I probably made a mistake in my last post when I referred to critical thinking ‘heuristics’. It goes to show that definitions in the field of education are both baffling and important. I was referring to what I will now call step-wise procedures after Carl Bereiter (whose ideas will feature in this post). The examples that I gave were procedures designed to see an issue from multiple perspectives or for asking about the author and purpose of a source. However, a number of people, notably Martin Robinson, queried whether I would include the identification of logical fallacies in this category. I can see why people might call these ‘heuristics’ but I think of them more as the knowledge that you bring to bear on a source rather than a procedure to be performed or a kind of ‘thinking’ – more later. I also think that knowledge of logical fallacies is useful. Although strangely absent from some critical thinking courses such as the ones discussed below, they are present in others. I would suggest that, rather than a discrete course, such ideas should sit within a traditional subject area such as English language.
Here, I want to expand upon my argument about step-wise procedures. Visible Thinking is a repository of such procedures that has been built by the Project Zero team at Harvard University. Just as we do not always check the origin of the groceries that we buy, we do not always appreciate the origins of the educational ideas that we buy. In fact, there is a little movement centred around Harvard that takes particular interest in thinking skills and you need to be aware of these ideas for when they surface in a school near you. I have been familiar with this work for some time now, but it was when Cristina Milos linked to it during a recent Twitter debate that I decided that I should mention it in a post.
Visible Thinking is an approach to teaching thinking skills which is integrated across standard academic subjects rather than sitting in a discrete course.
According to the website, “Visible Thinking has a double goal: on the one hand, to cultivate students’ thinking skills and dispositions, and, on the other, to deepen content learning.” This is achieved largely by integrating a series of step-wise procedures into science, history and other curriculum subjects. Although the site briefly mentions that the concepts are based upon research, it doesn’t actually link to any or summarise the research in any detail.
A quick whizz around the thinking routines area will give you a feel for these procedures. For instance the True for Who? routine is meant to help students think about an issue from different perspectives. It involves an element of role-play in addition to the standard questions about source analysis. In the Options Diamond, students make a decision by first completing a diamond shaped diagram.
I was aware that Carl Bereiter was an authority in this area because John Hattie quotes him in his own discussion of thinking skills in Visible Learning. It prompted me to obtain a copy of Bereiter’s book, “Education and mind in the knowledge age”. You can access a limited preview on Google books. It is important to note that Bereiter bases his comments in empirical research or the lack thereof.
When speaking of thinking skills programs, Bereiter notes, “The measures used to evaluate thinking usually embody the same assumptions as the program being evaluated. They usually consist of brief, trivial tasks similar to the exercises used in the program and they offer no evidence that improved scores predict any improvement in real-world performance”. Interestingly, I have previously written about thinking research by those connected with Project Zero; research that presumably provides some of the basis for the Visible Thinking website. It is, indeed, circular.
Bereiter is not a fan of such programs. He continues, “What most dissuades me from a serious consideration of actual thinking skills programs is the collective suspension of critical thought that seems to unite their producers, reviewers and users”. Referring to a thinking skills software package, he notes that, “Teaching thinking is treated as a straightforward matter like teaching furniture refinishing. It does not occur to people to question whether a course that claims to teach it actually does so… I do not find it obvious that thinking is teachable at all or, indeed, what it would mean to teach thinking.”
Bereiter goes on to list the various ways that educators have attempted to teach thinking. On cognitive skills training, he makes an important point. “People have been trained in memorizing strings of digits to the point where they can repeat back strings 10 times as long as the average person can handle, and yet this training does not make them better at other memory tasks” (References omitted). This alone should give us pause to consider whether thinking skills are teachable.
When it comes to thinking strategies, Bereiter notes two types; step-wise procedures and slogans, both of which he places on a par with the advice in self-help books. Of the step-wise procedures, he notes that, “Thinking doesn’t actually run that way. There is a lot of looping back, starting over, jumping ahead and so on.” On studies where participants are asked to think aloud as they perform tasks, he notes a discrepancy between what people do while thinking and what they report afterwards. In other words, thinking doesn’t happen the way we think it does, casting doubt on the procedures we design to promote it.
One interesting possibility he discusses is that these thinking aloud studies could provide a means for coaching actual thinking. However, no thinking skills programs make use of this technique.
Finally, he concludes that, “Even a modest dose of skepticism about the teaching of thinking could save organisations many millions of dollars currently spent on quacks. And I think any school program would be improved if it was systematically cleansed of all activities whose purported virtue is the enhancement of thinking abilities, provided the freed-up time was used to pursue worthwhile subjects in greater depth.”
It is important to understand that Bereiter is not simply talking about discrete thinking skills programs such as those that were largely discredited in the 1980s. He is aware of the pendulum swings that periodically subsume these ideas back into curriculum subjects and he is equally dismissive of their presence there. He is also aware that many programs muddle thinking objectives with other goals, just as the Visible Thinking program does with its goal of deepening content learning. It is important to point out here that no evidence is presented that these routines will achieve this goal, that specific claims are made about the development of thinking via step-wise procedures and that Visible Thinking is therefore subject to Bereiter’s analysis.
I recommend that you read Bereiter’s book if you can; in particular the chapter on ‘critical thinking, creativity and other virtues,’ that the above quotes are from. Bereiter also writes interestingly about episodic knowledge; a concept that partly inspired a post that I wrote, and a concept that one of my critics accused me of making up by stretching the definition of knowledge.
As well as the Visible Thinking website, I would like to draw your attention to the book, “Thinking-Based Learning” by Swartz et. al. This has a forward by David Perkins of Project Zero and discusses similar ideas to the Visible Thinking site, including the use of step-wise procedures. I wish to select one quote which I find stunning in its hubris. Not only do we have to accept that thinking is teachable via stepwise procedures, they ask us to endorse the following logic:
“A presidential commission concluded that various U.S. intelligence agencies failed to validate the reliability of their sources in assessing prewar conditions and events in Iraq. The reference, of course, is to those alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that served as the pretext for going to war in Iraq. Skillful thinking about the reliability of these sources could have avoided these problems, and yet some of the most important role models in the United States failed to exhibit such thinking. It is our contention that skillful thinking can and should be taught to students in our classrooms at every level.”
You can draw your own conclusions from that.