “teach it directly”.

      I would appreciate it if you could spend a few words defining each.

      thanks


      • Teach it directly implies there’s a way to do it effectively and systematically. Put more brutally, it means to hammer it into their wee brains and make it stick.

        Can’t say I’ve ever seen or heard of it being done. Well, people say they have, but it turns out to be a load of cobblers.

        Nurturing I don’t think needs explanation.


  5. Would it be simpler for bt0558 to watch Dan Willingham’s video “learning Styles Don’t Exist”? Here it is:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk


    • I have a copy of Dan Willingham’s video Paul, which I watch once or twice a month since I downloaded it. I am not 100% sure but I believe he issue is this….

      Dan Willingham says this in the video..”those people with a good visual memory will always learn better if you present things visually but that idea is clearly wrong..when you’ve got something that you want students to learn that’s especially visual like he shape of a country on a map everyone needs to see a visual presentation not just those people who have really good visual memory”.

      I would not think of disagreeing with this, firstly as it is common sense and secondly because it is said by Dan Willingham, the person I learned most about this stuff from.

      There seems to be a general consensus that often the nature of that which is to be learned will dictate the best way to present the material, and this is the view from the perspective of the content.

      A learner may be a weak visual learner but this is the most effective way to present the information even though the learner is weak. Such is life. We might however also present information auditorily as well and this is the learner’s strength, but they will still learn less this way that by visual presentation.

      I agree therefore with everything Dan Willingham says and if you take his view that “those people with a good visual memory will always learn better if you present things visually” is the issue here then I must agree that he is correct.

      For me as a teacher however I don’t see this as the issue. I do not see that just because a learner has a strength as a holistic or perhaps field dominant learner that they always learn best this way. I do however think it is useful for me as a teacher to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a learner so that I at least understand who will experience most difficulty when I present information in the way I think best in light of the content.


      • Your capacity to listen to an argument and only retain those fragments which are vaguely with your own pre-existing opinion is remarkable. Did you really blot out the entire explanation in the video and books of how it is meaning that is retained not method of communication? Having a good visual memory will make it easier to recall an image; it will not make it easier to remember something simply because it has been communicated with an image.


        • I have a again watched the Willingham video twice and I have retained all of it. It is a good thing that Willingham in the video is a little more definite than you are. I have about 30 textbooks on he subject.

          I have no great interest in the efficacy of an image making it easy to recall anything. As suggested in the video, It is meaning that is important.

          I am concerned with how learners understand and develop concepts, how they develop schemas, concepts and links between concepts. Recalling those concepts and links into working memory is a slightly different issue for me.

          I am interested in the way that I can present learners with information that will allow them to develop accurate representations of knowledge and links (understanding).

          How they recall that information is often up to them.

          We are not talking about “visual memory” here we are talking about (to quote Willingham) visual abilities. Abilities to receive and encode information rather than retrieve it.

          Even in the video Williingham isn’t unequivocal. Perhaps this is where you and he diverge a little.


          • We seem to diverge in that you appear to be unable to avoid coming up with ever weaker ways to resurrect discredited nonsense. Do you really think that the ability to “recieve and encode” information is so unrelated to the ability to recall it at a later date that we can disregard all research on learning that makes use of recall to test learning? Or are you just trying to confuse matters?


        • Just because information is presented as an image, perhaps in addition to in other ways, does not mean that having processed the information in working memory that it is stored as an image or as an image only.

          I see Willingham’s argument as just because a learner has a more effective visual style, to present information in a visual style will not necessarily improve learning. This seems a reasonable argument.

          Did you have a different understanding of his argument, I would assume so given the above comment. It is to be found in his book also but a good discussion can also be found in “The Unified Learning Model: How Motivational, Cognitive, and Neurobiological Sciences Inform Best Teaching Practices , 2007″

          I will post references to support my views in future.


  6. I think most secondary students aren’t mature enough to discover their own learning styles and decide what they need to learn, and that’s why we have teachers in the first place: to decide that for them, and to choose and impose environments where that can happen best for them.


    • I am guessing this was tongue in cheek Edudicator. If I am wrong accept my apologies for misunderstanding.

      I think most people in the teaching professional understand little in this area so how we could possibly expect learners to “just know” I am unsure.

      The issue of the design of places of learning is another thread perhaps but when you say ” impose environments ” I would rephrase as “teach in the most effective way considering content and learner”. This clearly will not always play to the learner’s current strengths but will hopefully make learners more effective.


      • Not tongue in cheek at all. Yes when I say impose environments I don’t mean the physical one. And I’m not sure what ‘area’ you think teachers don’t know anything about.

        What I’m trying to say is that teachers know what it takes to succeed, and students can have that explained to them but will never really understand it – not properly – until they are much more experienced. That’s why there are teachers in the first place.


        • Edudicator

          Thanks for that.

          I feel that teachers are generally not well educated when it comes to cognitive science, cognitive psychology and teaching and learning research in general.

          I tend to agree with the view of Muijs and Reynolds (2007) page 22 when they say..”As often happens in education, psychological theories are taken on board by educators or commercial consultants who do not understand them well and produce a low level, vulgarized version for use in schools.”

          Alistair Smith, Gardeners multiple intelligences, brain gym and VAK to name but a very few. There are many more mainstream examples.

          We recently had a temporary fast track head in our place who designed his own VAK style questionnaire and used it in various ways across the school.

          I believe that many teachers have a lack of understanding of the theories underpinning the role of motivation, child self concept and assessment in the learning process.

          There are a large number of teachers about who have been in the profession or 20-30 years or more who have been out of the loop with the exception of inset for much of that time.

          There are a great number of GTP teachers, many of whom have had little formal theoretical input and have had to rely upon gurus in schools to pass of the “knowledge”.

          I would guess that few teachers have actually done any reading of research themselves in the areas of say…..

          – classroom layout
          – peer based learning
          – memory
          – whole class teaching
          -child development
          -metacognition
          -learning styes/preferences
          -problem solving processes

          You may disagree with my use of the following analogy, but if you had professional legal adviser who told you that their understanding of the law came from “reading the odd blog, talking to others in the office and experience of just having a go” you would probably go elsewhere.

          I don’t have figures but I am thinking of doing some research (Mphil) into whether an understanding of issue including those above and basing teaching on the research rather than just rule of thumb actually helps learners but I cannot think of an argument that would suggest it does not. The Masters in Teaching and Learning is I think a laudable effort to try to get some evidential based practice into the profession.

          Until we change the way that we train teachers and facilitate meaningful professional development I don’t see things improving and the dumbed down system we have will i think continue.


  7. For the first time since reading this blog I disagree with you.

    I’m not a teacher but I have three children and I’m continually appalled by what they’re taught and how they’re taught, and more to the point what they’re not taught.

    But one saving thing for my disillusioned 10 year old has been philosophy club. She gets so much out of it and can now form a coherent argument, hold a position, and justify her viewpoint – surely all great skills for essay writing, interviews and life.

    I take your point that without knowledge this finessing is useless, but with knowledge, philosophy can become invaluable to a state school kid.


    • Sorry, but I simply cannot conceive of how a ten year old can be doing philosophy in any meaningful way.


      • Who the heck does philosophy in a ‘meaningful’ way – it’s an onanistic sport.

        The use doesn’t come from the philosophy it comes from the argument, the discussion.


        • “The use doesn’t come from the philosophy it comes from the argument, the discussion.”

          Then your child is taking part in a club devoted to dialectic rather than philosophy…which is an end in itself. ‘Useful’ philosophy can be done in a ‘meaningful’ way; in a way that generates its own meaning.

          If you appreciated this, you wouldn’t write things like: “it’s an onanistic sport.” Sports can’t be ‘onanistic’. It may well be an onanistic pass-time but it can’t be an onanistic sport. If you need an explanation, ask your 10 year old. And if you don’t think that’s entirely appropriate, then maybe you’re half-way to realising why 10 year olds shouldn’t really be doing ‘philosophy’.


        • This does rather suggest that I was right to suspect that your child is not doing anything I would recognise as philosophy.


      • There’s a lot of fascinating comment and discussion going on here, most of it being far beyond me. However, this is a telling sentence, oldandrew:

        “Sorry, but I simply cannot conceive of how a ten year old can be doing philosophy in any meaningful way”


  8. Katt

    Good for you.

    Although not a “professional” educator you seem to be doing a great job educating your own children. If only all parents showed such insight (if only all teachers showed such insight) I feel the world would be a better place.


  9. “I can explain, model and give opportunities to apply deductive and inductive reasoning.

    So you “tell students stuff”, “show students stuff”, presumably hoping they’ll acquire skills through imitation and you set them some work to “practise stuff”? That’s not exactly radical is it?

    Although “give opportunities to apply deductive and inductive reasoning” as a way of describing “practising stuff” kinda suggests the difference between your teaching and other peoples’ is largely rhetorical, in that you describe what you do in a hyperbolic and disingenuous manner which no doubt ticks all the progressive learning boxes. You may quibble with this but, seriously, anyone who describes themselves as a facilitator with a straight face is either an idiot or somebody keen to bullshit their way up the management pole.

    “..and give opportunities to use logical syllogism as a method in reasoning”
    So do you teach syllogisms formally? Or are you actually relying on those aspects of syllogistic reasoning which most people consider more or less self-evident. I only ask because describing these, together with basic assumptions of identity and equality as “thinking skills” is rather high-flown and silly. A bit like considering my continued existence as proof of my highly polished “respiratory skills”.

    “..and give opportunities to use logical syllogism as a method in reasoning”
    So do you teach syllogisms formally? Or are you actually relying on those aspects of syllogistic reasoning which most people consider more or less self-evident. I only ask because describing these, together with basic assumptions of identity and equality as “thinking skills” is rather high-flown and silly. A bit like considering my continued existence as proof of my highly polished “respiratory skills”.

    I have just read your comment on the previous topic btw. I may well respond but I’m starting to feel we inhabit entirely different and incompatible conceptual universes.


    • monkeyfish

      This has been an extremely interesting discussion and goes to the core of what teaching should be about (for me).

      ‘So you “tell students stuff”, “show students stuff”, presumably hoping they’ll acquire skills through imitation and you set them some work to “practise stuff”? That’s not exactly radical is it?’

      LOL. I was simply explaining that I can “teach” deductive reasoning just as I can teach anything else, and I believe deductive reasoning is a critical thinking skill. Thats all.

      “in that you describe what you do in a hyperbolic and disingenuous manner which no doubt ticks all the progressive learning boxes”

      You have no idea how I teach. To suggest I am disingenuous is extremely disrespectful and rude, especially as you have no evidence that his is the case. Your resorting to an ad hominem rant probably explains your motivation for posting so I wont take it personally.

      “You may quibble with this but, seriously, anyone who describes themselves as a facilitator with a straight face is either an idiot or somebody keen to bullshit their way up the management pole.”

      You sound a little like a playground bully here. I am neither an idiot nor attempting to “bullshit my way up the management pole”. Why should someone who describes themselves as a facilitator be therefore an “idiot”. Please explain.

      “Or are you actually relying on those aspects of syllogistic reasoning which most people consider more or less self-evident.”

      One thing that looking at concept based education has shown me is that individual schemas are full of misunderstanding. I chose syllogism as an example of a critical thinking skill that could be taught, but now you have mentioned it I would say that the majority of 10-18 year olds do not (from my research) have a sound knowledge in this area. I teach logical syllogism from the perspective of logical syllogism. I hope that clarifies things.

      “A bit like” is probably overegging the analogistic pudding.

      “I only ask because describing these, together with basic assumptions of identity and equality as “thinking skills” is rather high-flown and silly”

      LOL. You have created an interesting strawman here. Enough said.

      “I have just read your comment on the previous topic btw. I may well respond but I’m starting to feel we inhabit entirely different and incompatible conceptual universes.”

      After ll that school boy playground name calling you go and pay me this wonderful complement, and for this I hank you.

      This continues to be a very interesting thread.


      • My apologies…compliment…….saw it as I pressed the button.


  10. Took issue slightly with your assertion that one cannot be expected to study philosophy until one speaks Greek. Apparently English is such an gutteral, barbaric, peasant language that one cannot express sophisticated, civilised thoughts in it. So much for Shakespeare, Coleridge, Shelley et al.


    • Sense of humour failure?

      My point there is really about the dumbing down of philosophy.


      • In the past, much of philosophy has perhaps been in the realm of he pompous. Maybe in the future it will be less so.

        I have seen this suggestion before….”lack of proficiency in Greek”….

        I think it was Oakeshott (if not one of his followers) but I will check.


  11. As a teacher of two decades, I agree with the idea of fewer subjects in greater depth. This also applies within subjects. My pet peeve is the elementary math curriculum. From the first year of primary school, students are bombarded with SO many topics in math which keeps so many of them from acquiring any proficiency. Shortly after introducing a topic, it’s right on to the next math topic, without any depth!

    In science, in my school we had more leeway with the curriculum. Some teachers tried to cover the whole text book (in order to teach a wide vocabulary). I chose only a few topics (earth science, for example, my specialty) and went VERY much in depth. Students came out of my class (at nine years old) really knowing the topics in depth, and able to use them NOW in their real lives.

    As to teaching thinking skills, I believe they can be taught, but not in an expository manner. A Socratic manner needs to be used. But before that, some information needs to be presented and mastered. Once that has happened, the instructor can start ASKING THE STUDENTS QUESTIONS, such as, “What sort of background do you think this author has; where do you think he would have come up with this sort of idea/opinion?” or “How do you feel about this idea/system? Is it a good idea/system, or not?” (such as when discussing Feudalism, but first students have to be taught what Feudalsim is…)

    When I was in school (age 12) we were taught all the types of propaganda techniques that advertisers use, and as I’ve aged (56 now) I’ve seen that governments are all using the same propaganda techniques! Students need to be taught to QUESTION what they hear, QUESTION what they read in print, HOW and WHEN and WHY to seek to VERIFY information.

    Through questioning and discussion of particular issues and situations, YES, these skills CAN be taught. But THEY CANNOT BE TAUGHT EFFECTIVELY in a VACUUM of information, telling students to “think for themselves” when they don’t have enough life experience and information to think ABOUT. But in EVERY subject, once a subject has been presented and learned to a certain degree, it should be questioned, dissected, and debated. This QUESTIONING PROCESS is what teaches children and young people to THINK.

    Lynne Diligent, Dilemmas of an Expat Tutor
    expattutor.wordpress.com


  12. Perhaps the following will aid further understanding of philosophical 10 year olds:

    The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means “love of wisdom”. Under wisdom in the Shorter Oxford you will find, amongst other definitions “the combination of experience and knowledge combined with the ability to use them judiciously, sound judgment , prudence, practical sense…” also “Knowledge, especially of an abstruse kind; enlightenment, learning, erudition”


    • Never a good idea to use a dictionary to grasp philosophical concepts:

      http://lesswrong.com/lw/np/disputing_definitions


      • Paysan, you appear to have committed which is close to being a philosophical fallacy, namely that a word is defined by its etymology rather than its use otherwise words could never change their meaning.

        For example, ethics is clearly a part of philosophy but would not be covered by “love of wisdom”.


        • Augustine of Hippo
          I thought that I had explained this in the request to change “definitions” to “received understanding” please see below. I fear didn’t select the correct reply response to ensure continuity.
          I accept that the language is living and the meaning of words change all the time although some words that I used such as ” wisdom, abstruse, and erudition haven’t changed much in the last 100 years although I fear there are those who would like to redefine them.
          What does frequently happen is the way dishonest people take perfectly innocent words and attempt to make them mean something they never used to. An example that teachers will be familiar with is the word challenge as a substitute for bad behavior.
          During an interview with a senior U.S. air force officer last week on BBC radio the word “bomb” was substituted with “something kinetic”


          • Not really, “received understanding” is still not a clear concept as it is depends on who you have received it from and different traditions have different “received understanding[s]” for the same word / concept.

            I’m pretty sure that the understanding of wisdom has changed during the last 100 years, not least because of the Thomist revival during the early twentieth century and the Aristotelian revival during the later part.

            You appear to be objecting to euphemisms in your last two paragraphs.


  13. The thing is, eventually there will be a backlash against this trend, but it will take a few years, during which teaching time – and money – will have been wasted again on a fad. Despite cynicism both inside and outside the profession, schools are still pandering to the learning styles mantra as well. I am currently applying for a post and it is a requirement that my planning takes learning styles into account. I want the job, but definitely won’t get it if I am outspoken on this issue.


    • seriousteacher

      You have raised anoher very interesting issue here. Could you tell us what you are going to do (or did) to resolve this dilemma.
      Is it unprofessional for a teacher to teach to learning styles even they believe them to be completely without foundation?

      Is it more professional to agree at interview, use them in planning but have alternative strategies which despite learning styles perceived as being nonsense will facilitate learning?


  14. Thank you for this, very interesting, although I was not suggesting philosophy could be fathomed from a dictionary, just an understanding of the meaning of the words. Perhaps I could change “definitions” to “received understanding”.
    It is very much my experience that wisdom generally comes with grey hair but this, like all generalisations, is dangerous. At 11 years Einstein was reading philosophy and by 13 into Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. (Young Einstein Myth and Reality). Perhaps Katt’s daughter is precocious.


  15. “At 11 years Einstein was reading philosophy and by 13 into Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. (Young Einstein Myth and Reality). Perhaps Katt’s daughter is precocious.”

    Is this any more likely to be true than the frequently cited canard about his dyslexia? One might wonder how well an 11 year old dyslexic might fare with Kant-who for all his undoubted insight, was a notoriously dry, convoluted and ‘difficult’ prose stylist.

    I can only assume that he must have had either an auditory or kinaesthetic learning style.
    Or maybe he was taught ‘thinking skills’ rather than any of those unnecessarily determinate ‘fact thingys’.


    • Maybe he worked hard at it, or even more radically perhaps he didn’t learn it by reading books.

      I have taught children and adults who have been diagnosed as dyslexic and certainly exhibit some of the common signs of dyslexia who have extremely good subject knowledge and highly developed thinking and reasoning skills. I am sure this is not an uncommon experience for teachers.

      ps….I am unable to find anyone here who has argued that anyone should be taught that thinking skills should be taught instead of facts or suggested that learning facts is not necessary for the development of thinking skills but I will look again.


  16. “Maybe he worked hard at it, or even more radically perhaps he didn’t learn it by reading books.”

    Or perhaps he simply wasn’t dyslexic? Perhaps he was simply another famous figure posthumously ‘diagnosed’ on the basis of flimsy speculation and wishful thinking in order to bring some kudos to a particular interest group. He’s also credited with belief in a personal god and not being especially good at Maths. Neither of these appear remotely true either but no doubt the propagation of such stories suits somebody or other….possibly somebody who believes in the primacy of inculcating thinking skills above the teaching of facts or routine skills.

    “ps….I am unable to find anyone here who has argued that anyone should be taught that thinking skills should be taught instead of facts or suggested that learning facts is not necessary for the development of thinking skills but I will look again.”

    And I’m not convinced that “thinking skills” are taught at all. Perhaps you can convince me since you appear to believe that you actually teach them. I can hazard a few guesses as to why you might think or say you do, but I’m really not sure you do any such thing.


    • monkeyfish
      Perhaps. However just because people say a lot of things about Einstein that were not true does not lead to the conclusion that all things said about Einstein are untrue.I was simply responding to your issue..” One might wonder how well an 11 year old dyslexic might fare with Kant-who for all his undoubted insight, was a notoriously dry, convoluted and ‘difficult’ prose stylist. ”

      Already did this one but let me explain again.

      Just as I teach someone to ride a bike by giving them some theory and perhaps some feedback and guidance based upon my own experience when they fall off, I can explain some ways to analyse or evaluate and give feedback following an attempt by the learner. I can explain logical syllogism and how to recognise one and then give feedback following the learners attempts to identify appropriate problems.

      I would be very interested to know some of “guesses” you might make for me “appearing to believe I actually teach them”. At the moment I do not understand your position on this issue which to me seems remarkably straightforward.

      If you can explain why it is not possible for me to teach thinking skills and furnish me with a few “guesses” we might resolve the issue once and for all.

      Why are my examples above, which I assure you I do (along with many of my colleagues, parents etc etc) not examples of me teaching thinking skills?

      Other than definitional issues I cannot even start to guess why you hold your position.


      • “Why are my examples above, which I assure you I do (along with many of my colleagues, parents etc etc) not examples of me teaching thinking skills?”

        I’d like to turn the question back at you and ask why on earth we should consider them to be examples of teaching thinking skills?


        • I am not sure whether it is the “thinking” or the “skills” you object to or both.

          I would suggest that analysis is a skill, mastery of which comes with practice. I would further argue that analysis is an example of a cognitive process which when undertaken would be generally regarded as thinking.

          “Thinking skill.”

          Informing, Explaining, Exemplarising, feedback, encouragement = teaching

          “Teaching thinking skills”

          Your reply is similar to that of monkeyfish really, in that I am sure you knew just where I was coming from exactly but for some reason you seem unwilling to say why you think my examples of teaching thinking skills are inappropriate.

          If we are wasting our time haggling over definitions then just say so and we can save a good deal of effort and time.

          If not, what is your objection?


          • There’s no haggling to be done over definitions. You are commenting on my blogpost, so we’ll stick to talking about the type of thinking skills I was blogging about, which (except for the section about philosophy) were skills divorced from content, particularly the content of existing academic disciplines. The example you gave of teaching basic logic does not fit that; the vaguer suggestions about analysis and reasoning at best seem to simply assert that I am wrong without providing any substantial argument and at worst just repeat the same point about logic but less clearly.


          • LOL

            I responded in what was I think the second comment to the blog referring to your quote by Willingham as this seemed to me to be the most useful and practical part of the blobpost. Thats all.

            Willingham posed the question….”Can critical thinking actually be taught?” and I responded to the question posed.

            A number of posters took the time to post saying that they thought that “thinking skills” could be taught.

            Willingham asserts that it is wrong to suggest that once one masters a thinking skill then this skill can be used anywhere and he further asserts that this is the way teachers tend to view “thinking skills”.

            Willingham also explains that teaching “thinking skills” without content is a no brainer and with this one I would agree. I note that your quote of Willingham contains “probably and “not really”. Willingham does not argue that it is not possible to teach thinking skills which might be used in a range of situations in which problems that have similar characteristics.

            If you are arguing that “thinking skills” cannot be taught then I disagree and I have explained why.

            If you are arguing that “thinking skills” cannot be mastered without application to knowledge then I could not disagree as this seems on the face of it to be a no brainer.

            If you are arguing the latter then I will rewrite my original comment and say…..I agree, how could I not.

            I will continue to teach kids how to use algorithms, heuristics etc to be used to solve certain types of problem, and to be able to determine the sorts of problems for which each is useful. I will continue to refer to this process as teaching thinking skills as you haven’t really said anything here to change my view.

            I am interested to know as I said below, what properly means when teaching philosophy. Not suggesting you are wrong, I am just interested to know what you mean. I suspect however that you might not want to tell


          • Sorry, but I can’t find a point in all that which hasn’t already been answered.

            Please make your point clearly, or at the very least succinctly, or I will have to assume you are deliberately trying to obstruct discussion.


          • “I can explain some ways to analyse or evaluate and give feedback following an attempt by the learner.”

            You mean you can comment upon it, tell them what to do to make it better and perhaps tell them to analyse it from a different perspective. How are you teaching anybody to think differently?…which presumably means encouraging them into previously untried cognitive processes.
            I reject the notion that you’re doing this. I’m pretty sure…certain…in fact, that most students have work reviewed and assessed at KS2. They’re also told how to improve work and they’ve heard about regarding things from other people’s point of view. That they might become more insightful and intricate in their endeavours as they get older but that isn’t because somebody taught them thinking skills.

            “I can explain logical syllogism and how to recognise one…”

            So ‘recognition’ is a skill you teach? Do you go into much detail on the “concept of recognition”…or just stick to “how to recognise” something?…because I think they could probably already do that.

            “….and then give feedback following the learners attempts to identify appropriate problems.”

            But in what sense would you use a syllogism to ‘identify an appropriate problem’?…and I’ve done ‘feedback’.

            I’d say the skills you claim to teach are, in fact, a series of simple rules to apply in given situations. and If that equates to a ‘skill’…what doesn’t? Presumably the skill is in remembering the rules? Do you teach ‘remembering’?…how do they find they’re way to your classroom before you’ve done that lesson?


          • monkeyfish
            If you accept that analysis is a cognitive process and further you agree that the proficiency of individuals to analyse changes over time, then left to their own devices only they are self taught. I believe children begin to analyse their environment at a young age in order so solve problems they encounter. They will find methods, heuristics, algorithms etc that work for them and they will do this naturally. I am simply suggesting that another individual can “explain”, and yes I do mean explain why certain heuristics and certain methods/models might be appropriate with certain types of problems etc. I can for instance explain chunking and that chunking can be carried out in different ways and then coach the individual. This individual is able to bring more and richer information to working memory when the task of analysis is required, when they need to look for patterns, classifications, links, similarities etc.
            I do not profess to be able to show them how to manipulate their own neurons directly.
            I believe that kids become more insightful due to a combination of the acquisition of knowledge, understanding of knowledge and improved cognitive processes. I am not talking about commenting on a pupil’s work, I am talking about commenting on the thinking that went into producing the work. Commenting on a kids work will do little for thinking skills I think other than promote some self reflection in the kid.
            “So ‘recognition’ is a skill you teach? Do you go into much detail on the “concept of recognition”…or just stick to “how to recognise” something?…because I think they could probably already do that.”
            I talk to all of my students about recognition as recognition is a key is clearly a key cognitive skill. I tell them in this instance how to recognise the structure of a syllogism so that when they see a problem they can look for and identify the structure. They then simply apply the rules and away they go. I simply picked syllogism as an example. The more interesting is when looking with kids at the mistakes to be made when looking at a problem and treating it as a syllogism when it does not have the form.
            “But in what sense would you use a syllogism to ‘identify an appropriate problem’?…and I’ve done ‘feedback’.”
            As explained, I am helping the kid to identify suitable problems that will be solved when they are identified as syllogisms. My experience is that kids get better with practice and feedback and note the comment about errors in application above.
            “I’d say the skills you claim to teach are, in fact, a series of simple rules to apply in given situations. and If that equates to a ‘skill’…what doesn’t?”
            At last we agree. Just like riding a bike is simply the remembering how to turn the pedals, how to get on and off without falling over, how to move ones body to avoid overbalancing so everything in life is about rules, except for the fact that we encounter new situations for which we have no rules and we have to resort to experimenting with new ones. Skills in the cognitive domain, skills in the psychomotor domain, skills in the effective domain…all skills, all rules.
            Do you teach ‘remembering’?…Just because you can jump 2 feet into the air monkeyfish, does not make you an astronaut. Just because a kid can find my classroom, does not mean that they cannot be taught strategies for improving their memory i.e. “remembering.
            I would thank you monkeyfish for taking the time to discuss this stuff. Tb provides some very thought provoking ideas here and I appreciate that people spend their precious time commenting.


  17. Wonderful stuff this, brilliant blog, like a mud-wrestle I’ve been watching for hours and itching to get involved. Now, what the hell…

    I think some people need to remove their heads from their backsides and stop getting so bothered about over-intellectualised issues that don’t really amount to much. So what if a 10year-old kid does a bit of philosophical thinking? This doesn’t ‘dumb-down’ philosophy; in fact I’m willing to bet not one word of Kant’s ‘Moral Law’ has been rewritten because of it. My 4yr-old was kicking a ball around the garden earlier; it is not going to bring the whole edifice of world football crashing down if I say he’s been playing footy. He’s not at the level of Wayne Rooney, but so what, he kicked the ball repeatedly and so to my mind that constitutes football.

    I do think though, that there’s a really serious issue regarding the entry of neuro-science etc into education. There is a big gap between educators (let’s call them teachers) and neuro-scientists. This gap has been filled by the marketeers. Lots of schools are wasting lots of money making lots of ‘therorists’ (or authors) really quite financially comfortable. Meanwhile we have loads of kids running around primary schools announcing that they are resilient intra-personal auditory reflective red-hat learners. The Scottish girl who won in the courts regarding being able to listen to her iPod in an exam is the logical conclusion of this. I can’t understand why everyone was so up-in-arms about it; she’s been badly taught to believe a bad theory. I teach VAK to Year9 kids, by giving them 3-5 of the ‘VAK Tests’ freely available and when they all come out with completely different results for each, ask them to plan & write an essay on why it is rubbish.

    That said, I am an advocate of developing cognitive capacities within the classroom, I believe that it can be (and is daily) done. Or at the very least, we can lay the foundations. I am intrigued teachingbattleground / @oldandrewuk, you are a very fine critical thinker, as I have seen above and in the recent spat you got into regarding schools hiding kids & teachers when Ofsted come knocking. You can take an argument and dismatle it extremely effectively. Your knowledge of, and ability to spot, strawmen is simply immense. So how did this happen? Was it taught, by some (gulp) teacher? Is it innate, you were reading Schopenhaur at 6months? Was it self-directed? as in you knew how to learn this stuff, did you guess or had some teacher laid the foundations? Maybe, if this is the case, they’d even taught you how to learn? Even, as I suspect, if you put this down to a university education, don’t tell me that a) any of your good teachers at school didn’t lay any foundations for you, or b) that as a 10yr-old you weren’t gazing round your surroundings asking what-seemed at the time crazy questions, wondering things, speculating, reasoning with yourself??

    Again, this blog is brilliant as you’ve very evidently found a niche, a USP, swimming against the prevalent leftist constructavist tide within teaching. It’s a tide that carries me, but the world is a better place for challenging, thought-provoking & contraversial blogs like this.


  18. Spat? You mean this: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2011/06/what-happens-when-things-go-wrong-a-video-of-adrian-elliots-talk-at-sunday-times-education-festival/ ?

    With regard to philosophy within schools, I take your point but actually I do think we have problems with dumbed-down philosophy. I remember a Radio Four poll a few years back that named Marx as the best philosopher of the last millenium. I’ve seen Richard Dawkins listed as a philosopher on a facebooik philosophers app. I’ve frequently encountered people (in one case a vicar with an A-level in sociology) who think that relativism is the cutting edge of philosophy. I have lost count of how many times I have to slowly explain that philosophy is not simply the expressing of personal opinions, even on http://forums.philosophyforums.com Dumbed-down philosophy is a real obstacle to effective thinking, and I do think that the various programmes for teaching philosophy to very young children, not to mention the mess that is RE, has played a huge role in this. It often looks like nothing more than an effort to indoctrinate kids into relativism. Some of the Philosopher’s Zone http://www.abc.net.au/rn/philosopherszone/ programmes on philosophy in schools have me choking.

    Now, as you can possibly tell, I am someone who really likes philosophy when done properly. But like a lot of people with that interest I started by studying my own discipline, and other disciplines that interested me, in some depth and then extended that interest into philosophy. I think that’s the best way to go which is why I like MacIntyre’s argument about leaving philosophy until after gaining a solid footing in other relevant disciplines. Mary Midgley has argued something similar in some of her books, arguing in favour of joint degrees in philosophy.

    I am not against people learning philosophy, any more than I am against them learning to think critically, I am just of the view that we learn from the specific to the general and so it is best to start learning both within conventional academic disciplines.


  19. tb

    “Now, as you can possibly tell, I am someone who really likes philosophy when done properly”

    As described by a poster earlier you are clearly interested in the subject, are well read put forward some interesting and challenging views.

    As one who has trodden the path somewhat, what is the difference between philosophy done properly and philosophy done improperly.

    I think actually this is one of the more profound issues you have mentioned here.

    What do you mean by properly?


    • I really don’t intend to turn these comments over to an in-depth discussion of the nature of philosophy. I hope it’s obvious that I view philosophy done properly as a rigorous academic discipline with its own methods and standards, and not just a sharing of opinions, or worse, an indoctrination into relativism.


      • That’s cool. I only asked because you raised the issue of teaching Philosophy in school and explained that you had an objection as you thought that Philosophy should be done properly.


        • You are doing that thing where you focus on one line of what has been said, and ignore the rest of the argument.


  20. There had already been a great deal of discussion around thinking skills and whether is is possible to teach thinking skills. You then suggested that the thrust of your argument was about whether generic thinking skills could be taught or whether they could only be taught in the context of subject domains.
    You included in your oroiginal post a 217 word quote of McIntyre added to which you spent a couple of paragraphs explaining your views. You then talked recently about philosophy in schools, you were not coerced to do so and you said as part of your post that you thought that Philosophy needs to be done properly.
    We had already done thinking skills to death and I was simply interested to know what you meant by properly, in the context of teaching philosophy in schools.
    I was not referring to one line at all, but about 1/4 of your original post and subsequent posts. I did say “thats cool” as it is your blog and you didnt want to do “properly” in detail, thats your call not mine.To suggest that I had ignored the rest of the “argument” seems a little strange, but then it is your blog and that is your perogative to be able to say whatever you wish, whether grounded in reality or not.
    I will give up at this point and let others revive this one or simply let it die with dignity.
    As I said earlier, a very interesting topic and i would thank you for the opportunity to take part.


    • Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear enough.

      Your question is impossible to answer without massive repetition of what I had already said, and, therefore, any detailed discussion of it would only seem appropriate to somebody who was not familiar with what I had already said.

      Do you understand?


  21. I had to comment to your post. I am a “creative” in the truest sense of the term: I actually create things in an artistic capacity that do not exist.

    But whenever I hear someone talking about “creativity”, I always prick my ears up because that word usually signifies an excuse of some kind — in most cases, to avoid doing a job properly or to excuse shoddy work. In my experience, the people that talk about “creativity” are usually poor creatives themselves because true art requires the mastery of discipline and rules; they are also the ones that seems to think art is some sort of innate talent.

    I know a lot of artists, writers and sculptors, and I do not think I have ever heard any of them use the term “creative” aside from employing it as a slight criticism. The words almost everybody will use are “imagination”, “concept”, “idea” or “vision”, so no one is ever “creative”, they are “visionary”, for example.

    To my mind, the whole notion of “creativity” is a load of rubbish spouted by people who really have no idea how to create something original from nothing.


  22. Very curious. You may have seen Debra Kidd’s petition linked on twitter in which she suggests Willingham is in support of thinking skills and that his ideas contradict Gove (or something like that). I made a comment posting the link to Willingham’s blog where he states that Gove has got the science right and suggested she contact him. She did not publish my comment but has sent me a number of unsolicited emails now to reassure me that she has been in contact with Willingham and he has no issues with what she has written. Hmmm.


  23. I’d really appreciate comments if anyone has read Debra Kidd’s piece on how it lines up with Willingham’s ideas because I must confess to being surprised.


  24. It’s OK actually I don’t think Willingham did support thinking skills! I think she is simply arguing that Gove is ‘anti skills’ rather than that he supports the sort of skills that develop through fluency of knowledge. By suggesting the ‘strawman’ that Gove is anti any skills she is then able to say that she can agree with Willingham as he acknowledges skills are important..Its amazing how all the pub quiz/Gradgrind nonsense is believed pretty uncritically. I have come across numerous people recently that realise it is hard to criticise Willingham so simply argue that because he acknowledges the existence of ‘skills’ that he supports the principles of a skills based curriculum.



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