Saturday, December 22, 2012

Science education & critical thinking in higher education

Rethinking the Way Colleges Teach Critical Thinking 
By Scott K. Johnson | Scientific American, December 14, 2012

Facing both conservative dogmatism and the decline in college students' critical thinking skills, the author is concerned about about the enhancement of both science education and the capacity of the people to engage in critical evaluation of knowledge claims. He is dissatisfied with the traditional approach: "Scientific literacy and critical thinking skills are seen as natural side-effects of studying a science."Opposing the tendency to reduce education to rote learning, even of science, the author proposes "an entire semester on critical thinking and the nature of science."
Where standalone critical thinking courses exist, however, they are mostly found within the humanities and social sciences. Those courses often center on argumentation and literary criticism, or instead on the philosophy of logic, but there are opportunities to expand this— particularly by giving science a larger presence. 
Johnson advocates the teaching of logic, rhetoric, cognitive biases and pitfalls,and the scientific method. Critical thinking courses are readily adaptable to the critique of American culture, and the incorporation of objective knowledge, or rather investigation of the basis for knowledge claims and determining their objective basis, is also useful. Such courses would have to be interdisciplinary.
Contrary to the criticism that classes like this would merely be weekly exercises in debunking, critical thinking is as much about problem solving and extracting meaning from complexity as it is about not falling for hokum. (Of course, conspiracy theories and sasquatches would certainly make an appearance.) And this is where science fits in so naturally. Practice with a scientific way of thinking—developing conclusions that flow from the data, rather than cherry-picking data to support your pre-existing conclusion—adds such an important tool to the kit.
To this I would add my own comment: note that in order to exercise critical thinking, there is an actual knowledge base that has to be acquired; there has to be content and a real-world background off which to bounce critical perspectives, which cannot exist in a formalistic vacuum. And, as the author insists, mere teaching of content does not guarantee the capacity for critical thinking. With this in mind, see my bibliography:

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking:A Guide

In my introduction I criticize both the old formalist and the new postmodernist conceptions of critical thinking. See especially the paragraph that begins:
While traditional elaborations of the formal characteristics of critical thinking are always useful, they do not guarantee the ability to think critically in real-world ideological, social, practical contexts. I contend that in effect there is no such thing as critical thinking in general, and that critical thinking is not formal, but content-driven. Here I am not thinking merely of credentials or qualifications, though such are customarily necessary in our time for scientific advances. Assuming legitimate expertise, the problem is that experts in one area may be cretins in others or in matters of common concern, because they are not at heart critical thinkers, or because they don't know how to engage other areas of inquiry, for lack of knowledge, the proper analytical skills or knowledge base, familiarity, etc. Furthermore, amateurs can be critical thinkers in the areas in which they are not experts, but to do so they have to engage enough of the content so that they can formulate meaningful questions.

No comments: