Christodoulou wrote this book as a teacher frustrated with the clash between what she had been taught in teacher training and her experience in the classroom. Reading her book took me back to my own experience as a trainee teacher doing a Post-Graduate Certificate of Education course at Bristol around 1990. We were novices scared of going into classrooms, desperate to learn how to do it from experts. But instead of the instruction we craved we constantly found ourselves put into groups to discuss our own ideas. We sarcastically referred to this as ‘sharing our ignorance’. So I do understand where Christodoulou is coming from and I sympathise with her experience.
Against what Christadoulou claims, the evidence shows fairly conclusively that general thinking skills can be taught. I know this because I edit the world leading journal in this area: ‘Thinking Skills and Creativity’ and we publish rigorous research on the impact of programmes that aim to teach general transferable thinking and learning skills. Last year I edited The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Teaching Thinking. In one chapter Professor Steve Higgins of Durham University, a leading expert in educational evaluation, summarises the evidence as to whether it is better to teach general skills separate from curriculum content (‘knowledge’) or ‘infused’ within the teaching of content. His conclusion, based on a major meta-analysis by Abrami (2008), is that the evidence is very clear: it is best to do both.
Combined approaches where skills are taught explicitly as critical thinking lessons and combined with curriculum teaching which is infused with these skills, are the most effective (an effect size of 0.94). If you teach critical thinking separately, then learners do improve (an effect size of 0.38), but perhaps don’t know how or when to employ these skills. If you teach skills embedded or infused into a curriculum, this is slightly more effective than teaching them separately (with an effect size of 0.54) but learners may not be so aware of them or of how they might need to be adapted for a different context or subject (Higgins, 2015).
But, you might respond, Cristodoulou is also also quoting research evidence – does this mean that the experts disagree? Not necessarily. When her favourite cognitive psychologist, Dan Willingham, writes ‘There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.’ he immediately goes on to add ‘ there are metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely.’ (Willingham, 2007). The issue here may be simply a narrow or wide use of the term ‘skill’. What he, as a cognitive psychologist, calls ‘metacognitive strategies’ are probably what others in education call ‘critical thinking skills’. Personally I try to stick to the word ‘thinking’ and even ‘good thinking’ or ‘effective thinking’ to avoid this unnecessary confusion.
When Christodoulou claims to quote evidence from cognitive psychology experiments that you cannot teach general thinking skills she is relying on a very narrow and outdated understanding of what a general skill might be. Once upon time, many years ago, cognitive psychologists tended to think of the mind as like a computer and so they searched for things like the single algorithm or programme that would help solve problems in any context. They did not find this. They found instead that problem-solving requires contextual knowledge. There is no general algorithm to play really good chess – really good chess-players have to remember a lot of good chess games.
This criticism of general skills from cognitive psychology is not relevant to most of the programmes to teach general thinking skills in education because educationalists tend to use the terms ‘skills’ in a broader way that stretches to include complex contextualised performances (Bailin, 1998). When educationalists talk about critical thinking skills they do not mean abstract cognition of the kind referred to in those old laboratory cognitive psychology experiments. They mean the sort of dispositions, intellectual habits and strategies exemplified by Daisy Christodoulou, being courageous in challenging orthodoxy, persistent in pursuing enquiries, seeking evidence for claims and so on.
Think about it! Don’t you find that curious people who ask questions tend to be curious and ask questions in almost any context? This is a general thinking skill that can be taught. The simplest way to teach it is to be encouraging when children take an interest and ask questions. This is not rocket science. This kind of education does not need laboratory based cognitive psychology experiments based on misguided information processing models of what thinking is.
Thinking can be taught by engaging children in dialogue and promoting, through this, the dispositions, habits and strategies needed to think well in a variety of contexts. This is probably why the recent EEF evaluation of the impact of teaching Philosophy for Children found a very clear impact on improvements in learning in maths and English (Gorard, Siddiqui, & See, 2015).
Daisy Christadoulou is wrong. We can and should teach general thinking and learning skills. She is wrong partly because of her lack of knowledge but also because of some gaps in her general thinking strategies.
- She does not define her terms carefully and so moves from the argument that skills (defined narrowly in classical cog psy) cannot work to apply this to programmes, like Claxton’s building learning power, that use a completely different definition of skills.
- She moves from the particular – this lesson is a waste of time and is based on the idea of teaching skills - to the general claim – all lessons based on the idea of teaching skills are a waste of time - without any rigorous review of all relevant evidence.
- She cherry picks the research literature relying only on the examples she likes, Dan Willingham’s writing mainly, and ignoring all the many monographs and articles that do not support her.
Abrami, P. C., Bernard, R. M., Borokhovski, E., Wade, A., Surkes, M. A., Tamim, R., & Zhang, D. (2008). Instructional interventions affecting critical thinking skills and dispositions: A stage 1 meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 78(4), 1102-1134.
Bailin, S. (1998). Skills, generalizibility and critical thinking. In twentieth world congress on philosophy. Boston: The Paideia Archive.
Christodoulou, D. (2014). Seven myths about education. Routledge.
Gorard, S, Siddiqui, N & See, B H (2015). Philosophy for Children: SAPERE, Evaluation Report and Executive Summary, EEF.
Higgins, S. (2015). A recent history of teaching thinking. In The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Teaching Thinking, Edited by Wegerif, R, Li, L. & Kaufman, J. C.(pp19-29) New York and London: Routledge.
Wegerif, R., Li, L., & Kaufman, J. C. (Eds.). (2015). The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Teaching Thinking. Routledge.
Willingham, D. T. (2007). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?.American Educator, 31(2), 8