Applying theory to practice

Critical thinking ability is demonstrated by a rising level of intellectual and ethical competence, and by a shift from black-and-white views to multiplicity (Thoma 1993). There is, however, somewhat less discussion of performance in terms of the disciplined ability for evaluative reasoning and self-awareness in practice. The point is skills (and knowledge) acquisition is necessary, but not sufficient. Rather, consistent application of skills and knowledge when forming judgments and making decisions, to the problems of everyday life (Noddings 1995), is also required.

Assuming intellectual maturity, there are a number of evident challenges to applying critical thinking in practice. One challenge is the reality that while people are generally well able to criticize propositions they oppose, what is difficult is to think critically about one's own favored ideas. This ability, described as being a strong-sense thinker (Paul and Elder 2012), can be acquired by getting people to simply "do it" according to Bereiter (2002). The reality though is that dispositional and practical issues, such as cultural- and trait-induced bias, can get in the way. Another challenge is in the successful transfer of learning, because behavior can be bound to situations in which it was learned (Bereiter 2002). For teachers, on the one hand, the task is to enable learning at an abstract enough level for behavior to be transferred. On the other hand, learning must also be assimilated into the way individuals respond to new situations. Thus, for the learner, it is a matter of developing self-awareness—of knowing themselves and their learning preferences, and of knowing their biases and shortcomings. It will require engaged partnerships between the student and the institution (Ramsden 2008), in order to foster these metacognitive skills that are also necessary for lifelong learning.

Human (behavioral) factors and, particularly, the application of knowledge in collective activity are a somewhat more complex challenge. We know, for example, that decision making cannot be divorced from context, and situational factors such as time pressure, fatigue, and stress can moderate effective reasoning (Kahneman 2002). Similarly, other studies show that cultural beliefs and inborn traits can support or stifle performance (Lunney 2013). In sum, the capacity for reason and self-regulation invites a corresponding task for teachers and students—to develop the ability to ignore subjective anomalies (bias) associated with uncertainty or incomplete information, while looking also to moderate the effects of other situational influences.

Given this brief exploration of the challenges to applying critical thinking in practice, we turn our attention to supporting critical thinking performance. The issue is of some importance, given the evidence that some 45% of students (in US-based colleges) showed no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and problem solving after their first two years (Arum and Roska 2011). There is a clear need for greater academic rigor in teaching critical thinking.

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