V Critical Thinking and the Cognitive Sciences

Work being done in the cognitive sciences is important for critical thinking in higher education. This is because critical thinking is, in part at least, a cognitive skill. Cognitive skills, by definition, involve the brain, and therefore research into the cognitive sciences is clearly relevant. But how relevant is it, and how can this research be applied to the work being done by educators?

From a cognitive science perspective, critical thinking is assumed to be a higher-order skill, similar to learning a language or playing a piano. The literature informs us that expertise in these other fields requires, by some estimates, ten years of practice at four hours per day. In this regard, work is being done by cognitive scientists on what is known as the "deliberative practice hypothesis." Evidence from these studies show that concentrated, graduated, and exercise- based practice, with regular feedback, results in greatest learning gains for higher-order skills. Skills in criticality, it seems, need to be made explicit, and deliberate and purposeful steps need to be provided to reaching levels of high educational attainment. At a purely mechanical level, this kind of evidence should inform educational practices. And yet this is not happening. Is it any wonder that critical thinking is an oft-required, yet seldom achieved, educational goal?

There is considerable work also being done in the cognitive sciences on the notion of skill transfer. This also applies to critical thinking in higher education, especially if critical thinking is (partly at least) a generic skill. How much transfer between knowledge domains occurs in critical thinking? This is, in part, an empirical question, and it clearly has application to higher education. According to Halpern (1998), we must "teach for transfer." We cannot simply hope and expect that critical thinking skills, once learned in a particular knowledge domain, will be automatically and seamlessly applied to another. This kind of evidence, again, rarely reaches to the level of pedagogical practice.

Critical thinking and the cognitive sciences really require treatment in a separate book. However, we hint at its importance in this volume.

Lau opens the charge and offers an account of the importance of metacognition, or "thinking about thinking." For Lau, critical thinking requires the ability to reflect on the reasons for beliefs by what he calls "disciplined selfregulation." He claims that to be better at critical thinking naturally requires being better at metacognition. This involves attention to be given to the psychology of learning, reasoning, and creative problem solving. Harking back to Barnett's point about educating for a world of "complexity" and uncertainty (Part I), and Green's notion of critical thinking as "life-long learning" (Part II), Lau notes that it is only through metacognition that students will be able to overcome the challenges of the modern world beset by turmoil and constant change.

He identifies a number of facets of metacognition that might be used as a basis for metacognitive education. These include "meta-conceptions" or "mindsets," that is, core concepts that ground our knowledge about thinking. He gives an example of how being told that "anxiety improves performance" results in better mathematics test results compared to control groups. Another facet of metacognition is general knowledge about cognition and how it is affected by cognitive biases; yet another is meta self-knowledge (an understanding of one's thinking skills and dispositions), and self-regulation—the ability to monitor cognitive processes and resources effectively. One of the interesting points Lau makes is that universities need to rebuild a learning culture that rewards enhancements in critical thinking. He suggests that this can only be done by explicitly addressing the importance of metacognition, not only by making a revitalized attempt to impart soft-skills, but also by embedding creativity and problem solving within discipline-specific courses of study.

Lodge, O'Connor, Shaw, and Burton extend Lau's discussion about the importance of metacognition by focusing on the fallacies, biases, and heuristics responsible for faulty reasoning about ourselves and the world. They outline some the ways in which these errors might be overcome. They note that, at its core, "critical thinking involves addressing our assumptions about how the world works," and yet frequently our cognitive biases let us down in this regard. The cognitive science literature is replete in examples of such faulty reasoning, and yet this literature often fails to percolate down to educational practice, pedagogy, and regimes of educational assessment and attainment. Providing a corrective to this, they suggest that a better understanding of the cognitive science literature offers a way of circumventing human tendencies toward less rational thought. They suggest that this might offer insights on how mental shortcuts compromise thinking in various disciplinary domains, providing a way of side-stepping the generalist-specifist debate.

Taking the discussion further, Ellington provides a model of metacognition that incorporates critical thinking. Defining metacognition as 'the ability to attend to representations of the world such that the representations themselves and their interactions become objects of study," and critical thinking as "the ability to be meta- cognitively evaluative,"he proposes a model that incorporates beliefs, goals, and desires as part of an integrated account of human higher-order processing. He provides a number of examples of how being "metacognitive evaluative" can shed light on better ways of educating for critical thinking.

It is instructive that none of the above suggestions approximate how we presently educate students in critical thinking. Currently, educational practice has nothing to say about metacognition, nor cognitive biases and blindsights— let alone how to become aware of them or correct them. According to van Gelder (2005): "The way we generally go about cultivating critical thinking is to expect that students somehow will pick it all up through some mysterious process of intellectual osmosis." Given the importance of critical thinking in higher education, and in teaching for an unknown future, this is clearly inadequate. Perhaps the time has come to explicitly teach cognitive models and routines and incorporate these in educational regimes of formative, discipline- specific practice.

Cognitive science clearly has lessons for us in relation to the teaching of critical thinking. These insights need to be made explicit to educationalists. Research intersecting education and the cognitive sciences is at the beginning of an exciting new phase.


Halpern, D. 1998. "Teaching Critical Thinking for Transfer across Domains: Dispositions, Skills, Structure Training, and Metacognitive Monitoring." American Psychologist, 53 (4), 449-455.

van Gelder, T. (2005). "Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science." College Teaching, 53 (1), 41-48.

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