Philosophy of education

On critical thinking and educational research: the fields of conflict

Bell Hooks“One of the major differences I see in the political climate today is that there is less collective support for coming to critical consciousness – in communities, in institutions, among friends.”

I wrote about a particular meme in my last blog. The view that critical thinking is indivisible from knowledge. This has been adopted to the extent that any discussion about thinking skills ends up as a vindication of knowledge.

In other words it is hard to teach critical skills because critical skills are so reliant on knowledge. In this blog I’m going to ponder whether that is true and elaborate on the problem of “fields” in research and how they help to create memes.  

On the fields of ahem genetics and… erm… that other one… genetics: the conflict between fields

I was looking at a newspaper article on twin studies. More specifically two scientists in different fields discussing twin studies. The central argument; whether twin studies can be used to evidence the innateness of intelligence ( or pre-disposition). One scientist for; the other against. Not unusually quantitative researchers were able to make some implausibly specific claims:

The researchers found that the heritability of GCSE scores was 62%.  Individual traits were between 35% and 58% heritable, with intelligence being the most highly heritable. Together, the nine domains accounted for 75% of the heritability of GCSE scores.

A scientist in one field looking for the answers in a quantitative based approach using twin studies. Another in a different field, the interaction of individual genes, disagreeing totally.

Bourdieu writes powerfully about fields:

A field is a setting in which agents and their social positions are located. The position of each particular agent in the field is a result of interaction between the specific rules of the field, agent’s habitus and agent’s capital (social, economic and cultural). 

By the way I really like the final argument offered in the article; impressively unscientific:

“He’s so wrong I can’t believe it,” Professor Plomin said. “We’ve all heard of the Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. Well, twin studies have been around for about 100 years and they are the tortoise, while molecular genetics is the hare,” he said. “And we all know who won that race”.

Alternative view point one; critical thinking, molecular genetics and pre-disposition

So we can see that whilst one field regards the problem one way; a second completely disagrees or sees the problem as something else. It did set me thinking about critical skills. What if the ability to teach critical thinking is not related to knowledge but a pre-disposition to critical thinking. It could be completely unrelated to education. For example, what if risk averse individuals, given the right circumstances, seek to challenge what they are being told particularly if it means they are subject to risk. They feel threatened.

Perhaps that is the root of critical thinking. Critical thinking is innate or, at least, a pre-disposition, to it, is innate. Cognition may adapt dependent upon perceived risk; who knows. It would be very difficult to match a pre-disposition to the actual physical outcomes.

Risk is just one possible genetic pre-disposition. There could be many. From this perspective critical thinking is a cognitive construct that is derived from something in our genetic (not cognitive) make up that pre-disposes us to critical thinking. A possibility? Critical thinking skills are difficult to teach not because of the relationship between thinking and knowledge but because certain individuals are simply not pre-disposed to it.

Alternative view point two; critical thinking and norm groups 

It set me thinking about Finland; cognitive science always does. Only kidding it’s normally Belgium. Apparently the rise in achievement in reading in Finland’s schools is entirely due to girls. They are cleverer; no really, they must be. The facts tell us it’s so. Unsurprisingly no one is accepting, the fact, that women are cleverer than men.

The reason, I suspect, is that the notion that women are cleverer than men is not a generally accepted social norm. The media, politics etc is full of men who are doing some “critical thinking” to try and explain the results in ways that do not include the fact that women are just “smarter”. In fact where boys are concerned the problem is often laid at the door of education. The feminisation of education; that is a good bit of critical thinking. Ironically the same problem with black youngsters sees the problem laid at the door of the community and families. Funny that….! I suppose it depends who is doing the critical thinking.

Regardless I doubt whether critical thinking is dependent upon much domain knowledge where journalists are concerned. Perhaps critical thinking is hard to teach because students don’t care that much about the subjects they are being taught.

Curriculum consists of abstract, re-contextualised knowledge that is unlikely to offend or impact upon the cognitive responses wired for day to day reactions to norm group issues. Arguably a second reason why critical thinking skills are hard to teach. Cognition reacts to norm group issues and looks for those issues to trigger the thought processes involved in critical thinking.

We don’t (men that is) like the idea of women being cleverer than us, it threatens us, so we seek to resolve the issue.

Alternative view point three; critical thinking and “group pre-dispositions / dispositions”

Here’s another related explanation for the success of females in education:

School is a thing and that thing lends itself to a pre-disposition; in this case a female disposition

It could be a shared genetic disposition or a disposition that is created by socialisation. Makes sense to me; I’m a man. Except of course we know there are clear socio-economic factors involved in education. You would presume that socio economic groups do not share gene-environment correlations. Still it could be a factor. Do socio-economic groups share pre-dispositions based on a shared socialisation?

A possible explanation for the difficulty of teaching critical thinking is that education favours a group disposition that does not lend itself to critical thinking. Is that a possibility? In other words critical thinking is hard to teach because the environment does not encourage it and those who aim to succeed in it don’t feel it is a helpful attribute.

Alternative view point four: critical thinking, social theory and cultural tools

How about a more complex view from the field of social theory. Humans interact with language as though it is “real”. In other words critical thinking is a conceptual tool that if it isn’t taught properly simply won’t be there when it’s called upon to be used. In this view critical thinking is reliant upon language and linguistic tools.

The limits of (my) language means the limits of (my) the world – Wittgenstein

Is there a socio cultural explanation? Do we simply teach it badly because we don’t understand socio-cultural tools properly?

Knowledge is not thinking; thinking is the silence of the sea

My guess is that the difficulty of teaching “critical thinking” alluded to by cognitive psychologists has aspects of each of the above. I could add a few more. No doubt others could add even more still. Each one comes from different, possibly related, fields: cognitive psychology, molecular biology, social theory, philosophy. Science is not perfect. The fields of expertise put a lot of effort into making people think they have some kind of sacred knowledge. They do but often its transcendental; not much use in the mundane world of the profane.The everyday.

The problem is as soon as knowledge is taken from one field into another, quite unrelated field; there is a danger of creating memes. I don’t know the answer to the question of critical thinking. My guess is that cognitive psychologists don’t either. In fact I’m not sure that, given the nature of fields, they are capable of finding one.

Critical thinking is: a social act, a political act, a transcendental act, a philosophical act. It cannot be seen solely in terms of cognition. Educational research is where ideas should be re-calibrated for practice.The fact that a field takes an issue as complex as critical thinking and finds the answer within itself is understandable. That so many seem to accept it at face value is surprising.

Perhaps the issue is that the fields of research are not capable of delivering complex 21st century answers. Either way schools and colleges need research leads that are sceptical, have critical faculties and accept that genuine expertise in all the domains related to education is probably not possible. The domain expertise required by research leads is how research from different fields might work in practice; for good or ill.

Silence is the sea, and speech is like the river. The sea is seeking you: don’t seek the river. Don’t turn your head away from the signs offered by the sea – Rumi


There is some irony at work in this BLOG.


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