Thursday, February 4, 2010

Here's a Thought: Let's Banish Critical Thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking lately, and I’ve had it with critical thinking. Note the italics. I’ve had it with the term critical thinking, not the actual practice. From a recent immersion in thinking-related research, I’ve concluded that critical thinking is like the weather: everybody talks about it but few do anything about it.

No arena bandies the term about as widely as education. Few conferences fail to include at least one session devoted to the topic, and book vendors at these events hawk the latest tomes dedicated to it. Educators seem to agree on the need for students to learn to think critically, but that seems to be the end of their consensus. Ask three different educators for their definition of critical thinking and you’re likely to get at least four different ideas, and at least half of them will include a nod to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Somewhere in our history, many of us were convinced that if our questioning climbed a ladder and we called on students whose names we wrote on popsicle sticks and pulled randomly from a styrofoam cup, we were teaching students critical thinking.

Because of the confusion all these preconceived notions create, I propose that we stop talking about critical thinking and instead just think about thinking. To that end, I’ve started referencing a different model. Imagine thinking as a target. As any marksman knows, the center of the target is where you aim if you want the best result. However, though the center of this target represents the ultimate goal, the outer circles are not without value. Let’s examine the first of these outer circles: memorize.

Wait, don’t stop reading! I know memorizing lacks the flash and appeal of the target’s other circles, but our brains do indeed memorize information, sometimes without our consent. For example, I know every lyric to the 70’s classic but somewhat mind-numbing “Funkytown.” I never intentionally sat down and used flash cards to learn the lyrics. They just got stuck in my head, which is one way to define memorizing. We memorize when things get stuck in our heads, on purpose or otherwise.

When educators talk about memorizing, it’s usually with a scowl on their faces and the taste of battery acid on their tongues. Memorizing is so beneath us. We don’t have students memorize anything. Everything we teach is meaningful. It’s all the others—teachers who teach other disciplines—who make students memorize unnecessary information. We’re above such an approach. We climb questioning ladders and pull popsicle sticks, for pete’s sake!

But let’s be honest. Despite the fact that most everything factual can now be found quickly via technology, some information still possesses its greatest value when it’s memorized. At its best, memorizing enables efficiency in thinking and acting. For example, knowing how to spell the words critical and thinking saved me plenty of time in developing this post. If I didn’t know instantly how to spell most of the words I use in writing, I’d probably have far less to say. (I know what you’re thinking: that’d be a bad thing?) Can you imagine trying to compose any significant passage of writing if you had to stop and check your wireless device for the correct spelling of every word?

I once had an experience that provides a picture of what this might be like. My wife and I love going to the theater for live performances. One time, just before the curtain was raised on a new drama, the announcer spoke via the public address system: “Today the role of Countess Calista will be played by Jane Smith, script in hand.” Apparently the lead actress and her understudy were unavailable. Sure enough, Ms. Smith waltzed onto stage with “script in hand,” and read her lines throughout the performance. It was disjointed and distracting. So much so that I can’t even remember the name of play, let alone what it was about. Memorizing has its place, even when technology that can provide the next line or correct spelling exists.

However, at its worse, memorization becomes merely testable material that lacks any use beyond the end of an instructional unit. With such material, its measurability is often its sole benefit, and it’s a benefit for the teacher not the student. Unfortunately it seems that many schools would rather aim for this outermost circle, decreasing the likelihood of hitting any part of the thinking target. But if we aim for and even hit this outermost circle, we have problems. Memorizing, while valuable when engaged selectively, has its limits.

First, students who only memorize remain subject to dogma’s sway. Parroting is evidence of memorizing, and a student who has highly developed memorizing capacity without equally developed processing abilities will tend to repeat the ideas of others, often without understanding.

Second and relatedly, students only equipped to memorize tend to accept without question. Such individuals tend to take the words that fall from the mouths of people they like and repeat them whether they are true or not. Since they lack the ability to process the ideas the words represent, accepting and repeating those words become the individual’s way of “thinking.”

Third, individuals who rely solely on memorizing as thinking cannot entertain or even understand conflicting ideas. That which they’ve memorized becomes their sole reference, so anything new must conform with the previously memorized information.

In short, merely memorizing severely limits an individual. So, while hitting the outermost circle represents one element of mental activity, always aiming there produces individuals I don’t think most schools and teachers would claim as their intended outcome. We need to consider the inner circles (and we will in future posts) and actually teach students the cognitive skills associated with them. Popsicle sticks and questioning variety alone won’t get us there.

Let’s think about thinking—teaching it, increasing it, developing students who actually can do it—but let’s leave our confusing dance with critical thinking behind.

Top Image: 'la linea della vita, nichilismo'


Alan Stange said...

This was fascinating as far as it went. Please come back to the topic and discuss the the inner circles. I like the target concept.

Ben Grundy said...

Thanks for this post. It's an interesting model of thinking that you've presented. At this stage, I see some areas of question, but still like the idea. I'm keen to read more about it.

I've written a more detailed response on my blog here

Thanks ~ Ben.

Todd I. Stark said...

I strongly agree with the perspective that "critical thinking" as commonly perceived is a small part of thinking, a tool set with identifiable strengths and weaknesses. Its role in thinking depends on what sort of thinking we are doing. This post seems to focus admirably and elegantly on the role of critical thinking skills in learning. Critical thinking also plays a role in problem solving and decision making processes, which I think would be best represented by a slightly different visual.

This seems like a useful approach to placing different "thinking skills" into a larger perspective, I'd enjoy seeing more on this as well.

Thanks and kind regards,

Todd Stark

Mike and Kari said...

Just curious if "learn" in your target is the same as Bloom's "Understand"? I would say that all of the rings of the target are learning, just thinking. I agree with Alan that you should continue your discussion of the other parts of the target. Thank you for the "thoughtful" post (sorry I could't help myself).

Nancy said...

I agree with much of what you say in this post and also look forward to following further development of your ideas. Yet again, in education, we've taken an idea and hammered it into the ground, the remains often so distorted that its unrecognizable from the original intent, thus reducing it to a buzz word.
One point of confusion for me rests in your linkage of "popsicle sticks...pulled randomly from a styrofoam cup" and thinking skills. In my view, one is not related to the other. Use of popsicle sticks (or any other selection system) is an engagement/organizational/management strategy unrelated to the level of thinking sought through the questioning or activity. In many classrooms I visit, teachers call upon the same students over & over. Students quickly figure out which students get called upon and what their chances are of remaining "invisible." Many students sit around, completely disengaged from the lesson; they have no incentive to attend to to the lesson since the odds of being called upon are very low. Using some method of calling upon students often increases the attentiveness of students in the class. The appropriate, intentional use of "popsicle sticks" (and, believe me, I've also seem them MISused in ridiculous ways), is about participation, not thinking.

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Nancy, my comment on the popsicle sticks was not to imply that a method of calling on students randomly and consistently was a bad idea. It's the thinking that this practice combined with some type of taxonomy is equal to teaching "critical thinking." Certainly all students should be called on for input throughout the school day, and some system often seems to help the teacher accomplish this.

Derek Keenan said...

Another well-considered post. I too would like to see further development of this concept. In addition, there is a sense I am gaining in many places that it is the 'strategies' and platitudes about the key concepts in education that become our downfall. Too often in the name of simplicity and expediency we take out the essential learning behind a concept in order to simply 'use it.' This makes for some great tricks to take away from a convention, but they truly are tricks. The real magic of education is a deep and thorough understanding of the ideas we are using. Bloom's Taxonomy is a rich and deep model (though dated and incomplete) that can still offer much to a classroom, if used appropriately. I guess it all comes down to what we do with these ideas, rather than just the ideas themselves.

debschi said...

I think memorizing works when it's applied (and needs to be applied) and I don't mean for a one time test. For instance your spelling example, your acting example, or a doctor or nurse who's memorized the steps to a procedure or body parts! It's a good skill to have: to how to know how to memorize,but it's simply a starting point.

Karen Giesler NBCT said...

I love this concept. Your target model will give me another way to talk to my gifted students about what learning feels like. I currently tell them I am interested in how the think, not how they remember. I know I have failed if they can quickly scribble on a paper or shoot their hands up proudly yelling, "Got it." Sure signs they were recalling and restating previous learning. I tell my students I have succeeded when I see scratching of heads, quizzical looks, and a delay between the time the question is posed and an answer is attempted. I want my kids to know that learning doesn't always come easily. I want them to empathize with peers who experience the discomfort of not knowing "the right answer" quickly and correctly every day and in every subject. The focus on thinking versus learning helps my students learn they are capable of discovering solutions to challenging problems and developing answers to difficult questions through hard work, appropriate risk-taking, and confidence in their abilities.