Rethinking the Way Colleges Teach Critical Thinking

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For the past couple years, I’ve been working as a science communicator on two fronts, as a freelance science writer and a community college Earth science instructor. I’ve seen, from many angles, the difficulty people have understanding and assessing scientific issues. With topics that are publicly contentious, those difficulties rarely arise from a simple lack of understanding. Other things get in the way. A student once said to me, “Well, I’m a conservative, so I don’t believe in climate change.” The frankness of that statement opens up a window into the obstacles science faces in the public sphere. (If only those who post internet comments were as honest with themselves…)


The combination of science writing and education has influenced my approach to both, which share a common, overarching goal: to reach out to people and present them with the power, wonder, and relevance of science. Like most educators, one of my central aims is to impart critical thinking skills— to help students make sound decisions in a confusing world of conflicting information, sales pitches, and smooth-talking politicians.

Though critical thinking is universally regarded as a pillar of higher education (including by employers seeking college graduates), results show that students are not developing their critical thinking skills to the extent we expect. For their 2009 book,Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipsa Rocksa followed a little over 2,300 college students through their first two years of school. They found “a barely noticeable impact on students’ skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing” and “no statistically significant gains [in these skills] for at least 45 percent of the students.”

These students may be learning things, but they’re not becoming better thinkers or writers. That’s a remarkable failure to realize the promise of a college education—and that disappointing reality actually appears to have gotten considerably worse over the last few decades. It’s irrelevant how much blame should be placed on the school and how much on the students. We must get better results.

Written By: Scott K. Johnson
continue to source article at blogs.scientificamerican.com

9 COMMENTS

  1. Deductivism in mathematical literature and inductivism in
    scientific papers are simply the postures we choose to be seen in when the
    curtain goes up and the public sees us. The theatrical illusion is shattered if
    we ask what goes on behind the scenes. In real life discovery and justification
    are almost always different processes.

    — Sir Peter B. Medawar

    Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought
    (1969), 26

  2. Alternative Carpark
    Nice. Except that training in critical thinking should begin in elementary school.

     

    The scientific methodology of conducting “A FAIR TEST” and reaching conclusions from results, is a key part of the UK National Curriculum.

    Level 3
    Pupils respond to suggestions and put forward their own ideas about how to find the answer to a question. They recognise why it is important to collect data to answer questions. They use simple texts to find information. They make relevant observations and measure quantities, such as length or mass, using a range of simple equipment.
    Where appropriate, they carry out a fair test with some help, recognising and explaining why it is fair. They record their observations in a variety of ways. They provide explanations for observations and for simple patterns in recorded measurements. They communicate in a scientific way what they have found out and suggest improvements in their work.

    Level 4
    Pupils decide on an appropriate approach, including using a fair test to answer a question, and select suitable equipment and information from that provided. They select and use methods that are adequate for the task. Following instructions, they take action to control obvious risks to themselves. They make a series of observations and measurements and vary one factor while keeping others the same.  
    They record their observations, comparisons and measurements using tables and bar charts and begin to plot points to form simple graphs. They interpret data containing positive and negative numbers. They begin to relate their conclusions to patterns in data, including graphs, and to scientific knowledge and understanding. They communicate their conclusions using appropriate scientific language. They suggest improvements in their work, giving reasons. –
    http://www.education.gov.uk/sc

     

    Level 4 is the standard expected for a normal 11 year old.  As expected, some would be above or below this.

  3. Yes, but the effect is more on a subconscious level. Discussing critical thinking more directly on philosophical grounds would also be useful. There seem to be a ‘concord agreement’ (oooh conspiracy!) to not tackle these subjects too early. 

    Instead of Bible Studies, I would have been more interested in learning about the Socratic method and epistemology.

  4. Well, I noticed that many people are seriously afraid of science let alone critical thinking. In any discussion where I question someone’s belief, regardless of the subject, people become agitated which draws the discussion into a personal bickering. I’m then accused of being too critical. It doesn’t really matter if I start with telling them I respect their point of view. Ones I ask them how they arrived at that point the war is on.

  5.  

    papa lazaru
    Yes,
    but the effect is more on a subconscious level. Discussing critical
    thinking more directly on philosophical grounds would also be useful. 

     

    Philosophical discussions are fine, but the concrete level materials and foundations I pasted, are needed for primary school children to build on.

      There seem to be a ‘concord agreement’ (oooh conspiracy!) to not tackle
    these subjects too early.  Instead of Bible Studies, I would have been more interested in learning about the Socratic method and epistemology.

    There are certainly those who like Bible study indoctrinations, to precede and impair critical thinking!

     

  6. “A student once said to me, “Well, I’m a conservative, so I don’t believe in climate change.”” ?!?!??!?!

    Is it possible that a student in the XXI century can give up his/her inquiring mind just because of ideology?. Anyone can, or cannot, believe in climatic change regardless of ideology; one only needs evidence to believe it or not to believe it. This reminds me when I was 10 years old, back in 1957, at a schoolmate’s home where I had gone to exchange some comics. We were commenting the news about Russia’s first “sputnik” and his mother said, “I’m a Christian, so I don’t believe men can invade God’s realm” and she added, “even less if these men are Godless people like Communists are” Sixty years have elapsed and people still stick to the same “logic” Something has gone wrong when young students think like this.

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