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Critical thinking research shows the path forward for local schools

The recent book "Academically Adrift" documented a widespread lack of improvement of critical thinking in many college students. Of the 2,300 plus students surveyed from 24 colleges, 45 percent failed to improve critical thinking over two years and 36 percent over four years. Researchers measured critical thinking using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which requires students to analyze data and arguments and write an essay on a practical topic using supplied source documents.

The authors identified the chief culprits to be too little demanding reading and writing, and a trend since the 1960s of studying less. Hours spent studying in groups or socializing in fraternities and sororities associated negatively with critical thinking improvement. Humanities and science students did better on average than business, education, and social work students, but that was largely attributed to the lesser amount of reading and writing required of the latter. As one educator put it, college credit doesn’t equate to learning.

This led me to a trio of questions. What is critical thinking, how can it be taught, are our schools teaching it?

The writings of academics in the field reveal that critical thinking focuses on a set of core thinking skills that are essential to problem solving: reaching conclusions with data/information as opposed to speculation/opinion, and analyzing assumptions, data, implications and inferences for relevance, completeness, bias, and quality.

Most definitions also include the core mental states of open-mindedness (my old friend) to other perspectives, new information, and self-examination, and curiosity/commitment to seek truth or insight rather than dominance of an opponent.

Although research on the ability to teach critical thinking has been going on for decades, it is especially hot now. In Spain, three studies were performed involving about 300 middle school students over four years. In the first study, students were randomly divided into a control group using the normal curriculum and an infusion critical thinking group which “infused” critical thinking concepts and exercises throughout the curriculum. The second study added another method of critical thinking instruction, an “explicit” critical thinking course devoted to explaining and practicing critical thinking.

Before the studies began, the teachers received 45 hours of training on how to teach critical thinking. Also, before and after the studies, the students took batteries of tests including separate measures of verbal, numerical, inductive, and creative thinking, intelligence, academic achievement, and self-regulation (the ability to set limits on oneself).

The first two Spanish studies showed that infusion critical thinking students had significant gains over than the control group in every category, including intelligence, creativity and self-regulation. The explicit critical thinking students also had impressive gains but not in as many categories. The third study showed that one year after critical thinking instruction ended, the infusion critical thinking gains not only persisted but increased, the explicit critical thinking gains increased only in verbal and persisted in most other areas, and the control group scores only persisted.

Another paper just published involved two studies of approximately 200 low-performing high school students in Los Angeles which showed that students given explicit critical thinking instruction made large gains in the test period. The infusion critical thinking students also gained but less significantly.

One possible explanation for the greater efficacy of the LA explicit critical thinking instruction is that it was built around topics of interest to those high school students including video gaming, music videos, sports, dieting, and legal scenarios. The Spanish explicit critical thinking instruction course was more academic.

I also ran across studies documenting significant gains from infusion critical thinking instruction in a high performing high school in Nebraska and from explicit critical thinking instruction using philosophical topics at a community college in Florida.

These exciting developments in critical thinking research may provide a golden opportunity for our local schools. In talking with local educators I learned critical thinking teaching here comes indirectly via modeling and subject-specific workshops. A more systematic approach may pay big dividends.

Some enhancements may not be expensive. Currently, local high school classes require little to no writing – a frequent complaint I hear from parents. The simple step of requiring high school students in every nonmath course to write and rewrite one or more analytic papers might well produce a little Spanish magic of our own.

Brian Faller, a local attorney, is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at brianfaller@comcast.net.

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