Critical Thinking and all that

Here’s the text of an article I wrote for an internal DCU journal. Given the announcement today ( of a large new study into enquiry based learning at second level, I thought it might be timely to reproduce it here.

The Critical Thinking Deficit – A Personal View

It is commonplace these days for industry leaders, academics, bloggers and commentators to bemoan the fact that the current generation of students is unable to think critically. The argument goes that previous generations had this ability but that somewhere along the line our teaching methods, and the material we teach, have become obsolete and inappropriate for the complexities of the modern information age. There is a now a growing clamour for the critical thinking deficit to be addressed. But, how do we instil in our students the ability to think critically? There is a vast literature now on critical thinking and a quick perusal in will reveal huge numbers of textbooks and self-help books devoted to thinking and problem solving. Typically these books contain examples of problems solved by the particular strategies being promoted. Many of these problems, however, tend to be puzzles rather than real world problems – the sort of puzzle one encounters in standardised tests such as those used for entry to college in the U.S. But what of real world problems?

I believe an ability to solve challenging, real world problems is very much dependent on having deep knowledge (i.e. knowledge coupled with understanding), including knowledge of methods, relevant to the problem at hand. Of course, each field of study will have particular problem solving strategies that are appropriate to that field. In chemical engineering, we often encourage our students to start each problem by drawing a line diagram of the process. However, without a deep knowledge of mass and energy balances, the student will make no further progress.

I have taught in DCU for many years and in that time I have watched as many of my students advanced to study at PhD level. It is interesting to observe how raw undergraduates develop into successful scientists for whom critical thinking and problem solving is essential and routine. The explanation of most people would be that learning how to think is a key part of PhD training and it is this that produces the competent scientist. To a significant degree, this is true because a student simply must think critically to complete a PhD thesis. However, in the apprenticeship model of PhD education, critical thinking is rarely, if ever, taught formally. So how do these skills develop? I believe it is because the student has been immersed in the thesis topic and acquired a broad and deep knowledge which makes creative thinking and problem solving in this topic instinctive and a natural way of working. They are no longer the raw undergraduate with a superficial knowledge of a lot of different subjects. The novice has become an expert. Of course some of the skills they have acquired will translate to other fields and in time they may become experts in completely different areas but that will take time because they will have to acquire the necessary knowledge. My point, once again, is that critical thinking and deep knowledge are inextricably linked.

Going back to the start of this article, yes, I too believe that the current generation of students lacks critical thinking skills. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, Second and Third Level students generally do not have to think critically and are simply unaccustomed to thinking for themselves. This is our fault. Secondly, their knowledge is superficial making critical thinking almost impossible. Their knowledge is superficial partly because of the way we teach but also because students’ work and study habits are inadequate.

So, what should we do? What we should not do, in my opinion, is try to devise generic problem solving or creative thinking modules. Nor should we ‘water down’ content in an effort to make the learning process more attractive. Rather, we need to address the two causes mentioned above.

We can incentivise critically thinking by making examinations less predictable and more imaginative. These changes need to be done at both Second and Third Level. Making the Leaving Certificate examination less predictable and more imaginative will be difficult. Unpredictability is generally seen as being unfair by students, their parents and the whole ‘industry’ surrounding the examination. A change in mindset by many will be required. Furthermore, imaginative examinations will probably require less restrictive marking schemes, something that will naturally worry many people who will have concerns regarding consistency and fairness of marking. Making the appropriate changes at Third Level should not be a problem given that we have such control over what we teach, how we teach it and how we examine it.

So, what about the role of teaching itself? There is no doubt, in my view, that there is a problem in the teaching of fundamentals at both Second and Third Level. For example, students arrive in University with extremely poor writing and mathematical skills. It would appear that poor writing is being accepted at Second Level and students seem to be totally unaware of their weaknesses in this area. The poor standard of very basic mathematics has been discussed ad nauseam in the media and elsewhere. My view is that it is not the teacher’s fault per se but is indicative of a system dominated by predictable exams that make‘teaching to the exam’ inevitable. Regardless of the reasons for these basic deficits, we need, at Third Level, to recognise them as a fact of life and deal with them. At the very least, a radical overhaul of the first year experience is needed.

Finally, what of the students and their work and study habits? This is the proverbial elephant in the room. Over the last decade or so I have been lucky to teach quite a few mature students. They usually studied hard and performed well. In chatting to one particularly successful student, it was clear that he was genuinely shocked by an apparent lack of commitment shown by the current crop of students. Whether the problem is really a lack of hard work or an inability to work smartly is not clear at present. For example, one problem that I continually come across is the lack of attention to detail in students’ written assignments. The students have obviously put a lot of hard graft into their submission but they seem unable to stand back and look at it objectively. Maybe this is a natural consequence of the age we live in but whatever its causes it needs to be confronted.

One of my worries about the future of education in Ireland is that we will fail to recognise the crucial role that deep knowledge plays in developing effective thinkers. I fear that we will be drawn into devising un-validated approaches to teaching that may well be fun to teach and interesting, in a fleeting way, for the students, but will ultimately fail in their objectives. I believe that we need to go back to basics and ensure that all students have deep knowledge in their chosen subjects. Furthermore, we need to incentivise critical thinking. If we can do both of these things, the graduates of the future will be exactly the sort of people this society needs.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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4 Responses to Critical Thinking and all that

  1. revd rob says:

    Hi Greg, how to think is something which should be fostered and I doubt if it can be taught. As a baby develops we see them developing, playing, using their imaginations etc. Then we send them to school and almost force (teach) them to think in a certain way. The Leaving Cert further builds on this and in essence the ability to retain and reproduce facts. I love “Dead Poets Society” where Robin Williams tells his students to tear out all the first few chapters of a poetry book where the author puts his spin on what the various poems are about.

    • foleyg says:

      Hi Robert, glad to see you’re doing well – I follow your progress on Facebook!

      I think you’re right in many ways but I very much believe that without the basics it is very hard to become enthusiastic about anything. I like to use the sporting analogy when ranting at my students. Playing soccer or rugby is not much fun if you’re unfit and getting hockied every week. You have to put in the hard training and the benefit will come. I think it’s the same with academic work. If you don’t really know your maths, how can you enjoy the physical sciences. If you don’t understand basic grammar of a language (as I didn’t with Irish until a Christian Brother hammered it into us in fifth year, I don’t think you can ever get to love the language.

      It’s very difficult these days because to compete with all the distractions around, we have to make education both interesting and still teach the basic skills. I think we’ve fallen into a no man’s land where students are bored and not learning much at the same time, despite putting in the hours.

      I’ll develop these ideas in a future article! Very busy with writing a textbook at the moment.

  2. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Critical Thinking and all that

  3. Pingback: Knowledge | Joachims Beckh's Space

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