Thinking SkillsJune 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.
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