Two types of problems with developing critical thinking education: Chinese characteristics

We have briefly outlined the pioneering efforts of critical thinking education as well as the rapid growth of recognition of its value in Chinese society since the late 1990s. However, when one starts to look more closely at its development in higher education, one is surprised and disappointed. Something unexpected has taken place in most educational institutions: nothing. With regard to critical thinking education, China is still in its infancy, and its growing up has been difficult.

The first evidence of the difficulties is with regard to the quantity. Until 2013, only about 50 of more than 2,100 higher education institutions have opened a course in critical thinking, and only a few of these courses are open to students outside philosophy departments or special programs. For many years, critical thinking education has not been able to expand. (Some universities opened logic courses under such titles as "thinking skills" to include ordinary language argument contents; they are at the pre-2003 stage of the logic course reform process.) Since both demand for genuine critical thinking education and supplies of education materials are plentiful and steadily increasing, the actual progress is oddly sluggish.

The efforts to expand critical thinking education to more institutions through the 2011 conference and demonstration courses have so far met with limited success. For most of the instructors participating in the event, either out of their own interest or at the request of their administrations, hoping to start such a course in their institutions, the goal is still not in sight, for various reasons. Many logic instructors have openly expressed their unwillingness to start such a course, declaring it an unnecessary addition to the logic course or that it is too difficult (Chen J. 2013).

The second evidence of difficulty faced in developing critical thinking education in China is with regard to quality. Even in places where a course with the phrase "critical thinking" in its title is taught, mostly it is at best a half logic and half critical thinking course, as acknowledged by Zhenyi Gu, a pioneer in such education (personal communication). The course title "Logic and Critical Thinking" is symptomatic, but even if the word "logic" is omitted from the title, the content stays the same. The journey of logic course reform toward critical thinking has not been completed even if the title has changed.

The quality issue was related to the early understanding of critical thinking as an application of logic to ordinary language arguments, consisting of only theories of definition, logical analyses of arguments, and fallacies (Chen 2002, 242-282). Over the last several years, with more access to studies of the concept and skills of critical thinking by authors such as Robert Ennis (1991), Peter Facione (1990), and Alec Fisher and Michael Scriven (1997), some Chinese scholars have acknowledged that critical thinking is not another logic course. However, even in the most recent textbooks (Chen and Yu 2011; Wu and Zhou 2010), the logical focus and contents predominate, and many constitutive topics of critical thinking are still missing.

The Chinese textbooks typically contain about half of Ennis's twelve constitutive abilities of critical thinking (Ennis 1991; 1998; 2011), usually the following:

  • 1. Focus on a question.
  • 2. Analyze arguments.
  • 3. Ask and answer questions of clarification and/or challenge.
  • 6. Deduce, and judge deduction.
  • 7a. Induce, and judge induction (generalizations).
  • 9. Define terms and judge definitions.

The rest are either missing or given little attention:

  • 4. Judge the credibility of a source.
  • 5. Observe, and judge observation reports.
  • 7.b. Draw explanatory conclusions (including hypotheses).
  • 8. Make and judge value judgments.
  • 10. Attribute unstated assumptions.
  • 11. Consider and reason from premises, reasons, assumptions, positions, and other propositions with which they disagree or about which they are in doubt.
  • 12. Integrate the other abilities and dispositions in making and defending a decision.

Apparently, the textbooks are within the framework of regarding critical thinking as logical analysis of single arguments. There is no mention of the need for, and skills of, searching for alternative ideas, explanations, and arguments. In addition, critical thinking attitudes and dispositions are not discussed in any depth. Some logic instructors defend their exclusion of these topics by arguing that they are not included in examinations like the GRE or GMAT (Chen M. 2013). The examination-oriented goal is strongly reflected in their teaching of the course.

Another shortcoming of the textbooks and teaching is the lack of real-life Chinese examples and exercises. The textbooks mostly use examples, like abortion or euthanasia, which are translated from Western textbooks and do not impact the everyday lives of Chinese students. Even worse is the problem with the traditional one-way transmission style of pedagogy. Critical thinking is taught in Chinese classrooms very much like a formal logic course, where instructors only lecture, with few attempts to encourage thinking and participation from students. Moreover, tests are just used to ensure that the "thinking rules" are memorized. The curriculum methods rarely allow for questioning, coaching, discussing, writing, peer-instruction, inquiry-based researching/ learning, and so on to develop independent, cooperative, and hands-on study habits and skills in the students.

In summary, China faces two problems in the development of critical thinking education: (1) the oddly slow pace of expanding the offering of critical thinking courses in higher education; and (2) deficiencies in quality—many existing courses have these undesirable "Chinese characteristics":

  • 1. examination-oriented goals,
  • 2. insufficient contents,
  • 3. irrelevance to practice, and
  • 4. rote-learning pedagogy.

Thus, the courses cannot reach the goal of training students to build critical thinking skills. Their failure can actually add more obstacles to its development.

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