Critical thinking and critical values


I’m returning to this topic, long after the Twitter heat is off and maybe too late to be of much use to fast moving bloggers.

It all seemed to start with Willingham’s article; somebody read it and told The Education Secretary Mr. Gove about it.

He said; ‘Daniel Willingham again makes the point powerfully in his work when he points out that, “research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills that teachers want for students – such as the ability to analyze and think critically – require extensive factual knowledge.” ( …. ) As Daniel Willingham demonstrates brilliantly in his book, memorisation is a necessary pre-condition of understanding. Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the memory – so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles – do we really have a secure hold on knowledge. Memorising scales, or times tables, or verse, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us this mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.’

The best way to build memory, Willingham said, is by the investment of thought and effort which Mr. Gove told us means the thought and effort we require for exam preparation and testing.

Mr. Gove explained that because tests require students to show they have absorbed and retained knowledge – and can reproduce at will – they require teachers to develop the techniques which hold students’ attention and fix concepts in their minds. That will mean deploying entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths. Tests drive creativity at every level.

He then went step further to say that tests they drive equality. The seventh reason we need exams is to ensure our society is ordered on the basis of fairness. And merit.’

Mr. Gove is a journalist. The way he built his argument is interesting. He cites the evidence and interprets it for us. Learning is a linear process, memorisation of facts comes before understanding, because it gives us ‘mental equipment’ for ‘performing advanced functions’. Testing memorisation not only demonstrates what facts the student has stored but also drives creativity it ensures social equality built on fairness and merit. This is how I’d summarise his argument:

‘Facts and concepts are the same thing. Critical thinking requires extensive factual knowledge. The first task of teachers is to ensure that students memorise facts as unprocessed data. The second task is to test the accuracy of memorisation. Tests require students to reproduce the facts they have learned. Tests drive creativity and social equality and both understanding and knowledge are expressions of remembered facts. Consequently the school teacher’s job is to hold students’ attention in order to fix concepts in their minds by the use of specific techniques such as entertaining narratives, striking practicals and the unveiling of hidden patterns.’

In ‘Critical thinking – why is it so hard to teach?’ Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, said that the ability to think critically depends on domain knowledge and practice. He calls critical thinking ‘doing what the metacognitive strategies call for’. He says critical thinking is not a skill nor is it a set of  skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.

A journalist and a psychologist giving firm advice here on education, the occupation of teachers. Why is that? Is teaching subsidiary to other professions and only understandable from within their paradigms?

As a teacher I might put the question the other way round; ‘What makes critical thinking hard to learn?’ We’re all agreed, Gove, Willingham and me, that critical thinking exists. The Cognitive Psychologist says ‘critical thinking can’t really be taught because the processes of thinking are intertwined with content.’ The ‘intertwining’ metaphor refers to a very physical model of the brain and its workings. This paradigm is based on the positivist view of reality, where something must be a concrete thing for it to be analysed and verified. The fact that the objects of study of psychology are non-physical, like thoughts and memories, makes their research more complicated because things that are not measurable have to be represented by things that are, or might be. Whatever, The Journalist accepts the paradigmatic truths of The Psychologist and believes that the amount and quality of the information in the brain’s physical memory store, facts and concepts being the same thing, are represented by the answers in the examination booklet.

Willingham, in speaking about teachers, said; ‘People who have sought to teach critical thinking (CT) assume it’s a skill like riding a bicycle and it is generalisable – once you’ve learned it you can apply it in any situation.’ This implies that CT is fixed, not related to context , reproducible in exactly the same form at different times, stable information. This is the definition of information, raw data; therefore form this perspective, a skill is raw data. However, Willingham has a more nuanced view, which has got lost in Mr. Gove’s interpretation. What Willingham says about thinking processes and information content being ‘intertwined’ rings true to me as a teacher. Managing the relationship between know-what and know-how and using the appropriate pedagogical approach to use their intertwined nature as an aid to learning is the job of teachers. In the classroom it’s both content and thinking that matter and they seem to happen simultaneously.

Willingham also says that if you remind a student to Look At A Problem From Multiple Perspectives often enough, she’ll store an LAAPFMP information chunk which will be available in context, but she will probably not implement the advice without background knowledge and practice.

This means that it’s possible to teach information sets relating to physical action that can be assessed in the form of the skills the learner can do – like bike riding – the reproduction of raw data in an information set. Information sets can also be learned which apply to mental action, thinking critically.

All this is about Know-What, raw information. However if the raw information (background knowledge in Willingham’s terms, Know-What in my terms) is to be brought into use in a non-physical action, like thinking, it requires practice. This is thinking practice, or rehearsal. It’s information, not knowledge which is produced in context in the moment of expert performance, what I call Know-How (K-W).

Why should we as teachers be critical of conclusions arrived at through work carried out in a non-teacher paradigm? Willingham’s positivist paradigm is based on the ontology/epistemology/methodology structure. As an experienced researcher and writer in cognitive psychology he stays true to his paradigm. Looking across his paper he focuses on information and the storage  and organisation of information. The ‘subject’ is no more than a site at which the processes under investigation are located.  The student as a person, with hopes, likes and dislikes – with values – is not a valid object of study in this paradigm.

That’s what is missing in his explanation and in Mr. Gove’s analysis. As I’ve argued before, the teacher’s paradigm comprises ontology/epistemology/axiology/pedagogy. Axiology is what is missing in Willingham’s account because his paradigm excludes the person as an uncontrollable variable, in the positivist scientific tradition.

So what does this mean when we are thinking, as teachers, critically about critical thinking? Values are expressed through the actions of the person in shaping the world as they would like it to be, as an effect of their agency.

‘Transfer (of critical thinking skills) does occur’ notes Willingham and ‘is relevant for educators: transfer depends on student’s familiarity with deep structure and knowing she should look for in deep structure’. It also depends on whether or not she’s bothered. ‘Looking out for deep structures helps but it only takes you so far – the second factor that aids in transfer – despite distracting (of attention?) differences in surface structure – is knowing to look for a deep structure.’ Is she bothered?

Part of the fuss about direct instruction, drilling and rote memorizing of facts in order to construct the information store, has been the worry that some students and teachers  don’t buy into this approach. It’s all very well for Mr.Gove to talk about entertaining narratives and unveiling surprises like a classroom magician, but in the middle of the either/or debate about ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’ there are people with agency. Unlike the glassware on the laboratory bench or the experimental rats in a cage they can always walk out, or at least not pay attention. This is where the discussion has gone wrong. Willingham treats the critical thinker as a mechanical object. Teachers don’t operate in this reality – a classroom is a community of people, all of whom have values. And Mr. Gove has missed the point.

I’m going to end this with an invitation to have a look at two pieces of writing. The first is a 2011 literature review of ‘Critical Thinking’. Initially I included it in this blog, but it runs to 20 pages so I’ve put a link to it.

I think it’s a useful and balanced review that raises some interesting questions. Not least is this question of values in the teacher paradigm. In the section on ‘Dispositions’ Lai notes; ‘However, a small minority of experts also argued that critical thinking must fulfill ethical standards to be truly critical. According to this argument, a defense attorney using critical thinking abilities and dispositions to get her guilty client acquitted would not be a critical thinker (Facione, 1990).’ And in the section on ‘Importance of background knowledge’ Lai says ‘Too much of value is lost if critical thinking is conceived of simply as a list of logical operations and domain-specific knowledge is conceived of simply as an aggregation of information.’

Also read Brian Edmiston’s excellent article on teaching and values ( )

Axiology – The Elephant in the Room

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