Cognitive science and the generalist/specifist debate

An example of the ways in which the generalist/specifist debate has led to calls for new perspectives on critical thinking in higher education is provided by McPeck (1981). McPeck argues that the study of informal logic for critical thinking focuses too much on fallacies and not enough on the underlying cognitive mechanisms of critical thought. It follows that, in order to inform the development of curriculum design that best develops critical thinking skills in students, it is necessary to examine the mental processes thought to underpin critical thinking. An alternate view is forwarded by Ennis (1989), who, despite significant disagreement with McPeck about the role of informal logic in critical thinking, similarly suggests that the capacity to evaluate arguments, skepticism, problem solving, higher-order thinking and metacognition are all aspects of critical thinking and therefore all deserve further examination. While there are many principles and practices for helping students to engage in deeper, critical thinking in a higher education setting, those that give the most compelling appreciation of the biases that attenuate critical thinking come from an examination of these factors. All are factors that have been examined in the cognitive sciences. While the translation from laboratory-based cognitive science to pedagogical practice is difficult, the learning sciences have the potential to make a meaningful contribution to debates around the best way to enhance critical thinking.

From a cognitive science perspective, the approach taken to further understand the concept of critical thinking is essentially generalist. Cognitive scientists, in agreement with Ennis (1989), take the view that the broader concept can be broken into smaller constituent cognitive processes that are common to all. Breaking critical thinking into constituent components allows for each process to be experimentally investigated under controlled laboratory conditions. Cognitive science therefore provides a valid method of approaching the teaching of critical thinking skills through a deeper and more rigorous examination of the underlying mechanisms. While a number of clear obstacles exist that potentially limit the ability of students in higher education institutions to develop their critical thinking, cognitive science provides a valuable viewpoint on why this is the case and how it can be addressed. Relevant within this context are the ways in which the human mind takes mental shortcuts and has biases that lead to faulty logic and reasoning. Heuristics are rules of thumb or mental shortcuts (Plous 1993) that serve to reduce the cognitive load associated with complex tasks. It is in the understanding of these experimentally examined heuristics that cognitive science can contribute most to the enhancement of methods to develop critical thinking in higher education.

One example of cognitive science research relevant to understanding critical thinking is that of Kahneman (2011), who has examined biases in thinking over several decades and has concluded that humans will generally take the most efficient rather than the most effective path when it comes to expending cognitive effort. Indeed, Kahneman's research indicates that our students' brains are wired to cut as many corners as possible. In order to apply this type of research to the classroom, Halpern's (1998) evidence-based model for the development of critical thinking will be examined. This model involves specific preparation for the cognitive effort required to overcome heuristics and biases. The model also takes into account that transfer of critical thinking skills across contexts is much less automatic than teachers may expect. This model also provides a framework for curriculum-based approaches to develop critical thinking including (1) preparing learners for critical thinking, (2) developing and practicing skills, and (3) exploring learners' capacity to transfer skills to new and unfamiliar contexts. Both Kahneman's and Halpern's work will be discussed in some detail as examples of the ways in which cognitive science can meaningfully inform the enhancement of practice in a higher education setting.

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