Tidbits on critical thinking

This post wanders a bit, but its central theme is “critical thinking”, which is defined as “reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do” by Robert H. Ennis of the University of Illinois’ Education Faculty. [1]

Critical thinking has been a little bit of a political “hot topic”; Texas Republicans in 2012 wrote that they “oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills,…critical thinking skills and similar programs…which…have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” [2]  Varleries Strauss blogged about the statement in 2012 for the Washington Post, citing a 2007 article by Daniel Willingham, the cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, who finds that “Decades of cognitive research” indicate that critical thinking can “not really” be taught [2].

Since critical thinking has to do with ideas, and as computer media visionary Ted Nelson has stated, “ideas are political”, it’s no real surprise to find idea analysis with respect to education as a part of a political platform.

What is intriguing is the apparent difficulty of teaching critical thinking, and the demand that it creates. Professor Emertius Eugene Fram of the Saunders College of Business, Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote in 2013 that “Four diverse groups are calling for the U.S. education system to assure the public that college graduates have acquired critical thinking skills.  These groups want graduates to be much better at analyzing, evaluating, and creating information-based viewpoints…”. [3]  The groups that Fram indicates request better critical thinking skills are 1) Primary and secondary educators; 2) College faculty and administrators; 3) Employers; and 4) Citizens concerned with building a civil society. [3]

In 2012, Martin Davies, Associate Professor and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Business and Economics Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, contrasted three traditional approaches to teaching critical thinking (normative, cognitive psychology, and educational) with the “visualization” approach utilizing computer-aided argument mapping (CAAM). [4]  The idea is that CAAM “minimises the cognitive burden of prose and the demands that arguments in prose typically place on memory.”  [5] Davies’ paper goes on, stating that that “CAAM is an important advance given that traditional stand-alone critical thinking courses do not teach critical thinking as well as they as they are assumed to do.  It is also important given that tertiary education fails to deliver improvements in critical thinking gains for too many students.” Davies finds “evidence that instruction in argument mapping results in critical thinking gains.…There are a small, but growing, number of dedicated studies in this relatively new area of research: 1) quanititative studies; 2) qualitiative studies; and 3) mixed studies outlining both empirical and quanititative data.”  Davies argues that “CAAM should be taken seriously in the context of contemporary education practices.” [5]

Outside of politics and academia, critical thinking has recently received additional attention—in the field of Emergency Medical Services (EMS).  The EMS Roundtable had “The Art of Critical Thinking” as a topic in a 2013 Classroom Conundrums podcast. [6]  EMS blogger Tim Noonan considers the topic of critical thinking to be “one of the most important in EMS”. [7]  In the discussion, we find out that guest and EMS textbook author Dan Limmer believes that critical thinking is important and can potentially be built in the classroom.  Dave Aber, the host and EMS education veteran, considers that “when you get out there in the field…making these split second decisions…that’s really what critical thinking is all about”.  Aber asks, “If you can’t do critical thinking…are you really that good of a provider?”  He goes on, “We’re not there to diagnose patients, but we really do need to come up with a differential diagnosis, and that really is based on critical thinking.”  Limmer defines critical thinking as “the ability to take in information from multiple sources and process it for a hopefully excellent decision”, and he believes that it can be developed in people.  He points out based on a MedScape review of a British Medical Journal of Quality and Safety article that “while wrong-site surgeries grab headlines, diagnostic errors that quietly occur in clinicians’ minds are the most frequent, most severe, and most costly of medical mistakes of paid malpractice claims.” [8]  Limmer says, “When you look through and see why someone did something wrong, it’s a diagnostic question, more times than anything else…We have more people getting in trouble for not picking the right protocol than for implementing the protocol wrong…So a lot of people will say that we don’t diagnose…You can call it a field diagnosis of presumptive diagnosis, but we have to start with and teach that mindset…Where are the problems with critical thinking?  Education, and expectations (we don’t diagnose), and practice (sometimes we’re not held accountable).  In education, we don’t expect it of students.  Educators feel they can just barely get classroom facts done, and wouldn’t nearly have the time to teach people to think.  Which is pretty absurd.  It’s all the same information, it’s just the application….We lecture with Powerpoints and say, why don’t people think?  In some ways, our education and educators aren’t geared toward thinking; not that they’re doing it intentionally, but we’re not putting people in a position to have to think enough.”  Aber says that people are taught “to pass a test, or a skill station”, and in the real world see that “this isn’t what the scenario or checklist was”.  “Not everyone fits into a protocol…we are seeing more and more..and we can do more and more…”.

The medical field is very far from the focus or expertise of this blog, and at this point it is not orginal to take jibes at Powerpoint [9], but the quotes above seemed worthy of highlighting in the context of this post.  They help raise and broaden the scope of a question that can be posed: For which fields might CAAM or Computer Supported Argument Visualization (CSAV) be supportive in the future?  There is a 2002 book called Visualizing Argumentation: Software Tools for Collaborative and Educational Sense-Making, which, according to it, is the first one directly on that topic. [9]  I do not have data on how much the adoption rate of visual argumentation software tools has changed in the 11 years since that book was releaed, but if I had to guess it would be “maybe a little”.

It will no doubt be interesting to see in what ways CAAM and CSAV are utilized to support Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) and Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) in the future.

[1] http://faculty.education.illinois.edu/rhennis/ConceptCT.html

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/texas-gop-rejects-critical-thinking-skills-really/2012/07/08/gJQAHNpFXW_blog.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eugene-fram/wanted-more-us-college-gr_b_4242062.html

[4] http://www.academia.edu/3616259/Computer-Aided_Argument_Mapping_and_the_Teaching_of_Critical_Thinking_Part_1_

[5] http://www.academia.edu/3616261/Computer-Aided_Argument_Mapping_and_the_Teaching_of_Critical_Thinking_Part_2_

[6] http://www.blogtalkradio.com/emsroundtable/2013/04/24/the-art-of-critical-thinking

[7] http://roguemedic.com/2013/04/the-art-of-critical-thinking-at-the-ems-roundtable

[8] http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/803026

[9] http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/11.09/ppt2.html

[10] http://www.visualizingargumentation.info