Thursday, December 6, 2012

Old Dogs, New Tricks, Big Thirsty


Growing up here in the Naked North, we were free range kids.  In winter, we played hockey, in summer we paddled canoes (clich├ęd, yes, but we did).  We got pretty good at them too, as if they were just a natural part of being.  When I went away to university, of course, I met kids who had never done these things.  What I really noticed, was how hard it was for them to learn, and more to the point, how hard it was for me to teach them.

How do you skate?  I honestly have no idea, I just do it.  I can cobble together some awkward description like “well, you sort of hold one foot at an angle, and push it out the side...”  But when my listener does what I’ve described, the result is an ungainly wobble.  Dozens of other little motions must be subtly performed by minor muscles that balance the leg, angle the blade, and direct the force.  Only then does that wobble becomes a graceful glide.  The motions are subconscious.  My leg just does them. 

Or rather did.  I haven’t skated in years, but I’m pretty sure I could lace up the skates tomorrow, and the rust would fall away in a few laps of the rink.  In five minutes I would be out-maneuvering the midlife newcomer who’s been taking lessons for a month.  Of course the shoe (skate?) is on the other foot for some things I never learned as a kid.  It seems like some things are just easier to learn when you are young.

I’ve started to wonder if some of the things we are supposed to teach students in college aren’t like this.  We often hear talk that university is the place one ‘goes to learn critical thinking’, as if it doesn't happen beforehand.  Is critical thinking something one can 'take up' as an adult?  It sometimes seems as if what I do when I read a paper involves dozens of little mental connections that aren’t adequately described when I tell a students to "ask yourself whether the authors has given good evidence to support their conclusion."  I'm not sure when I 'learned' it.  Like skating, it always just seemed natural.  Some students arrive with a modest, or even quite developed ability to do this.  In practicing with these students on more advanced material, they develop better, more rigorous analytical skills.  But  those for whom this is a new activity seem to flounder, and I'm not really sure how to show them.

Q: Is critical or analytical thinking a skill that can be introduced in college?  
 Can we teach the absolute beginners while still offering a university level course?

Brief update:  I don't mean to suggest that anyone 'just naturally' knows how to think critically.  I certainly had to learn (in part from parents who called me on my BS, and in part from being free range kids which let me practice exploring the world), just like I had to learn to skateBut I wonder whether these things are easier to learn while you are still a kid. College seems like a great place to hone/refine/extend critical thinking, but I'm not sure it's the best place to introduce critical thinking.  Yet that sometimes seems to me to be implied in statements that College teaches critical thinking

25 comments:

  1. I think we can teach the smart ones who don't have it, for sure. I know that from my students, many of whom have learned critical thinking over the course of the time I've known them (it's a small programme, so they take lots of courses with me), but I also know that from my own damn self. I didn't start learning critical thinking until university, and a lot of the skills I needed I didn't have until grad school. I never "just did it"--those skills were hard-won for me, and I remember a lot of the lessons that led to them well (and with a bit of a chagrined smirk). So is it possible for all of them? Probably not, especially if your university is admitting students that should probably be in non-university programmes. But it's possible for many.

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  2. The other day, I posed what I thought was a rhetorical question to my upper-year students: "Is it unreasonable of society to assume that someone with a university degree should be able to spell accurately?"

    The students responded in one voice: "Yes!"

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    1. Well, actually, that may not always be a reasonable expectation. I know one very bright nuclear physicist (also extremely well-read, with a broad range of other intellectual interests) who doesn't spell very well at all. I'd guess he has mild dyslexia, or a more targeted mental quirk/deficit.

      It is reasonable to expect a college graduate to know hir strengths and weaknesses, and have found ways to cope effectively with the weaknesses, as I'm sure this man, when operating in a professional context, has.

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    2. But, surely, there's a difference between someone who *can't* spell accurately and someone who could spell accurately, but has never bothered to learn.

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  3. I took up drawing last year, and I run into the same chicken/egg problem with it: "How do I draw this flower?" "Well, you look at the flower and draw what you see." Of course, my drawing looks very little like the flower. But when I really study my drawing and the flower, I can see some things I did wrong: how I drew the stem too thick, or how I didn't reproduce the shading on the petals accurately. Then I think about why I made these mistakes; that I need to look more closely at the stem proportions, but also that I'm just not very good at accurate shading yet, so even when I can clearly see how the flower looks I can't reproduce it.

    This meta-cognitive process operates in the background: I have to focus on it to write down the details here. And while I know I wasn't born knowing how to do this, I can't recall how or when I learned. But I know that I really WANTED to learn several things over the years, and this attitude drove me to develop the skills needed to learn them. So while I don't think it's ever too late to develop these skills, I think that if students don't want to put in the effort that it will not happen.

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  4. But I know that I really WANTED to learn several things over the years, and this attitude drove me to develop the skills needed to learn them. So while I don't think it's ever too late to develop these skills, I think that if students don't want to put in the effort that it will not happen.

    Right, but with "critical thinking," I can't imagine not thinking that I think critically. I can imagine thinking, "I don't know how to draw and would like to learn" or "My French sucks, I'd like it to improve." But it would be very different to think, "Gee, I'm gullible and just believe whatever's on the internet. I accept cable news talking points at face value. Whatever my pastor says is automatically true. I never question anything as a matter of fact. I think this college professor will help me overcome that." Nobody thinks they are uncritical. Everyone thinks they are careful and skeptical.

    You can do a few magic tricks and show people that they aren't paying as much attention to a card trick or haunted house attraction as they thought. They'll laugh that off as good fun and admit to those deficits, as it does not threaten their core personhood, their integrity. But start telling them that they don't question the news, don't think logically about politics, literature, history, etc. and they might get more defensive. Even in the natural sciences - how many creationists insist that they are not ignoring evidence or performing glorious ad hoc argument gymnastics? They don't see it that way.

    So with critical thinking, we not only have a problem seeing our own ideologies and deficits (how many academics fawn over Michael Moore?), but we have learners who are probably even more unlikely to see a need. I see hope if we formulate the goal narrowly. For example in lit one could say, "I'll teach you how to read a novel. I mean really read a novel, get below the surface, uncover hidden aspects you wouldn't notice otherwise..."

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  5. Given recent studies, the evidence is right now that critical thinking cannot be taught. Perhaps that's too strong; maybe we just haven't learned how to teach it yet. But students who don't think critically when they enter don't learn it. Students that do think critically have that capacity honed before they leave.

    In discussions with colleagues, it seems to me that the crucial element is whether a student can even identify an argument. That is, whether a student can see an argument as something separate from an opinion. Or even if a student can identify that an argument can be described by someone who doesn't agree with the argument!

    This is a very simple abstraction, but increasingly I've been forced to acknowledge that many (most) students don't make that leap.. and therefore can't really understand anything that we discuss, because they can't separate ideas from the owners of the ideas.

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    1. If critical thinking is natural for some people, I think I may be one of those people. I would venture to say critical thinking can be learned and honed like any other, but it may require more effort on the part of some people than others.

      I don't want this taken the wrong way, but the issue I've had to overcome is that not everyone makes the same leaps and connections that I do. The 2009 Sherlock Holmes film gave a good representation of how my mind works. In a few scenes, Sherlock is shown analyzing scenarios in slow motion before following through with an action. It's about analyzing actions and outcomes before acting out. That may not be an exact definition of critical thinking, but it comes close to how I perceive the process.

      Here's an example that I see on a daily basis. I deal almost exclusively with transfer students. If you were going to take a course at Community College Z and wondered how it would be applied to a degree at R1 University A, which school would be able to tell you, with 99.9% accuracy, how that course would be used?

      My gast is constantly flabbered by the volume of students who are enrolled at R1 University A who think someone at CC Z has the authority to dictate how a course will transfer and be used at R1 A, whether CC Z employee is acting on good faith and historical precedent when they advise the student or not. It's called a "primary source" versus a "secondary" or even "tertiary" source. Or, as I tell them, "Get it straight from the horse's mouth, preferably (for you) in writing." (I know the metaphor doesn't make sense, but it works. Go figure.) I figured this out before I graduated high school. Nobody told had to tell me.

      I editted (for length) other examples of what seems to me would be common sense but escapes so many.

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    2. I'm not sure that students are not understanding that the R1 university has the authority to determine how a course will transfer. I get this a lot, too, in the course of advising. And it seems to me this specific example is more just expecting that these things are taken care of for them.

      As far as whether or not critical thinking skills can be taught. I'll make this analogy. You can probably teach anyone to play piano. One person will play the notes, but not exert an interpretive skills or expression. But has got the notes down. Another not only plays the notes, but plays them expressively which indicates some understanding of technique as well as meaning/emotion. So applied to critical thinking... some can perhaps do some basics, others will take it to a higher level.

      In my hamster fur-weaving classes, I do see student develop analytical skills over time. Some more than others. But all, to some degree.

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    3. DrN, could you cite a recent study or two? I'm very interested in evidence-based teaching practices, and it's hard to find good research.

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  6. "I think that if students don't want to put in the effort that it will not happen."

    Therein lies the problem.

    "I posed what I thought was a rhetorical question to my upper-year students: "Is it unreasonable of society to assume that someone with a university degree should be able to spell accurately?"

    The students responded in one voice: "Yes!"

    Because they don't want to be able to spell accurately.

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    1. In their thinking, why should they? That's what spell-checkers are for, right?

      I had a similar situation with a service course I taught shortly before I quit my position. I gave an exam and after I marked and returned it to the students, one of them came up to me after class and protested her grade. I penalized her for not showing how she arrived at the answer because that is what I did when I was an undergrad. My reason was that by showing her work, I could not only determine if she understood what she was doing but I might be able to find where she went wrong and, thereby, given her a higher mark.

      She explained that she simply punched numbers into her calculator, pushed some sort of function key, and out came the result. When I told her that I wasn't satisfied with that because I had no way of determining how she arrived at her answer, she started screaming at me and calling me names.

      I mentioned the incident to her department head who, typically, did nothing about it.

      I recall that she graduated and, I assume, found a job in industry. I'd hate to be the colleague who checks her work and tries to figure out what she did.

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  7. For sure, students lack some, most, many, all (choose your quantifier) critical thinking skills that are specific to academia in general or, more specifically, to our particular disciplines.

    But I don't think "critical thinking" is confined to what people do in school, nor do I think critical thinking is the exclusive property of college professors.

    A few real world examples that (at least in my mind) require critical thinking: How do you merge onto a busy freeway during rush hour? How do you know when it's your turn to go at four-way intersection?

    Does a short-order cook at a hectic breakfast cafe use critical thinking skills when he's juggling a dozen orders at a time? How about his customers? Do they use critical thinking skills when they're deciding what to order?

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    1. As the spouse of a short order cook, yes they do use critical thinking skills. Not just to track current orders from customers, but to keep a running tally of how many eggs etc. they are using, and if they expect to be busy the next day, and when an order needs to be placed so that it arrives before they run out but not so early that a stock is maintained.

      All while maintaining a friendly demeanor to take the order of customers who won't get off their phone, say they want sunny side up eggs, then file an official complaint when the yolks run.

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    2. Agreed. People in the skilled crafts (plumbers, auto mechanics, electricians) use critical thinking skills all the time to diagnose and fix problems while not making matters worse. And these are unforgiving careers with potentially fatal mistakes (at least for electricians). My impression of these people is that the ones who can't think on their feet are weeded out very early in their training. And then come to my community college . . .

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  8. It seems we're talking about teaching old tricks to new dogs.

    The self-of-steam generation being the new, and things like thinking critically being the old.

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    1. It's not just that. While I was teaching, many of my students would eventually go into industry, where the emphasis was on working in teams. Thinking involves a lot of individual effort, and since there's no "i" in team, why bother? The "group" will collectively arrive at the solution, won't it?

      Then again, many of my students came from high schools where they breezed through without much intellectual effort. Being in a setting where thinking becomes necessary can be quite unsettling.

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    2. And college administrators, seeing this, have dictated, "YOu must do everything in groups; do more group work." So students also don't learn to function on their own even in college.

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  9. I don't think we do a good job at where I work of being able to teach our students with very little thinking ability (let alone critical thinking ability) how to think critically in 10 weeks together (we're on the quarter system). They come in with NO skills, and I'm happy if, by the end of the quarter, they can at least recognize that turning in an essay on time doesn't result in an F. We get criticized by the campus at large for not preparing them for their more rigorous writing courses, but really, we don't have time to do that. In a 10 week course, we're teaching them how to use the computer, how to come to class on time, how to keep track of their materials, how to make sure they get to class on time. These are all things they should have learned in 12 years of school, yet are still struggling with. That takes half the quarter. By the time they're ready for BASIC logic 101, as in CAUSE--->EFFECT, we're halfway through the quarter. The most BASIC levels of thinking are grasped.

    They haven't learned how to LEARN yet, which in my mind, is the most basic of critical thinking skills. They also haven't learned how to LISTEN, which leads to potential LEARNING. They haven't learned how to READ yet, which is key to critical thinking. Part of critical thinking is the ability to spend time THINKING. They haven't learned to discipline themselves to stop to THINK. So lacking those skills, I don't think they can be taught in a single class.

    There is the example of Max Schulman's "Love is a Fallacy" (google it), which shows someone learning critical thinking through the use of fallacies, but it's from the good ol' days, ya know. :)

    We are an open enrollment institution, which means sometimes we get people who are strong critical thinkers already from life experience. Those, I can't teach. They have learned how to learn by themselves.

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    1. Many of my students demanded that I use a cookbook method for solving problems, making sure that everything can be given as a sequential list of things to do. On top of that, my exams could only consist of things that they had seen before.

      But that's not how the real world functions. A lot of situations can't be described by a list and sometimes one encounters something things one has never previously encountered. That's where the thinking comes in. One should be able to take a problem which is completely new, assess it, break it down into situations or concepts one is already familiar with, and then start solving it.

      Unfortunately, trying to teach them how to do that frequently got me into trouble because I made things "tough" for them. I often wondered what sort of employees they would make if that was going to be their attitude.

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    2. @NLA -

      Many of my students demanded that I use a cookbook method for solving problems, making sure that everything can be given as a sequential list of things to do.

      Yep. I haven't had students or admins tell, but I've noticed that the students subtly train me to be this way. I have a cool assignment I do that is unlike your typical read-the-texts-and-write-about-them thing and I have found that unless I spell out every step, turning it practically into a "fill out this form" kind of thing, the assignment won't work within the time constraints of the new shorter term. There is no time to go back and do it again.

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    3. And figuring out that you've gone astray in the course of completing a project, going back and identifying where, and correcting your course is, of course, an essential life skill.

      Even with some time to do the assignment, a significant proportion of my students have problems with an assignment (part of a larger one) in which I ask them to investigate a number of possibilities, only some of which will turn out to apply to their particular (self-chosen) subjects. The idea that the answer to a number of the questions I ask will be "no, couldn't find anything," but that they *should* be able to find something for several of the questions on the list (and that they won't know which of the questions are those several until they look) is quite disorienting for some of them. It's a project that mimics real-world situations more than many academic ones, and that, apparently, is a problem.

      Also, I feel like I'm spending so much time laying out everything step by step that I barely have time to read and offer feedback on the results.

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  10. I remember interviewing for a job at a fairly fancy prep school the year I graduated from college, and being told that 9th graders just weren't ready to do certain sorts of abstract thinking. That may well be true, but I also think that educators in the U.S. tend to shy away from introducing students to concepts that are currently slightly over their heads, in hopes that, by the time they're fully able to understand them, the concepts will feel familiar. They may not feel completely comfortable, any more than my college-junior writing students feel completely comfortable reading journal articles in their discipline, but they'll get more comfortable over time (by the time my students have read a dozen or so articles, they're beginning to realize that they can get the gist of an article even if they don't understand all the month, can learn professional vocabulary from context, etc., etc.)

    As the example above suggests, I also think that college students *can* learn to learn, even if they haven't done so before. But if they haven't experienced the feeling of being in slightly over their heads, muddling through, and learning/getting afloat in the process before they're 18, learning that that's what learning can/should feel like is going to be hard, because first they're going to have to unlearn their belief that if a situation is hard/uncomfortable, then something is wrong (with them, the teacher, or both).

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    1. month=math. My brain is doing weird things these days.

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    2. Wait until they have to work for a living. Many of the problems and situations they will encounter will be something they've never encountered before. That's when they have to take what they know and see if they can apply it. They'll have to or their employer will find someone who can.

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