The final event I attended at the AHA Conference was a panel on the state of critical thinking in American Schools, featuring Brant Abrahamson, Dr. Rodger E. Cryer, Paula Fraser, Hemant Mehta, and Prof. Andy Norman. As I whole I thought the panel did well, presenting some excellent ideas as to how to improve the ability of young children to think critically. One approach which struck me as particularly valuable was asking students to catch the teacher out in argumentative fallacies – this is bound to engage students while teaching them how effective arguments are constructed. Hemant Metha was also a highlight, speaking with passion about his methods of getting students excited about math, and reminding the audience of the power of the new social media to bring teachers into conversation, helping them share resources and improve on each others’ creations.
One standout theme was the importance of encouraging a culture of questioning, both for teachers and for students. If a teacher can present creative questions that require real thought (in contrast with the simplistic questions often found in textbooks), while enabling and encouraging students to ask questions of their own, then it is far more likely that students will develop the skills and dispositions necessary to become critical thinkers.
It was fitting, I think, that the final speaker on the panel should have been Dr. Norman, since his presentation itself applied critical thinking to the topic of the panel, and to the Humanist movement itself. Dr. Norman reminded us that very few people consider themselves deficient when it comes to rationality – it’s always the other person who is irrational – and that Humanists are neither immune to this propensity nor to irrational thinking. This is a particularly important message to a community that frequently considers itself the guardian of rationality, science and critical thinking: we mustn’t develop a blind-spot when it comes to our own thinking.
I think the panel perhaps suffered from three limitations. First, although there was a wealth of practical experience on display, there was little explicit reference to empirical research which supported any of the techniques and suggestions presented. Few areas of human development have received as much attention as the development of critical thinking, so it was a surprise to see little of this research mobilized to support the arguments being made. Second, I didn’t get such a clear sense as to why encouraging critical thinking was particularly urgent now, and why it should be a central plank of the Humanist movement. I believe it is important, and should be a primary goal of our movement, but I felt the argument as to why could have been better made during the panel. Third, one issue which I felt was insufficiently addressed was the question of transfer: lots of educational research demonstrates that people frequently are unable to transfer their ability to solve a problem in one context to solve a similar problem in a different context. Sometimes, even if the fundamental structure of two problems is the same, if the problems are encountered in different contexts, people will find themselves unable to solve the second problem even if they have learnt how to solve the first.
In response to this question, WHO raised the important role of thinking dispositions (as opposed to knowledge or skills) in developing critical thinking. Thinking dispositions, or “habits of mind”, refers to the idea, promoted by some researchers, that to become a critical thinker one must not only know how to think critically, but must care to do so, and be able to identify occasions on which critical thinking is necessary. In other words, we need to develop in young people the ability to find problems, as well as solve them, and help encourage them to get into the habit of thinking critically. Once we recognize that helping students think critically involves more than teaching them a series of skills, but also requires fostering positive motivation to ask questions, and the desire and ability to find problems, we will do a far better job.