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Daily RC Article 122

Critical Thinking: Beyond the Generic


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Since the early 1980s, schools have become ever more captivated by the idea that students must learn a set of generalised thinking skills to flourish in the contemporary world – and especially in the contemporary job market. Variously called ‘21st-century learning skills’ or ‘critical thinking’, the aim is to equip students with a set of general problem-solving approaches that can be applied to any given domain; these are lauded by business leaders as an essential set of dispositions for the 21st century. Naturally, we want children and graduates to have a set of all-purpose cognitive tools with which to navigate their way through the world. It’s a shame, then, that we’ve failed to apply any critical thinking to the question of whether any such thing can be taught.

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To be good in a specific domain you need to know a lot about it: it’s not easy to translate those skills to other areas. This is even more so with the kinds of complex and specialised knowledge that accompanies much professional expertise: as later studies found, the more complex the domain, the more important domain-specific knowledge. This non-translatability of cognitive skill is well-established in psychological research and has been replicated many times. Other studies, for example, have shown that the ability to remember long strings of digits doesn’t transfer to the ability to remember long strings of letters…

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In almost every arena, the higher the skill level, the more specific the expertise is likely to become. In a football team, for example, there are different ‘domains’ or positions: goalkeeper, defender, attacker. Within those, there are further categories: centre-back, full-back, attacking midfielder, holding midfielder, attacking player. At a professional level, if you put a left-back in a striker’s position or a central midfielder in goal, the players would be lost. For them to make excellent, split-second decisions, and to enact robust and effective strategies, they need thousands of specific mental models – and thousands of hours of practice to create those models – all of which are specific and exclusive to a position.

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Of course, critical thinking is an essential part of a student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context… This detachment of cognitive ideals from contextual knowledge is not confined to the learning of critical thinking. Some schools laud themselves for placing ‘21st-century learning skills’ at the heart of their mission. An example of this is brain-training games that claim to help kids become smarter, more alert and able to learn faster. However, recent research has shown that brain-training games are really only good for one thing – getting good at brain-training games. The claim that they offer students a general set of problem-solving skills was recently debunked by a study that reviewed more than 130 papers, which concluded: “[W]e know of no evidence for broad-based improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance, and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualised practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content.” Instead of teaching generic critical-thinking skills, we ought to focus on subject-specific critical-thinking skills that seek to broaden a student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject.

The article critiques the notion of teaching generalized critical-thinking skills, emphasizing the limitations of applying such skills across various domains. It argues that expertise in specific domains requires intricate, exclusive knowledge and extensive practice, challenging the effectiveness of teaching broad, context-detached cognitive skills. Instead, it advocates for subject-specific critical-thinking skills that enrich individual subject knowledge, debunking the efficacy of decontextualized cognitive skill training.
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