In the field of higher education where I work as a manager of instructional support, a priority has been placed on “critical thinking” as the skill-set graduates most need in order to be productive at work. Consequently, it is the one thing that instructors are expected to teach and test for in their students. Just as graduates who can’t think critically presumably won’t be successful in the world, students who can’t demonstrate this ability on standardized assessments aren’t allowed to succeed in school.
Yes, I do mean to say that they aren’t allowed to succeed, since the system either penalizes creative thinking outright or else refuses to recognize it as a legitimate pathway of intellectual development.
My concern here is not over the institutional prejudice in our schools against creative thinking, but rather over the damage that our methods of teaching and testing for critical thinking are actually causing. Despite our stepped-up efforts at inculcating these skills in students, they just aren’t getting it.
The tactic up to this point has been to push even harder: test more frequently, set up interventions and accommodations that will improve test outcomes, and pressure instructors to stay up on new techniques as student academic performance continues to slide in the wrong direction. Everyone is more anxious, and the desired results keep eluding us.
This is what I’m calling “the problem.” It includes not only the fact that success and graduation rates are falling, but the way schools are actually making it worse in their attempts to stop the leak and improve outcomes.
Briefly stated, it is the combined assault of assessment pressures on students and institutional pressures on teachers, along with an increase in accommodations to help students pass and interventions to keep them from failing, that is making the problem worse.
In the bigger picture, which I’ll try to develop here, it is all fueled by a fundamental misunderstanding of critical thinking by the schools themselves, and the various ways they actively undermine the very thing they are demanding from students.
I should say that this misunderstanding is not really about which skills comprise the skill-set of critical thinking, but rather how the skill-set itself depends on a deeper system of other skills not directly addressed in formal education. Schools simply assume that students come to the task with this deeper support in place, and it is this assumption – along with many of the methods, strategies and tactics employed to make critical thinking stronger – that is making the problem worse.
What is this deeper system? My diagram illustrates its components and their relationships in the model of a pyramid. Each layer or stage of the pyramid depends on those underneath, as it provides the necessary support to stages higher up. Critical thinking is indeed at the apex of skills that students need to learn in school, but ignoring and jumping past the other skills on which it depends, in the effort to make it stronger, is predictably having the opposite effect.
With a general understanding of this structural dynamic among the cognitive skills now in place, let’s begin at the base and work our way up.
We’ll start with what should be obvious: Students are more successful at the academic challenge of higher learning when their brains are optimized (i.e., functioning optimally). Of all the body’s organs, this one is most profoundly implicated in the process of learning new skills and building knowledge. And yet, just as we can’t treat critical thinking in isolation from the other cognitive skills, we can’t ignore the fact that a healthy and optimized brain depends on a healthy body.
If students come to the challenge of learning when they are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out, their brains can’t perform well. They won’t be able to concentrate attention and sustain focus. They won’t be able to bundle information and store it in memory for retrieval later when they need it. They won’t be able to discriminate between highly similar concepts or solve complex problems.
A brain that can’t focus, remember, or make judgments is a brain that won’t be able to think critically – no matter how hard we push it. In fact, the harder such a brain is pushed, the more degraded these cognitive abilities become.
The most important thing for students and schools to realize, then, is that the entire business of higher learning is an enterprise scheduled for failure if students – but let’s also include school teachers and administrators! – are not committed to getting the rest, nutrition, exercise, and meditation their bodies and brains require to successfully meet the challenges they face.
Are we teaching this in our schools, from the beginning grades and throughout students’ educational careers? The answer is decidedly “No.”
Students who are tired, hungry, in pain or stressed-out simply cannot learn, or will have difficulty learning. Which begs the question: If they can’t learn and end up getting poor grades on assignments and assessments, what exactly are those grades measuring?
Neuroscience has discovered that a majority of the skills required in learning are located in a highly specialized brain region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – behind the forehead and between the eyes. A fully functioning PFC, then, is the virtue of an optimized brain, which in turn is the virtue of a healthy body. Health is the foundation of everything else.
It will help to imagine a student about to engage the work of critical thinking while sitting at a desk in a study with a door. When she first sits down to her work, the door to the study is open to the noise and activity in the hallway outside. Inevitably – and with scientific certainty we can say, predictably – her focus will be attracted away (or distracted) from the work in front of her.
What she needs to do is get up from her desk, walk over to the study door, and close it. That way, she will minimize the risk of getting distracted from her work.
One of the more basic executive functions of the PFC is named impulse inhibition. As a cognitive skill it can be strengthened with practice, just like every other skill. If we think of the student’s study room on the analogy of her brain, then this all-important function serves to suppress or screen out nerve impulses coming to the brain from her body and its environment, in order that attention can be focused where it needs to be.
When the skill of impulse inhibition is strong, the student is able to maintain mental focus, our second (and higher) executive function of the PFC. In addition to her commitment to nurturing a healthy body and brain, her consistent practice of “closing the door” and protecting the mental space of her study will dramatically elevate the likelihood of her success in learning. By directing and holding focus on what needs her attention, the student will be able to engage the work of critical thinking.
As we advance our reflections from the door (impulse inhibition) and the study room itself (mental focus), we come to the “desk” where critical thinking will need to happen. Among the cognitive skills and executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, this is what neuroscience names short-term memory, or more commonly working memory. Think of this as the workspace (hence a desk) where the student collects and manipulates bits of data in her progress towards understanding.
Working memory enables her to hold on average seven bits of information for somewhere between 20 and 30 seconds – just long enough to perform the requisite logical operations involved in critical thinking.
Just as impulse inhibition and mental focus are reciprocally related (each strengthening the other), so are the cognitive skills of concept formation and critical thinking similarly related. A simple way of distinguishing these higher executive functions is to define critical thinking as the performance of logical operations on the concepts it is forming. And so, each skill strengthens the other as concepts are formed, factored, and reconstructed in the process of understanding.
The eight logical operations of critical thinking are:
- Analysis: from whole to parts
- Synthesis: from parts to whole
- Induction: from specific to general
- Deduction: from general to specific
- Abstraction: from example to idea
- Concretion: from idea to example
- Inference: from premise to conclusion
- Prediction: from cause to outcome
It’s important for students to distinguish these logical operations from the concepts they are trying to learn. Critical thinking is thus “how” their minds work on “what” they are learning. Mastering the eight operations of critical thinking is to possess the ability for constructing meaning at higher levels of complexity. This shows us that critical thinking and creative thinking are not independent of each other after all, but intimately connected and complementary.
Stepping back for the bigger picture again, we can see that critical thinking is not something we can treat in isolation, but is rather nested in a deeper system of cognitive skills. And because cognitive skills correlate directly to the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex, we must eventually return our conversation to the crucial responsibility of schools in helping students appreciate how healthy bodies and brains translate into academic success.
As long as they keep pushing on the problem, schools will just keep making it worse.