Posted by: Gregory Linton | 10/24/2019

Two reports explain how to teach critical thinking

In the last two weeks, two major articles have been published that explain how to develop critical thinking in college students. I will summarize the main points here, but instructors will benefit from reading the full articles.

The first article is a 13-page white paper by Daniel T. Willingham titled “How to Teach Critical Thinking,” which was published in the series Education: Future Frontiers by the State of New South Wales Department of Education. Willingham is a well-known expert on the relation of cognitive science to learning. Although he focuses primarily on K-12 education in this article, his discussion is relevant for higher education also.

He focuses on critical thinking as successful, effective thinking, and he argues that it can be taught. He discusses the contentious issue of whether general critical thinking skills can be transferred to different domains, and he concludes that critical thinking is domain-specific. Different domains (such as science or history) have different definitions of what it means to know something, and they apply analysis, synthesis, and evaluation in different ways. Because of this, students must possess enough content knowledge in a domain to be able to perform critical thinking.

Willingham proposes a four-step process to develop a program to teach critical thinking:

  1. Identify a list of specific critical thinking skills for each subject domain, and then teach and practice them.
  2. Identify subject matter content for each domain.
  3. Plan the sequence in which knowledge and skills should be taught.
  4. Plan which knowledge and skills should be revisited across years.

The other article is titled “New Directions in the Teaching of Critical Thinking.” The author is Martin Davies, who is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Melbourne and co-editor of the Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education. The article was published in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 51(5), 18-27.

Davies acknowledges the difficulty of defining “critical thinking,” but he concludes that the common element in most views of critical thinking is that it has to do with the process of, and knowledge of, argumentation. Although every university would list critical thinking as one of their learning objectives, Davies opines that universities actually do not succeed in teaching critical thinking, primarily because they do not implement an explicit strategy for doing so.

Davies proposes using the approach of computer-aided argument mapping (CAAM) to enhance skill development in critical thinking. Software programs such as the fee-based Rationale and the free MindMup can aid this process, but it is possible to do it with paper and colored pens.

The process of argument mapping involves the following eleven steps:

  1. Establish if the passage is advancing an argument (with reasons, objections, and rebuttals) and not merely making an assertion.
  2. Number any independent claims in a passage of text, ensuring that each claim is a singular statement. Ignore filler words.
  3. Eliminate any redundancy in the sentences and list the claims given in the argument under consideration.
  4. Establish the conclusion, contention, or point of the passage.
  5. Establish the first level of main reasons that are offered in support of the contention.
  6. Group claims that might be similar in nature under claims that might be assumed and yet not formally stated in the argument.
  7. Identify claims that support other claims rather than the contention, which are called “co-premises” or “linked premises.”
  8. Include any objections to the contention.
  9. Include any reasons that are supporting other reasons.
  10. Include any objections to objections, which are called “rebuttals.”
  11. Where applicable, include any “terminal evidence” supporting the reasons or objections.

Davies presents evidence that learning to use argument maps improves critical thinking skills by .8 SD compared to groups that do not. Also, some studies suggest that gains in critical thinking using argument maps are triple that of other ways of improving critical thinking. Unlike Willingham, Davies believes this approach to critical thinking is transferrable across the curriculum.


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