Willingham, D.T. (2007). Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? American Educator, 31(2), 8-19.
Guilty as charged. Frequently my copy of American Educator makes it to the trash before I have cracked the cover. I have tried to read it a few times, but typically have found that it often did not meet my professional needs or interests. As I was eating breakfast this morning I could not help but note a statue of Rodin’s “The Thinker” and an enticing lead-in on the cover asking the question--“Can Critical Thinking Be Taught?” My curiosity had been substantially piqued, so I took the magazine downstairs to read with my Sunday coffee.
This article was a delight to read. Willingham elaborated on the characteristics of many failed critical thinking programs of the past, given that they only tended to focus on reasoning in and of itself and not without the necessary background knowledge. Examples included Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment, Covington’s Productive Thinking, or de Bono’s Cognitive Research Trust (p. 12). However, the shortcomings of such programs relate to the difficulty in the importance of using a student’s background knowledge to reason out new conclusions.
He gives an interesting example--a story problem relating a marching band with rows of 12, leaving one person behind, then a reconfiguration of columns of 8, with one person behind, and finally rows of 3 with one person behind. The person behind said rows of five would take care of the problem. The problem indicated there were at least 45 musicians on the field, but fewer than 200…how many students were there? Willingham noted that few people answered the question correctly because they tended to focus on marching bands, rather than the math behind the problem. He also indicated that the problem before (one relating to vegetables) could be solved in much of the same way. When students were clued into that fact--more of them answered correctly (by the way-my guess to the answer is 145-the answer would have to be N/5 would have a remainder of zero and N-1 must be divisible by 12, 8, and 3…I found the problem easier to solve once I stopped thinking of it as a story.) He indicates that by looking beyond the surface structure, one can master things so much more easily.
Three thoughts came flooding to my cortex. The first was Horn’s final chapter in CIA2 (see my prior post) particularly related to expertise abilities. His regular examples of playing chess by two different processes (he goes into inductive primarily and then transformed to deductive when expert) can also be conceptualized by looking at things from the surface and deep structure perspectives.
My second thought was how this is related to schema theory and set shifting--something I wish the article had addressed. Typically we use our background knowledge (and we need it) to think critically. However, another important component we need is the ability not to view what we see so rigidly. Sometimes we must alter our cognitive paradigms to reach the answer (consider the above problem).
Finally, I thought about the essence of the article in terms of CHC theory. Clearly, an important component to critical thinking (particularly as it pertains to later secondary and post-secondary education) is not simply Gc-but it is Gc X Gf…or a Gc/Gf interaction. Only by using both ability domains in combination can we see relationships, draw conclusions, and then write or comment using persuasive arguments. It’s an interesting idea for an Aptitude-Treatment Interaction (ATI) research study--I predict that one might need both high Gc and Gf to meaningfully affect a dependent variable we might call “critical thinking”. By the way, for what it’s worth, I used my background knowledge of human cognition and my inductive abilities of overlap to draw conclusions and write this blog entry--it seems Willingham could be right.
I will be careful not to hastily throw out my copy of American Educator so quickly in the future.
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