The irony is just too great and I might explode

I love learning new stuff and I learnt an excellent word recently from a book on sociology that I’m reading. The word is ‘reification’ and I’ve mentioned it before. It sort-of translates as ‘thingification’; an insistent bringing into being; a making concrete. An example from the sociology book was the ‘massification’ of higher education. Apparently, sociologists are wont to talk of this and yet there is no clear, shared definition of what it means. This does not stop them talking about it as a thing that has certain properties.

I think we make the error of reification when we talk of thinking skills. Instead of inventing new words all the time, we tend to lend the same word to quite different things in order to economise a bit. Usually, these things have some superficial similarities that spurs the original word-lending. I think we make the mistake that because we can analyse a play or analyse a rainfall chart that there is some thing called analysis that shares common features across domains. Indeed, advocates of thinking skills suggest that analysis is a way of thinking. This is all a bit of a stretch for me. The act of evaluating a brand of toilet paper is quite different to that of evaluating the written argument of an eminent professor. I am unsure that many mechanisms are common to both.

Dan Willingham makes a more sophisticated argument here. It is a good piece that I highly recommend.

So, when I started to read an article by Peter Ellerton in The Conversation titled, “Teaching how to think is just as important as teaching anything else,” I was sceptical. Bringing my prior knowledge to bear on what was written meant that I was disposed to think critically about the piece.

You will see me make my argument about reification in the comments. I’ve also included a good quote from Carl Bereiter.

However, something else struck me as I was reading the piece. At one point, Ellerton makes the following claim:

“This is why it’s not possible to develop effective thinkers by relying on didactic teaching methods, in which students are seen as passive recipients of the knowledge passed down by the teacher.”

To me, this is obviously a pejorative way of describing explicit instruction although that becomes a cause of some debate in the comments. However, my main concern was that it did not seem to be supported by any evidence. I have written for The Conversation myself and, every time I made a claim like this, I was obliged to link to the evidence to support it. Which seemed perfectly reasonable to me.

When I asked Ellerton for the evidence for this assertion, he suggested that I read a book that I don’t have. He did not refer me to a specific chapter or quote the relevant passage. In fact, on a number of occasions, he suggested that I should read more about critical thinking, generally. When I called him on this he mentioned peer-review and the like but still wouldn’t directly deal with the question.

All I wanted was some evidence to back the claim. You see, quite a lot hinges on it. If we can develop effective thinkers using explicit teaching techniques then we can reject Ellerton’s subsequent argument as to why we should use inquiry learning instead.

I sometimes get patronised a bit by academics. He or she might point out that I’m a PhD student and suggest my supervisors ought to drum my impertinence out of me or something. I find it quite amusing.

However, the delicious irony here is that we have a Professor of Critical Thinking voluntarily making a claim in support of his own argument for which he supplies no evidence and who then reverses the burden of proof on to me.

You couldn’t make it up.


6 thoughts on “The irony is just too great and I might explode

  1. The book in question (pun intended):
    Martin Davies & Ronald Barnett (Eds.) (2015). The Palgrave handbook of critical thinking in higher education. Palgrave Macmillan.

    Of the 67 authors only 8 are psychologists, most of them in one way or another experimental psychologists. Indeed, ‘critical thinking’ in this volume means all kinds of things. Davies & Barnett, p. 3:
    “Critical thinking in higher education can encompass debates about critical pedagogy, political critiques of the role and function of education in society, critical feminist approaches to curriculum, the development of critical citizenship, or any other education-related topic that uses the appellation ‘critical’. Equally, it can be concerned to develop general skills in reasoning—skills that all graduates might possess.”

    No wonder I was severely disappointed in this volume. The only Dutch contribution is by Volman & Ten Dam: ‘Critical thinking for educated citizenship.’ Geert ten Dam was until 2015 the president of the Education Council of the Netherlands. The Council, in an important document on the state of education in 2014, promoted 21st century skills. So much for ‘critical thinking’ in Dutch educational institutions 😉

    The contribution by Peter Ellerton is titled ‘Metacognition and critical thinking: Some pedagogical imperatives’. Reading p. 424 on ‘Critical thinkers’: this is fuzzy thinking, talk about unconscious critical thinking, critical thinking mastery. I can guess what Ellerton is hinting at, of course. What I do not understand is why he clings to the phrase ‘critical thinking’ for phenomena not being called so in the psychological literature.

    The whole thing is reminiscent of 19th century thinking: mastering math (or Latin, for that matter) is equivalent to learning to think. Research by Edward L. Thorndike effectively put an end to this kind of educational speculation. Mastery of chess is mastery of chess, that’s all there is to it.

      1. His chapter in Davies & Barnett 2015 is not about direct instruction in any way, ‘didactic’ or not. It is psychological gibberish. Obscurantism.
        In response to you he called the Davies & Barnett volume a ‘primary source’. It isn’t. No handbook is, of course.

        The divide between his thinking (in this chapter on metacognition and critical thinking) and that of Tricot & Sweller is unbridgeable.

        Maybe I should try to scan this chapter for you.

      1. The reactions by educators to the Thorndike results proved too strong (his success was made larger than he would have wished himself).

        Thanks for the Nisbett study. For a kind of rejoinder to that, see the article mentioned by Greg in his discussion with Peter Ellerton:

        André Tricot & John Sweller (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational Psychology Review (preview) (concept) (Twitter thread)

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