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Critical Thinking and Technology

More than about Technology

Fostering Critical Thinking with Technology
(More Than About Technology) by Ken Bain

ow do we get students to think critically? How do we get them to take an interest in our disciplines, to move beyond a concern with "just making the grade" or merely preparing for some standardized test that guards the gates to graduate and professional schools? How do we arouse their curiosity? How can we make a sustained difference in the way they think and act? How can we help students to become active intellects, human beings who are able to understand important ideas, to analyze and evaluate the arguments and evidence that support those ideas, to collect and use evidence in reaching their own conclusions, and logically and consistently to examine conflicting claims?

In short, what can we do to help and encourage more students to become like the best ones, and how can technology help us accomplish that goal? Before we consider technology and its applications, however, we must, first, determine how and why people learn?

Intrinsic Motivations

At least a partial answer might come from the investigators who have studied intrinsic motivations. Two fairly simple theories have emerged from the research. First, human beings are naturally curious animals. Anyone who has spent much time with a five year old might echo this claim. Second, human beings are both rational and emotional creatures. We must appeal to the whole person, the attitudes and emotions as well as the ability to understand. In other words, people learn naturally while trying to solve problems that concern them. They develop an intrinsic interest that guides their quest for knowledge, and an intrinsic interest--and here's the rub--that can actually diminish in the face of extrinsic rewards that appear to manipulate that interest.

So what must we do as teachers? One big key may be very simple: We must pose questions that intrigue and fascinate, fundamental questions, "big" questions, questions that lie at the heart of our disciplines. Often scholars debate questions that are significant only because of some earlier question, which in turn, is significant because of some still earlier question, which derived its own significance from some still earlier question, and so forth. We often live our scholarly lives focused on questions that lie several layers beneath the surface of questions that first intrigued us. In teaching, we must be willing to dig back toward the surface and to meet our students there, to recapture the significance of our inquiries, and to help students understand why our current deliberations capture our attention. We cannot simply call out from our position deep within the groud and ask our students to join our subterranean mining expeditions. We must, instead, meet our students on the surface and help them understand the value and the location of the ores we pursue. We must help them understand why anyone might want to solve this problem or answer this question. We must remind them of the connection between today's smaller question and the larger issues.

We must also recognize that students are most likely to become intellectually excited and motivated to work if we appeal to their emotions, if we show some concern for them and some faith in their ability to succeed, if we ask about their attitudes and their values as well as about their ability to understand, if we act excited, and if we ask them both to understand abstract concepts and to see the relevance of those concepts to people's lives. We must appeal directly to their curiosity.

Learning Specific Abstract Reasoning Abilities

Another part of the answer to our original question may come from the so-called critical thinking movement. That crusade has argued, among other points, that we should help students develop and refine specific abstract reasoning abilities. In other words, rather than thinking in terms of teaching history, biology, chemistry, or other topics, we should think in terms of teaching students to understand, analyze, synthesize, evaluate evidence, and so forth. While one cannot learn to reason without something to reason about, knowledge comes not through rote memorization, but from the ability to understand, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate evidence. To learn is to acquire the ability to reason, that is, the ability to draw conclusions on the basis of reasons. Thus, to help our students acquire knowledge (learn), we must deliberately help them acquire specific abstract reasoning capacities. We must teach them the logics of our disciplines and not just dictate information to them. We should spend our time teaching students how to learn (that is, how to read the text actively and analytically and to think in the same manner) rather than using the classes to dictate information. We should do less telling and more asking.

All of this sounds simple enough, but we know it doesn't always work. What goes wrong? And how does this relate to computers? Again, before we turn specifically to technology, we must find out more about human learning. Stick with me.

Overcoming Students' Preconceptions

The research on what happens when students listen to our explanations may tell us a great deal. We often act as if students' minds are blank slates, waiting for our imprint. We want to think that what we say to our students travels as a seamless entity from our mouths (or computer presentations) to the brains of students--as if they are like computers. In fact, students bring models of knowledge with them to our classes, preconceptions that have a profound influence on what they think they learn and how they react to what we tell them. As Mark Twain said, "It's not what you don't know that hurts you. It's what you know that ain't so!"

In the mid 1980's two physicists at Arizona State University provided dramatic evidence to support Twain's remark. They tried to determine whether a traditional lecture-based introductory physics course really changed the way students thought about the way the physical universe operates. They suspected that even the best students learned to plug in the numbers but continued to think in pre-Newtonian terms. The researchers, Ibrahim Abou Halloun and David Hestenes, devised and validated an examination to determine how students think about motion. They administered the test to the students of four different physics professors, all of whom received good marks on their teaching from both peers and students. The students took the test both before and after taking either a calculus-based or non calculus-based introductory physics course.

Did the course change student thinking? The pre-test revealed that students entered the course with a common sense theory (a cross between Aristotelian and 14th century impetus ideas) about the physical world, "which the student [used] to interpret" everything, "including what" they heard in the physics course. They emerged with "comparatively small" changes in the way they thought.

Responding to All Learning Personalities

Part of the answer to our question about what goes wrong may come from thinking about learning personalities. In general the brain loves diversity. People like different kinds of input, not the same kind all of the time. Relatively few people have fixed styles of learning in which they can learn from only one kind of experience, but many people do have learning personalities in which they often express preference for one approach or another. Some people like visual information (pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, demonstration); others, auditory input (speech or visual symbols of auditory information--written words and mathematical notations). Most people prefer to talk things out, to interact with other humans; some, to reflect independently. A majority try to organize information inductively; a minority, deductively. Some like to learn sequentially, a piece at a time; others, globally, suddenly gaining insights. Some like facts, data, and experimentation (sensors); others prefer to work from principles and theories (intuitors). Sensors like solving problems by standard methods and dislike surprises; intuitors like innovation and dislike repetition. Sensors show patience with details but hate complications; intuitors become bored with details but welcome complications. Sensors are good at memorizing facts; intuitors are good at grasping new concepts. Sensors are careful but may be slow (do not work well with timed tests); intuitors are quick but may be careless.

So what does all that mean about providing good learning environments. Just keep in mind that the brain loves diversity. If we provide that diversity, we can speak to different personalities while encouraging everyone to expand their preferences, and to consider the joys of learning in new ways.

Challenge versus Stress

Still another part of the answer may come from research on learning and stress. Fear, worry, excessive anxiety and tension, all reduce the human capacity to think. At the same time, a healthy challenge can motivate. We must help our students to feel comfortable, to believe in their capacity to learn. But we must also promote a kind of uneasiness, the tension that stems from intellectual excitement, curiosity, challenge, and intense concern with a particular question, the tension that emerges primarily from the questions that we ask, the challenges that we issue, and the wonderful promises that we make about what students will be able to achieve if they are willing to join us enthusiastically in our expedition "up the mountain in search of the truth."

Technology and Learning

Finally, we can ask how technology can help us address these issues effectively? Let me suggest two important potential contributions.

I. Promoting Higher Order Intellectual Abilities

We can use computers to help students learn the higher order cognitive skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation rather than using technology (as we have often done in the past) to drill for memory or to shine light on a screen?

In his recent book on the teaching of physics, the late Arnold Arons, a longtime University of Washington physicist, offered a specific example of how that might be done.

One outcome of research and observation over a wide range of students and introductory courses is that many students do not break through a full command of a particular concept or line of reasoning unless they can be reached in one-on-one Socratic dialogue. . . . [But] the necessary one-on-one dialog with a single student can easily take as long as 20 to 30 minuets or more. . .. Personal computer[s] with graphic capability [offer] the prospect of making one-on-one dialogues practicable in spite of numbers. The problem becomes one of writing effective dialogues that pull students over the early, most severe obstacles, and help them on the way to further learning, with decreasing dependence on Socratic assistance. . . .

Yet for a really effective computer dialogue, the most important (and most difficult) provisions an author must make are the ones that lead a student to rectify incorrect responses. . . .Socratic rectification of misconceptions and incorrect reasoning can be achieved only if the author has prior knowledge [of]. . . the actual incorrect responses likely to be made. This is why authors must be well versed in the research results if they are to write good material.

Ideally, computers can help us foster the accomplishment of the highest learning objectives we have for our students: the ability to think critically and creatively, to reason, to use our disciplinary approaches to information, to learn and to want to learn independently of any informal instruction, and to work collaboratively in solving important problems.

II.Giving the Brain a Good Diet of Visual Learning and Provocative Thought

My second suggestion involves a more traditional use of computers in the classroom, but with some special qualifications. We know many people like visual learning as opposed to auditory learning. They like to see pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, demonstrations, and so forth. This does not mean that such people must see everything they learn, or that they cannot learn abstract concepts. It means that we probably can’t reach some people educationally unless we at least begin with visuals. It may also mean everyone may benefit from such visual input.

But not just any visuals, and not just an endless stream of visuals.

Three important points here:

1. Visual representations of auditory information (words and mathematical symbols written on a screen, for example) do not provide a rich diet of visuals. We must provide pictures, diagrams, charts, and so forth. Computers can, of course, help us create pictorial representations of things for which we have no pictures (future models, ancient sites, and tiny places, among others), can make items appear to move, and can help us assemble and easily use visuals from a variety of sources.

2. Visuals used in long, seamless presentations make fewer contributions to learning than do visuals used in short pieces to stimulate or contribute to a discussion, in preparation for laboratories, discussions, or in other interactive environments. Indeed, studies that have looked at the results of students' performances after exposure to "visual lectures" (with little or no interaction) and compared those outcomes with performances after exposure to conventional lectures have found that such visual-based instruction makes little difference. One literature review that looked at 74 different studies on the college level, for example, drew such conclusions. Moreover, when the same professor taught both types of classes in the comparisons, the differences were especially small.

3. Use visuals to help students learn, not to help you get through the material faster. I had a colleague who adopted Powerpoint in a math course because he could put whole problems on the board with a click of the mouse, and, thereby, “cover” more material. He failed to remember that while he was going faster, his students were grasping less. Don’t think about “covering the material.” Think about uncovering it so your students can better understand it.

Opportunities with Technology

The growing use of computers in instruction offers us one of those moments--as we move from one medium to another--when we can most productively stop and reexamine our objectives and methods. Such reexamination will not take place automatically, however; nor will it necessarily lead to the most productive use of our new technology.

Rather than asking ourselves how will we use this particular technology, we should begin with questions about what we want our students to learn and whether certain technologies can help them achieve that

Where do I start? Using Technology to Help Students Learn

Start with questions. Plan your course backwards. Begin with what you want students to achieve. Pick the technology (and general teaching strategy) best suited to foster those learning objectives.

Ten Questions to Guide Your Plans:

1. What do I want my students to be able to do intellectually (emotionally or physically) as a result of taking my class?

Examples: Apply concepts, analyze data, synthesize answers, evaluate conclusions.

What big questions will my course help students answer, or what skills, abilities, or qualities will it help students develop?

What reasoning abilities must students have or develop to answer the questions of the course?


2. How can I best help and encourage students to achieve those objectives?

How Do People Learn?

Natural Critical Learning Environments: from What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press. 2004.

People tend to learn most effectively (in ways that make a sustained, substantial, and positive influence on the way they think, act, or feel) when

A. they are trying to solve problems (intellectual, physical, artistic, practical, abstract, etc.) or create something new that they find intriguing, beautiful, and/or important;

B. they are able to do so in a challenging yet supportive environment in which they can feel a sense of control over their own education;

C. they can work collaboratively with other learners to grapple with the problems;

D. they believe that their work will be considered fairly and honestly; and

E. they can try, fail, and receive feedback from expert learners in advance of and separate from any summative judgment of their efforts.

“Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” (Chickering and Gamson, AAHE Bulletin, March, 1987.):

      • A. Good Practice Encourages Student-Faculty Contact
      • Good Practice Encourages Cooperation Among Students
      • Good Practice Encourages Active Learning
      • Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback
      • Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task
      • Good Practice Communicates High Expectations
      • Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning.

3. What paradigms of reality are students likely to bring with them that I will want them to challenge and how can I help them construct that intellectual challenge.

4. How will I embed the skills and information I wish to teach in assignments (questions and tasks) students will find fascinating--authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity, challenge students to rethink their assumptions and examine their mental models of reality?

Creating the Assignment Centered Course:

A. Creating the need to know. Pick provocative, intriguing (to the student) ways to pose the problem, raise the question, make the assignment, issue the challenge.

B. Clarifying and Simplifying: student first hears/sees new information or procedures embedded in broader concepts, ideas.

C. Application: students have a chance to apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate in the process of trying to solve the problem, answer the question, create the new and to create a product that represents the answer/solution/creation.

D. Response: Teacher, assistant, or peer responds to the answer/solution/creation.

5. How can I sequence the students’ experiences to foster most effectively the learning I want them to achieve?

What information will my students need to understand to answer these questions or challenge their paradigms, and how will they best obtain that information?

How will I help students who have difficulty understanding the questions and using evidence and reasons to answer them?

How will I confront them with conflicting problems (maybe even conflicting claims about the truth) and encourage them to grapple (perhaps collaboratively) with the issues?

How will I find out what they know already and what they expect from the course, and how will I reconcile any differences between my plans and their interests and knowledge?

How will I help students learn to learn, to examine and assess their own learning and thinking, and to read more effectively, analytically, and actively?

How will I communicate with students in a way that will keep them thinking?

6. How will I and my students best understa the nature and progress of their learning?

How will I spell out explicitly the intellectual and professional standards I will be using in assessing their work and why I use those standards? How will I help students learn to assess their own work using those standards?

How will I find out how students are learning before assessing them, and how will I provide feedback before and separate from any assessment of them?

How will I create a safe environment in which students can try, fail, receive feedback and try again?

7. What can different technlogies do that might foster any of 1 through 6?

A. Collaborative Writing Tools: Wikis

B. Presentation Software

C. Asynchronous Communication - E-mail, Listserv & Bulletin Board

D. Synchronous Communication - Chat/Conferencing

E. Web Pages

F. Web Based Course Management Systems

G. Interactive Course Software

H. Simulation

8. Which technologies will I use?

Which technologies will best foster and facilitate the learning I am trying to achieve.

9. How can I use any technology creatively and most effectively to foster learning?

Will the adoption of any particular technology undermine any of the richness of more traditional pedagogies?

10. How can I give students intellectual and personal ownership of the learning process?


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