Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Spring Week 6: Building Critical Thinking Skills

Critical thinking is the purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. Critical thinking is hard and a complicated process, often referred to as “higher-order skill” and we humans are not naturally good at it.  Unlike running which is natural for us, critical thinking is like ballet, a highly contrived activity. Thus with only many years of dedicated training and practice we would be able to do well as “critical thinkers”.

First several individual skills should be acquired including both the Lower Order Thinking Skills (remember, understand and apply) and the Higher Order Thinking Skills (analyze, evaluate and create). But that’s not all. To be considered “good critical thinker” one should be able to master putting all those individual skills together in perfect balance, something which takes years and years of practice.   

That being said, in order to cultivate our critical thinking skills as teachers and in turn start training our students as critical thinkers for them to become the future successful lawyers, scientists, politicians and educators, we need to understand how critical thinking works. In other words we need to resort to the contributions made by Cognitive Science.

“Thinking” from a Cognitive Science point of view

Recent scientific research suggests that human thinking and decision-making is very complex and integrates two parallel-functioning systems.
In System 1 thinking, one relies heavily on a number of heuristics (cognitive maneuvers), key situational characteristics, readily associated ideas, and vivid memories to arrive quickly and confidently at a judgment. System 1 thinking is particularly helpful in familiar situations when time is short and immediate action is required.  
While System 2 is the more reflective thinking system. It is useful for making judgments when you find yourself in unfamiliar situations and have more time to figure things out. It allows us to process abstract concepts, to deliberate, to plan ahead, to consider options carefully, to review and revise our work in the light of relevant guidelines or standards or rules of procedure.

Both System 1 and System 2 work together to help us make sound decisions and refrain from making foolish or even dangerous errors in judgment. But even a good thinker makes errors due to the influences and misapplications of these cognitive heuristics. Thus by understanding the components of these two systems and how each of them influence us we would be able to overcome or get passed the heuristics and biases resulting from these components which otherwise will impair our ability to think critically.

The five heuristics that more frequently operate in our System 1 reasoning are known as availability, affect, association, simulation, and similarity.

The Availability heuristic, is the coming to mind of a story or vivid memory of something that happened to you or to someone close to you, inclines a person make inaccurate estimates of the likelihood of that thing’s happening again.

The Affect heuristic operates when you have an immediate positive or a negative reaction to some idea, proposal, person, object, whatever. Sometimes called a “gut reaction” this affective response sets up an initial orientation in us, positive or negative, toward the object. It takes a lot of System 2 reasoning to overcome a powerful affective response to an idea, but it can be done.

The Association heuristic is operating when one word or idea reminds us of something else. For example, some people associate the word “cancer” with “death.” Some associate “sunshine” with “happiness.” These kinds of associational reasoning responses can be helpful at times, as for example if associating cancer with death leads you not to smoke and to go in for regular checkups. At other times the same association may influence a person to make an unwise decision, as for example if associating “cancer” with “death” were to lead you to be so fearful and pessimistic that you do not seek diagnosis and treatment of a worrisome cancer symptom until it was really too late to do anything.

The Simulation heuristic is working when you are imagining how various scenarios will unfold. People often imagine how a conversation will go, or how they will be treated by someone else when they meet the person, or what their friends or boss or lover will say and do when they have to address some difficult issue. These simulations, like movies in our heads, help us prepare and do a better job when the difficult moment arrives. But they can also lead us to have mistaken expectations. People may not respond as we imagined, things may go much differently. Our preparations may fail us because the ease of our simulation misled us into thinking that things would have to go as we had imagined them. And they did not.

The Similarity heuristic operates when we notice some way in which we are like someone else and infer that what happened to that person is therefore more likely to happen to us. The similarity heuristic functions much like an analogical argument or metaphorical model. The similarity we focus on might be fundamental and relevant, which would make the inference more warranted. For example, the boss fired your coworker for missing sales targets and you draw the reasonable conclusion that if you miss your sales targets you’ll be fired too. Or the similarity that comes to mind might be superficial or not connected with the outcome, which would make the inference unwarranted. For example you see a TV commercial showing trim-figured young people enjoying fattening fast foods and infer that because you’re young too you can indulge your cravings for fast foods without gaining a lot of excess unsightly poundage.

Heuristics and biases more associated with System 2 thinking include: satisficing, risk/loss aversion, anchoring with adjustment, and the illusion of control.

Satisficing occurs as we consider our alternatives. When we come to one which is good enough to fulfill our objectives we often regard ourselves as having completed our deliberations. We have satisficed. And why not? The choice is, after all, good enough. It may not be perfect, it may not be optimal, it may not even be the best among the options available. But it is good enough. Time to decide and move forward.

We are by nature a species that is averse to risk and loss. Often we make decisions on the basis of what we are too worried about losing, rather than on the basis of what we might gain. The odds may not be stacked against us, but the consequences of losing at times are so great that we would prefer to forego the possibilities of gain in order not to lose what we have.

The heuristic known as Anchoring with Adjustment is operative when we find ourselves making evaluative judgments. The natural thing for us to do is to locate or anchor our evaluation at some point along whatever scale we are using. The unfortunate thing about this heuristic is that we sometimes drop anchor in the wrong place; we have a hard time giving people a second chance at making a good first impression.

The heuristic known as Illusion of Control is evident in many situations. Many of us over-estimate our abilities to control what will happen. We make plans for how we are going to do this or that, say this or that, manipulate the situation this way or that way, share or not share this information or that possibility, all the time thinking that some how our petty plans will enable us to control what happens.

Related to the Illusion of Control heuristic is the tendency to misconstrue our personal influence or responsibility for past events. This is called Hindsight Bias. We may over-estimate the influence our actions have had on events when things go right, or we may underestimate our responsibility or culpability when things go wrong. We have all heard people bragging about how they did this and how they did that and, as a result, such and such wonderful things happened.

Practical approaches for teaching critical thinking

Now we understand the components underlying Critical Thinking, and understand how each component if left uncontrolled might refrain us from making sound decisions. With these lessons from Cognitive Science in mind we discussed about practical approaches that can be adopted in the classroom to teach critical thinking. Some of these approaches include:

-Utilizing higher-order questioning approach to fire up students' Critical Thinking skills (Table 1).

-Leading students to the correct answer and making them come up with the answer themselves rather than the teacher giving away the answer right away.

- Guided reading: While asking students to critically evaluate a reading material, give them a set of questions for them to think about while they are reading.

-Asking students to evaluate the conclusions derived from data.

-Emphasizing the importance of Critical Thinking with real life examples. Make them aware of examples in history where lack of Critical Thinking skills has resulted in the collapse of an empire, caused the death of thousands of people etc.

-Emphasizing group work: In properly structured cooperative learning environments, students perform more of the active, critical thinking with continuous support and feedback from other students and the teacher.

-Adopting a problem based learning approach, which studies show to increase the critical thinking skills in students.

-Providing examples of good critically evaluated statements and asking students why they think it is good.

 1) Peter A. Facione (2013) Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts.
 2) Tim van Gelder (2005) Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons from Cognitive Science

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