The Difficulties of Teaching Critical Thinking

Note: This blog post was originally written for my Master Degree’s in Leadership in Teaching via Notre Dame of Maryland University. For readability, I’ve removed some of the inline citations, added some clarification, and omitted some of the academic formatting. If anybody wants my full references list or a copy of the original paper, I’m happy to send it along, but I’m sharing it here because some folks have demonstrated an interested in the sorts of teaching meta I’ve described in The Difficultues of Teaching Notetaking. 

The educational priorities of a society are an ever-shifting goalpost that are inherently impacted by labor needs, technology, and values. From apprenticeship systems in Medieval Europe to bureaucratic tests in Imperial China to the famous universities of Timbuktu, the nature of what is taught to adolescents of various social classes, why it is taught, and how it is taught has shifted drastically over time. As the global community moves into the Information Age, lecture and memorization-based methods of education have become increasingly outmoded.

Note: By “outmoded,” I mean I not only don’t use them in my teaching, neither did my teachers 15 years ago. I still cringe every time I read a modern article criticizing “traditional teaching,” as though it’s at all normal to see lecture-based memorization in a normal American classroom.

My 8th grade Social Studies teacher made this point to me as far back as the 1990s. I visited his classroom at the end of the school year and asked why I hadn’t learned more about a particular topic of interest that I no longer recall – but I remember his response vividly. Although search engines personal computers were still relatively new in the popular consciousness of the time, he explained that knowledge of dates and names was less important in a world where that information was easier to access than at any time previous, and so skills, not facts, were what he wanted to impart.

He was hardly alone in that opinion. A common criticism of modern education systems that they do not do enough to teach the critical thinking skills that modern students need to be successful in the workforce.

Development of the Common Core State Standards began in 2009 in part to address this precise problem. The trend is continuing. In the last 3 years of my teaching career, my district moved away from multiple-choice tests in grades 6 thru 12 Social Studies to assessing using Document Based Questions (DBQs). These test the student’s ability to analyze sources, make connections, and craft compelling arguments instead of relying primarily on knowledge.

What is the best way to assess critical thinking?

Critical thinking skills are a key component of being “college and career ready,” but precise definitions of critical thinking vary depending on the source and many components have been identified. For example, although there are many assessments of critical thinking, the Critical Thinking Assessment Test is unique in that it was “designed for use by college faculty to help them improve their development of students’ critical thinking skills.”

The Critical-thinking Assessment Test (CAT) looks for the skills relating to

  1. evaluating information
  2. creative thinking
  3. learning and problem solving
  4. communication

Of these, creativity and problem solving are the two components of critical thinking that are often most difficult to assess in an objective, standardized, numerical manner. They are therefore of interest in terms of identifying potential best practices for teaching them.

In addition to tests like the CAT, there are organizations specifically geared toward teaching creative problem-solving. In the 1970s, Dr. C. Samuel Micklus, challenged his Industrial Design students to use their creativity to solve unique problems, and found the experience valuable enough that he created a course called Creative Problem Solving.

Other students – and their teachers – asked to be included in the challenges, and from there were born organizations like Olympics of the Mind; Creative Competitions, Inc; and Destination Imagination.

From a personal standpoint, having been a member of both Odyssey of the Mind (“OM”) in elementary school and Destination Imagination (“DI”) in high school, I found them to be valuable experiences. Winning the state-level competition two years out of four was one of the highlights of my high school experience, but the question of whether I was selected because I was “natively good” at creative problem solving, whether I learned creative problem-solving skills during the program, or some combination of both, still lingers.

Critical thinking really IS in decline.

Despite the well-meaning efforts of the National Governors Association, assessment writers, teachers, and organizations like Destination Imagination, creative thinking skills appear to be declining across America. Since testing using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking began in the 1960s, creative thinking scores have declined despite a generalized increase in Intelligence Quotient (IQ) scores.

Note: standardized tests/measures like BMI and IQ and PARCC scores are, in my opinion, a fairly terrible way to evaluate individuals, but are still useful for measuring generalities in a population.

Sources disagree on whether it is possible to teach creative problem-solving skills in the “traditional” school environment. In the United States, however, the Common Core State Standards make it clear that educators in most jurisdictions must do so. The Common Core State Standards leave curriculum-writing in the hands of individual districts, however, so individual districts and teachers often have some measure of discretion in how they teach these skills.

Many teachers think that critical thinking skills are inherent to the nature of their classes, but there is a gap in studying how to teach specific components – like creativity and problem solving – to teenagers. Although there are some hints that targeted instruction is effective in teaching critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving, details on how best to integrate targeted instruction are lacking in the literature.

Let’s define our terms.

The Glossary of Education Reform defines critical thinking as “an umbrella term that may be applied to many different forms of learning acquisition or to a wide variety of thought processes. In its most basic expression, critical thinking occurs when students are analyzing, evaluating, interpreting, or synthesizing information and applying creative thought to form an argument, solve a problem, or reach a conclusion.” I’m focused on applying creative thought to solve a problem aspect of creative thinking, synthesized into the term creative problem solving.

Creative in the educational context is often used but rarely defined. Brookhart defines creative to mean ‘original and of high quality.’ The characteristic that best indicates that a student is creative is their ability “put things together in new ways.” My favorite definition is that creative is “the interaction among aptitude, process, and environment by which an individual or group produces a perceptible product that is both novel and useful as defined within a social context.” Really, though, it’s one of those things where “you know it when you see it.”

Instructional factors, as opposed to learner factors, refer to teacher-controlled aspects of education, instructional factors such as quality of instructor, learning activities, and learning supports

How do pre-existing factors impact critical thinking skills?

Before researchers and educators can begin evaluating the value of targeted instruction in creative problem-solving skills, it is useful to investigate the relevant advantages and disadvantages students bring with them into the classroom. From an equity perspective, inherent and pre-existing factors may provide perspective and inform instruction choices in the same way that an awareness of other systemic biases in education can inform instructional choices.

Cultural and demographic factors beyond the control of educators nonetheless play a role in students’ creative problem-solving skills. Demographic class does not always correlate to a significant difference in critical thinking skills, for example in the case of gender. Parent education level and job type does correlates to student ability to think creatively, though. Students’ nationality also significantly impacts critical thinking development, although it is unclear precisely why. Demographic differences or instructional policies (or both, or neither) may be contributors. Although broad-spectrum analysis of the impact of external factors such as cultural norms, GDP, social supports, etc., on creative problem solving skills have not been addressed by any studies I was able to find, they may play a role given their impacts on other aspects of child development.

Grade level also correlates to critical thinking ability. When surveying high school students in Bosnia and Turkey, Becirovic, Hodžic, & Brdarevic-Celjo (2019) found that students’ grade level significantly impacts critical thinking development. It is unclear whether this is a function of cognitive development related to biological development associated with aging or instructional growth. With regards to creativity specifically, Kim (2011) found that children’s ability to come up with creative new ideas went up steadily until third grade, stayed static between 4th and 5th grade, then decreased, potentially indicating that children “become alert to issues like accuracy and appropriateness of their responses when they generate ideas.” However, Shavelson (2010) found that seniors at many higher education institutions demonstrated stronger critical thinking skills than similarly situated freshmen. Although “granular analysis of their results” indicates that instructional factors were a significant factor, that does not rule out the possibility of that an adolescent’s precise age may play a role in creative problem solving, given that “abstract thinking ability and ability for synthesis and organization thinking processes” increase with age.

There are barriers to teaching creative problem-solving skills.

One of the difficulties of teaching creative problem solving and other critical thinking skills in the traditional classroom is that the traditional classroom wasn’t designed for it. Revolutionary change is hard, especially for something as important as a public school system… and we’ve been burned before. For example, open floorplan class designs with mixed-age project-based learning with high levels of materials choice look great on paper (see also: Montessori schools), but they’re all but impossible to implement on a wide scale, and school districts that try usually wind up with a horrible mishmash of traditional classrooms that just happen to not have walls. Implementing Montessori educational philosophies is all but impossible for an individual teacher in a traditional schoolhouse because of the financial investment required alone.

Students’ critical thinking skills benefit when instructors focus on teaching those skills in an explicit, purposeful manner. Many educators, especially those at the college level, consider critical thinking to be a major focus of their class “by virtue of the course content.” But unfortunately, implicit inclusion of creative problem solving skills can be less effective than intentional pedagogical focus on teaching relevant critical thinking skills, for example practical context problem solving. Teaching methods that rely on the fundamentals of the course structure or the nature of the academic discipline to teach critical thinking as a natural consequence of the class are less effective than when teachers focused on teaching explicit strategies promoting cognitive flexibility.

It can be really hard to find time to do that when a course has a strict pacing guide that is content instead of skills focused.

Choice, relevancy, and independence all matter.

The skills and focus of individual teachers have an impact on student improvement in creative problem-solving metrics. The amount of student choice offered by an individual teacher is positively correlated with the ability of students to overcome challenges and engage in the creative process, although this is actually less effective at improving creativity than active, targeted training.

Still, inquiry based instruction is an effective means of promoting cognitive flexibility and providing students opportunities to learn problem-solving skills. Requiring students to solve practical problems is more effective than learning by traditional means like rote memorization or lecture and is a small-scale shift that is often within an individual instructor’s discretion to make. Offering choice-based projects on relevant, high-interest topics are therefore likely to be an effective way for individual teachers to teach creative problem-solving skills to teenagers.

What about the people with more power than individual teachers?

When instructing students in a manner intended to enhance creative problem-solving skills, one potential method is to deviate from the traditional model of the classroom. Although Mawtus, Rodriguez-Cuadrado, Ludke, & Nicolson (2019) state that creative thinking is “not a separate subject,” their conclusion that it “can be embedded in a mainstream secondary school without affecting subject learning” (p. 94) speaks from a broader perspective than most teachers are able to individually implement, particularly given the requirements of standardized testing. The decision to implement a play-based pedagogical planning methodology is, like truly flexible seating, one that requires administrative support or an alternative method of teaching.

Globally, many teenagers learn outside of the “traditional” schoolhouse environment. A little over 3% of the school-age population in the USA was homeschooled in 2019 and this is a growing population. Nontraditional schooling environments have more freedom to experiment with sweeping changes to instructional styles. In Sweden, the Kunskapsskolan at Kista is known for informality, an open plan layout, and an emphasis on individualized learning and internet-based research.

Researchers have developed and studied a variety of comprehensive methodologies and models intended at least in part to enhance student creative problem-solving abilities. Play-based learning has been confirmed to increase creativity scores even over the student-centered choice-based models. Similarly, choice-based models alone were insufficient to improve student ability to think critically, although active training on the part of a teacher already possessing high creativity was very effective. The 3CM model of learning, which focuses on the “principle of bringing cool, critical, creative, and meaningful activities to the classroom,” was found to increase student creativity in solving mathematical problems because the learning situation pushed students into thinking systemically.

Major takeaways about teaching critical thinking:

The ability to creatively solve problems is on the decline, although educators and employers have a vested interest in fostering them. Creative problem-solving skills are key across contexts, from mathematics, to employment scenarios, to projects in the humanities. Although creativity itself declines as students progress throughout the secondary grades, other skills associated with critical thinking and problem-solving increase. Decisions made at the instructional level have the largest impact on the development of critical thinking skills, although demographic factors play a part, particularly with regards to non-biological factors like parental income and education level.

Lecture-based rote learning oriented toward standardized testing models is ill-suited to developing creative problem-solving skills. In searching for better teaching methods, researchers have focused primarily on the impacts of inquiry-based learning, choice-based learning, and play-based learning. Regardless of the particular manner lessons are established, active intervention on the part of instructors to deliberately train students in creative problem solving is most effective at improving creative thinking skills. Explicit, not implicit, instruction in creative problem-solving skills and their importance is an important factor in the successful development of creative problem-solving skills in teenagers.

Based on my read of the literature, it’s likely that creative problem-solving skills in teenagers will be improved by requiring students to engage in fun, inquiry-based, interest-based project pedagogy implemented over the long term if the methodology is implemented with flexible curriculum, very infrequent standardized testing, and teachers trained to actively intervene on an individual basis to encourage creativity and model systemic thinking.

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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