athinkinMuch of the last three weeks I have spent doing some writing in response to Requests for Proposals for instructional materials from school districts across the country (it’s that season). A new product that one of my clients is distributing is called Inquire, created by the Thoughtful Learning company. Its subtitle is A Student Handbook for 21st Century Learning, and it focuses on critical and creative thinking (part I), inquiry skills and process (part II), and projects to practice with in all four major subjects (part III).

For me, the most amusing part is that I was writing part of a response that will try to provide these instructional materials to a large Texas school district. Last summer, Texas Republicans decided that part of their political platform was the rejection of teaching critical thinking in schools:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

(Just as a side note, they also oppose mandatory preschool and kindergarten and work for the repeal of all early childhood programs. They say, “parents are best suited to train their children.” Cause, you know, most parents spend a lot of their time looking at the latest research on child development. Not, say, watching American Idol or scrolling through cute cat videos online.)

University of Manitoba instructor Leslie Paas looked back to our earlier readings on digital literacy, saying “a core component of 21st century skills  is the ability to understand and evaluate…to think critically.” This has little to do with technology and much to do with a particular way of approaching the world. And the Texan Republicans are correct in that helping children learn these skills challenges their fixed beliefs. Of course it does. That doesn’t always mean that the children (or adults) change their beliefs in response; they may even find ways to fortify them.

When I was in college, I took a course titled The Bible as Literature, taught by the wonderful Dr. David Hadas (father to poet Pamela Hadas, by the way). In the first day of learning, he talked about the requirements of the course, went over the syllabus…all the things you expect. He also added something new. He talked about the approach of the course, to treat the bible (both old and new testaments) as literature and as a compilation of stories that had different authors, slightly different mythologies, different time references, and so on. He said that like any writing, the bible has contradictions and gaps that we will examine and point out. And he said, “Whatever your religious beliefs, I respect them and we will respect each other. The course is designed to challenge your thinking and your reading: if you have strong religious faith, this course will probably not upset you. If you have strong anti-religious views, this course will probably not upset you. But if you’re wavering and unsure about what you believe or want to be challenged? You’ll probably struggle.”

So would a parent create a situation for a child that puts him or her in a position of critically examining the family’s own beliefs? Not likely. That seems to me to be the job of education—and that’s part of my hesitation when people, even some professors, start anticipating the “demise of public schools” and the “death of higher education” simply because the Internet makes so much knowledge so easily accessible. It’s scary to me that these ideas, many of them out of the Left, the people I generally agree with, would feed into the Texas Republicans’ anti-progress agenda. I just cannot abandon the idea that there is real value in public education and higher education, whatever their problems. (They produced me, for instance, and every moment of college and graduate school was a blessing, from my perspective.)

The thing is, despite all the reading I’ve done, I’m just not sure whether critical thinking is a skill to teach. Some research has shown lackluster results in programs designed to enhance students’ critical thinking skills. Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, concludes (p. 17) that critical thinking is context dependent and cannot be taught as a predefined set of “skills,” but there are metacognitive strategies (such as learning to avoid bias by trying to see both sides of a debate) that can help. Any aquisition of critical skills, he argues, depends on domain-specific practice (for example, solving math word problems) and the knowledge that results from that practice—again, as opposed to simply learning a supposed “skill” in isolation.

The research is clear that critical thinking cannot be conveyed like information or facts. But I do think it can be modeled, and it’s best modeled by a live teacher (or, at least, a teacher one interacts with whether live or online) actually doing the questioning in front of students (and see an interesting article about nursing here where the author uses the term “nurture” to describe a process of trying to convey critical thinking skills). I look back and know that the professors who taught me did that modeling within a specific domain (in this case, literature and history): for instance, parsing lines of poetry is a different sort of skill than creating lines of code.

So technology has its own set of domain-specific strategies that allow users to become more adept. The strategies include asking questions like  hey, this search didn’t work, so what can we do next? This link comes from XYZ website, so does that enhance its credibility? So-and-So TechBigWig recommends this software; is she getting a kickback and has she made that clear on her site? The cool thing is that the beliefs that come with technology aren’t as “fixed” as, say, religious ideology, so there seems to be a genuine opportunity for the questioning and playing around that is the first step for learning.

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