It is recognised among the General Capabilities of the Australian National Curriculum and figures prominently as the cornerstone of ‘21st Century Skills’.
This growing emphasis is not without reason. As jobs become increasingly automated and countries evolve towards becoming ‘knowledge economies’ — economic systems that capitalise on intellectual property, ideation and innovation — critical thinking takes pride of place among the skills for the future.
Socially and environmentally, we need critical thinkers, not just to analyse and solve ‘wicked’ problems like catastrophic climate change and social and economic injustice, but to be the norm within a population committed to collective responsibility for addressing problems of its own creation.
Dealing with the barrage of misinformation or simply being an effective consumer of scientific information in making decisions that affect one’s life depend on the capacity to ask critical questions, challenge assumptions and evaluate evidence. The need for critical thinking then is clear. The question for us as educators is how should we respond?
Our work with schools as part of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project (UQCTP) has led us to see that we cannot wait until students reach university to begin their training in critical thinking.
Universities have an obligation to prepare the next generation of ‘knowledge makers’ but that job is made much harder if entering students bring with them ingrained dispositions toward uncritical acceptance of received views and poor reasoning skills.
In their comprehensive 2017 review article What makes Scientific Reasoning so challenging? Shah and colleagues 3 conclude that “college students and laypersons rarely notice common inferential reasoning errors in everyday science contexts spontaneously, especially when they have beliefs or behaviours consistent with those claims”.
This ‘my-side bias’ is particularly hard to shift, and does not disappear simply by asking students to work more metacognitively within the contours of their disciplinary knowledge — for example, by consciously applying criteria to evaluate evidence 2.
Dedicated training in the norms of good reasoning and methods of argumentation enables students not only to become metacognitive but promotes the capacity for metacognitive evaluation — enabling them to hold themselves and others accountable for the quality of their reasoning. Metacognitive evaluation is arguably just another name for critical thinking.
The UQCTP has worked with schools and students since 2012, assisting with curriculum development for Queensland Department of Education programs like the IMPACT Centre Critical Thinking Series and Solid Pathways, both online course providers of training in critical thinking that can be accessed from any school within the state with internet access.
Solid Pathways is specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and blends critical thinking with STEM inquiry-based learning that is at the same time culturally responsive.
These are both successful programs in terms of supporting academic growth and building aspiration for university level study.
Since 2017 and in collaboration with the IMPACT Centre, the UQCTP has offered professional development in ‘teaching for thinking’ to teachers and school leaders in Queensland as well as other Australian states, Canada and the United States, and currently boasts over 800 teachers in its network.
The aim of the ‘teaching for thinking’ program is to provide teachers with an understanding of how to teach the content of their discipline in a way that promotes the development of an integrated set of cognitive skills, aligned with values and virtues of inquiry, and that enables them to focus and give feedback on the quality of their students’ thinking.
The development of teachers’ schematic understanding of teaching for thinking helps them bridge the theory-practice gap, lending itself to a deeper engagement with the minds of students1.
This discipline-agnostic approach to teaching critical thinking as a pedagogical rather than curriculum solution is being practiced in Queensland schools at every level from Prep to Year 12, by special needs teachers, and in some cases, for example, at Helensvale SHS, Park Ridge SHS and Brisbane Boys Grammar, it’s used as a whole-of-school teaching and learning strategy.
We recognise, given the ‘Is implies Can’ rule, that by claiming critical thinking is being successfully taught that that implies it can be taught. If it can be taught and there are social, economic and environmental imperatives for its being taught, we think that ‘can’, in this case at least, implies ‘should’.
If you would like to learn more about how to ‘teach for thinking’, you have only to ask.
- Hegazy, H., Ellerton, P., Campos-Remon, H., Zaphir, L., Mazzola, C., and Brown, D., 2021. Working from theory: Developing the bases of teachers’ critical thinking pedagogies through action research. Educational Action Research, pp. 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/09650792.2021.1877757
- McCrudden, M.T. and Barnes, A. 2016. Differences in student reasoning about belief-relevant arguments: a mixed methods study. Metacognition Learning, 11: 275–303 DOI 10.1007/s11409-015-9148-0
- Shah, P., Michal, A., Ibrahim, A., Rhodes, R. and Rodriguez, F. 2017. What makes Scientific Reasoning so challenging? Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 66: 251-299.