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Critical Thinking Instruction Creates Expert Learners and Makes Content More Meaningful.

Updated: Feb 4, 2022

In case you haven’t noticed, we are living in an age of endless information with unprecedented access to technology that helps create and disperse that information. Regardless of what your family or child’s school screen time or technology policies are, the hope is that most of us now recognize that we need to support the ability of children to filter and process incoming information in a variety of ways to achieve desired thinking and learning outcomes (and to avoid others). The way in which it is best to do this is something that draws disagreement between practitioners and theorists though (queue in mood enhancement with diminished 7th chord on piano), which has led us into a longstanding battle that everyone continues to lose. Spoiler Alert: I don’t mince words when it comes to my opinions on the education system, so those who are sensitive to strong, well-informed criticism of district and statewide policies, stop reading now!

Julie Dirksen, principal of Usable Learning and author of “Design for How People Learn,” believes that at its core, learning is about strengthening the connections between certain neurons and that it is safe to say, “the neurons that fire together, wire together.” This supports the idea that learning is about patterns of activation that represent things like concepts and actions. One term we can use to broaden our understanding of this idea is “neural computation,” which refers to the hypothetical information processing performed by networks of neurons. Neural computation is an integral part of a broader position known as the computational theory of mind, which for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to as computationalism. This intro is meant to set up the argument that critical thinking skills can be taught explicitly and that strengthening critical thinking skills at an early age pays dividends in the long run when it comes to maximizing the efficiency of the time spent pursuing high levels of mastery in various areas of study.

With the concept of computationalism in our back pocket, I’d like to move on to two limiting factors we encounter when working with our students so that they may act as springboards to dive into effective brain building practices we can use in the classroom. The first of these limitations applies to all people in varying degrees and it is an issue is of time versus effort. Simply put, it is that there’s only so much brain strengthening that can happen at any one time regardless of intention or intelligence. Ryan Holiday offers a unique perspective on the related phenomenon known as ego fatigue, or ego depletion in his book, “Ego Is The Enemy.” Ego depletion isn’t a new concept as it has been on the research radar for studies involving addiction for a long time, but it often isn’t recognized for its implications in the field of education. Dirkson, mentioned earlier, believes that in order to make learning persistent, it needs to be spaced, or reactivated and strengthened over a period of time. In general terms we can say that the amount of time over which to practice, and the total quantity needed, depends on the complexity of the task and the amount of time between practice and performance as well as the time between performance opportunities. The second issue can be thought of as being in the same family as the first, but it is more an issue of time versus capacity. Dr. Dror from Cognitive Consultants International HQ (CCI-HQ) offers some keen insight with his view is that there is a mismatch between what the brain can take in and what it can maximally process throughout the day, He believes that for learning to be successful it must conform to the architecture of the mind. This means training or teaching must take into account constraints on the information processing capacity of the individual. The takeaway for teachers is that it isn’t necessarily what we teach, it is what the learner learns. It’s also not what we say, it is what they hear that matters. Tightly regulated schedules, especially ones that try to cram in excess information processing for the sake of covering content during instructional time, are particularly wasteful.

Having aired these two issues, I’d love to take computationalism out of our back pocket to apply its concepts to our equation in order to find working solutions. Before we can do that, there is another serious overarching obstacle that needs to be broken through first though. The obstacle is one of the main drivers of the epidemic our school system is currently facing. In short, it is the disagreement that I referenced earlier over how students become masterful learners. Before I go on, I’d like to recognize that this is not a theorist versus practitioner issue, but instead a large scale disagreement between two mixed sides and I’ll be very clear about which side I support.

Clark Quin from wrote a great piece explaining ways in which our cognitive architecture is much better at pattern-matching and meaning-making than it is at performing via rote pathways. One main point he makes is that all too often, learning leaders fail to understand that information need not always be in student’s heads, as long as it is on hand. Ultimately, this means that what students really need to know is how to access information and how to decide if that information is useful to help solve a problem. One of the first steps to help students practice this, is to immerse them in as many contextualized problem-based learning scenarios as possible during the K-8 years. In contrast, the current educational system allows years of wasted opportunities to go by unaccounted for by focusing instruction on the retention of surface level content knowledge and low level understanding.

Practice Makes Perfect?

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from Stanford and the University of British Columbia showed that guiding students to autonomous, iterative decision-making while carrying out common physics lab course experiments significantly improved students' critical thinking skills. It was found that by iterating, making changes and learning about experimental design in a more deliberate way, students came out with a richer experience. This was quantified by a twelve fold increase in their likelihood to think of and employ ways to improve their data, and a four fold increase in their likelihood to identify and explain the limits of their predictive models based on their data, over the control group. These students were also still applying these same critical thinking skills a year later in another physics course.

I think studies like this support the idea that practice can lead to lasting positive benefits when it comes to students being successful at using critical thinking and other cognitive and metacognitive skills in experimental design. The practice that is needed has two components though. First, teachers need to practice effectively facilitating experiences. This will make space for the students to practice building the skills. Another beneficial side effect of changing the way we view “teaching” subjects like science in this way is that it allows us to observe and diagnose student misconceptions of how the world around them works. By the beginning of Pre-K, many children have already created models of understanding that are remarkably hard to extinguish if they are wrong. Ideally, we want to make sure there are valid models to begin with, so that students can refer to them during problem solving and in their attempts to develop a deeper understanding of concepts, but this is often not the case. The reality is that children often start school with individualized gross misconceptions that can go undiagnosed for years, thereby leading to a weakened patchwork of understanding when a strong foundational understanding is needed most. The longer misconceptions linger in the minds of our students, the more profound their effects are on prohibiting their ability to progress towards mastery in complex contextualized problem solving scenarios. By giving students ample opportunities to make mistakes through practice, we increase the likelihood of both us and them detecting and remediating their misconceptions and lapses in their flow of understanding before they become problematic. In a future post I’ll get into the benefits of diagnosing and addressing common student misconceptions in science in elementary and middle school.

There are some teachers and cognitive scientists that have doubts about the possibility of us being able to teach children a general set of thinking skills. One of their main arguments is that exercising critical thinking in one field requires different skills than the critical thinking skills needed in another. While this is true, it is only true in so much that it refers to recruitment and application of critical thinking skills for a particular task, and not the skills themselves. In other words, it is simply stating the obvious but misunderstanding what it actually implies about dynamic thinking and learning. This flaw in the mindset of the practitioners and theorists who deny that students can undergo training to strengthen skills like reasoning and deduction is most likely directly related to our current research belief model, which education theorists specialize in (therein propagating the problem). Practitioners (teachers, instructors, facilitators etc.) who hold this belief may also be bogged down by the limitations of our current research model due to having a high level of confidence in the perceived expertise of certain cognitive scientists; or they simply may not have reached the level of experience or mastery needed to understand neural computation and the trajectory involved in the development of critical thinking, which I’ll discuss briefly later in this article.

For context, a quick and common example of the thought process of a person on the deniers side of the critical thinking crisis would be someone believing that intelligence is based less on reasoning skills and more on the ability to take in and retain information. As much as I wholeheartedly disagree with that statement, I suppose it is understandable for a person who is considered an expert in the field of education, based simply on their knowledge and ability to reproduce that knowledge, to believe this. My short response to this is that it is important to remember that our tendency to assign courtroom logic to teaching practice by thinking that ideas aren’t valid unless they’ve been supported or proven through conventional research studies, is fatally flawed. In many (not all) schools districts, I also see pedagogical decisions being made by superintendents or administrators who have never achieved high-level mastery as front-line educators. I don’t mean earning a particular degree or holding a particular title, I mean actually becoming an expert in teaching through experience. Until we have schools where expert teachers are making decisions regarding how we teach our children, we will continue to fail to progress.

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