Adult learning in context - an example of the learning of broad scientific thinking in higher education
People are confronted today with a very complex life, where skills to search and evaluate knowledge are needed in order to build an understanding of different a phenomena. Adults in general, and higher education graduates in particular, need skills to cope with the complex problems of working life, which require the capability to make evidence-based decisions in collaborative and multidisciplinary' contexts. Evidence-based decision-making further requires understanding how knowledge is built in our society. Giere, Bickle, and Mauldin (2006) state that understanding scientific reasoning would be important for anyone because of the current big issues such as the global warming. According to them, understanding scientific reasoning requires many sub-abilities such as understanding and evaluating of theoretical hypotheses, statistical models, probability, correlation, and causation. Especially' university' graduates need skills such as those listed by Giere and colleagues (2006) above. However, as previous studies have shown, many' university' students have serious difficulties in learning these skills on research methods courses (e.g., Murtonen, 2015), denoting that these are not easy skills to leam (for more about university students’ logical reasoning skills and complex epistemological thinking, see also Chapter 3).
The skills that Giere and colleagues (2006) point out as important in understanding our world are needed in the area of natural sciences but also elsewhere. Hence, many other disciplines also use the same procedures in pursuing an understanding of the phenomena in their respective fields. Developing higher order thinking skills during university education entails understanding how knowledge is built and justified in one’s field or discipline. In other words, university students need to learn about the research process via which knowledge is pursued. We call these skills here broad scientific thinking skills. These skills are basically common for all disciplines, although their scope and intent may vary.
Previous studies on the development of higher order thinking skills in higher education have shed light on the different aspects of thinking and acting. The topic has been studied, for example, under the concepts of scientific, critical, and epistemological thinking as well as reasoning. In university settings, among the earliest studies concerning students’ higher order thinking skills were studies about reasoning. For example, Lehman and Nisbett (1990) studied what kind of effects training in reasoning has. They concluded that these skills can be trained and they also noted that statistical-methodological reasoning skills seem to be especially significant for an ability to think critically. In this context it should be noted that university students usually take many courses on research methodology during their education and these are an essential part of the development of their scientific and critical thinking.
The theories of scientific thinking have been developed originally for the needs of elementary school learning and they aim at giving information about children’s ability to control physical objects and reason for it (e.g., Inhelder & Piaget, 1958; Kuhn, 2010; Kuhn, Amsel, & O’Loughlin, 1988). In these studies, the term “scientific” usually refers to natural sciences. Application of these theories to higher education has mainly covered thinking among natural science problems (e.g., Kallio, 1998; Kuhn, lordanou, Pease, & Wirkala, 2008; Seppala, 2013).
The traditional theories of scientific thinking have also been criticised. Kuhn and colleagues (2008) propose that the traditional control-of-variables strategy is too narrow a view for studying scientific thinking. They point out three new aspects that are essential for students to master as a foundation for skilled scientific thinking: 1) a strategic aspect that involves the ability to coordinate effects of multiple causal influences on an outcome; 2) a mature understanding of the epistemological foundations of science, recognising scientific knowledge as constructed by humans rather than simply discovered in the world; and 3) an ability to engage in skilled argumentation in the scientific domain (Kuhn et al., 2008, p. 435). Especially the second and the third notions seem to be new and very important aspects in university' education across the disciplines (Murtonen, 2015; Seppala, 2013).
While critical thinking studies do deal with the development of thinking skills at university (e.g., Evens, Verburgh, & Elen, 2014), they are still somewhat limited in their scope in view of describing the whole of higher order thinking skills pursued in higher education. The critical thinking theories (e.g., Behar-Horenstein & Niu, 2011) do not pay attention to students’ research training, but instead see critical thinking as an abstract thinking skill of its own. Critical thinking can thus be seen as one factor of broad scientific thinking skills pursued in university education. Research on students’ epistemic beliefs (e.g., Hofer & Pintrich, 2002; Perry, 1968, 1970) has focused on students’ knowledge beliefs, which have been found important in the development of higher order thinking skills at university. Although proven highly important in explaining the cognitive aspects of university learning, these theories do not point out research methodological training as a central element in university students’ knowledge building. Epistemological beliefs have been shown to have a relationship with students’ critical thinking (Hyytinen, Holma, Toom, Shavelson, & Lindblom-Ylanne, 2014), indicating a need to explore higher order thinking skills from a wider perspective. Kallio (2011) has emphasised the role of integrative thinking, i.e., adults’ ability and need to integrate differing viewpoints based on some connective principles, such as ethical code or scientific argumentation.
Explaining very complex phenomena, such as the development of a broad scientific way of thinking in university studies, requires both understanding the common principles of learning at the individual level and also socio-constructive phenomena in the collaborative practices. Our biology, i.e., the limits of our basic cognitive functions, set also certain restrictions for our learning that we try to overcome with the aid of collaborative actions and training ourselves by deliberate cognitive processes. To demonstrate even further how complex the relationships between many learning and developmental fields are, the role of wisdom is also relevant when looking at higher thinking abilities. Wisdom can refer to different personal and interpersonal competences, such as the ability to listen, evaluate, and give advice. In addition, wisdom means that the person has good intentions to apply these abilities for the well-being of oneself and others (Lehtinen, 2010).
According to Lehtinen (2010), different types of learning environments can focus on very different learning goals, varying from the rapid learning of facts and automatisation of simple skills to environments that are meant for facilitating deep learning of advanced concepts and knowledge structures, promoting also the development of wisdom. When universities educate students, they aim at producing future workers that should express both expertise and wisdom (Sternberg & Frensch, 2014). Universities use vast resources on research education in an attempt to equip students with understanding about how knowledge is produced and how it can be used in evidence-based decision-making. However, studies show that many students have difficulties not only in learning research skills (e.g., Murtonen, 2015) but also generic or working-life-skills (Jaiiskela, Nykanen, & Tynjala, 2018). The problem lies both in the learning of cognitive understanding of research, but also in the understanding of research based scientific actions in wider contexts, such as decision-making in our society. To fully understand the importance of evidence-based decision-making, the students should have possibilities to act as a member of collaborative groups that try to solve the complex problems of our society.
In adult learning, the forms of participation and collaborative knowledge building (e.g., Paavola et al., 2004) seem to be the most crucial ones in order to reach the kind of learning that is important for our society. Adequate conceptions of learning and related phenomena should be taught for all in order to enhance the processes of quality learning. Metacognitive understanding of one’s own learning, motivation, and beliefs further support the learning processes. For adult learners, meaningful processes and goals are important in learning. Also, skills in broad scientific thinking are highly important in enabling people to evaluate the information received and to make informed decisions on the basis of it. The study of adult cognitive development together with research on adult learning are thus important in explaining how adults develop their understanding in our society.