Teaching Critical Thinking: Content Integration, Domain-Specificity, and Equity

Teaching Critical Thinking: Content Integration, Domain-Specificity, and Equity

Bruce Torff (Hofstra University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-6331-0.ch002
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This chapter outlines how to teach critical-thinking skills is a central issue at home, in school, on the job, and in life. Outcomes of critical-thinking pedagogies are optimized under three conditions: 1) when thinking skills are integrated with disciplinary content, not sequentially following a content presentation; 2) when thinking skills are taught as utilized in specific domains/disciplines, not decontextualized or treated as domain-general; and 3) when thinking skills are emphasized for all learners, not just advantaged ones with greater prior knowledge or academic ability. Accordingly, teaching critical thinking might well be structured to be integrative, domain-specific, and equitable.
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Integrating, Not Sequencing, Content And Thinking

“Learning without thought is a waste of time, and thought without learning is dangerous,” – a classic quotation from the Chinese philosopher Confucius. But educators and non-educators alike appear to believe that learners must possess relevant content knowledge before they can succeed in a CT activity (Torff, 2015). This is the “sequential” epistemological viewpoint: content before thinking. Research underscores the pervasiveness of this viewpoint: for example, participants asked to rate the pedagogical effectiveness of descriptions of educational activities judged high-CT activities (but not low-CT ones) to be ineffective for students with limited prior knowledge – and effect that was stronger for low-SES than high-SES students (Torff, 2005, 2015). Widespread is the belief that individuals must acquire content knowledge as a precondition to successful participation in an activity that requires critical thinking.

In opposition to this “sequential” viewpoint is one held by such figures as Confucius, Socrates, Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky, who have argued that successful learning experiences often occur when content and thinking are combined – when learners figure things out, complete problem-solving activities, or engage in some other form of experiential learning (Halpern, 2014). From this “integrative” viewpoint, fusing content with thinking skills produces optimal learning because content is embedded in thinking processes that give content an immediate, practical use. From this perspective, an appropriate CT pedagogy emphasizes integration of content and thinking skills, instead of sequencing content before thinking.

There are abundant examples in modern schools in which pedagogies sequence content acquisition before thinking skills – if thinking skills are employed at all. At institutions of higher learning, it is common that a lecture be completed before a discussion section on the lecture topic is attempted; that the professor delivers the lecture and the teaching assistants typically handle the ensuing discussion speaks to the priorities placed on each. In this case, the sequential approach seems deeply institutionalized.

Other examples involve younger learners, ones in K-12 settings. For example, the great majority of mathematics classes begin with “chalk talk” led by the teacher, who explains a mathematical operation while completing sample problems, and then distributes a worksheet for students to practice on their own. With the exception of lessons on probability, which are seemingly thought to lend themselves to a more integrated approach, math classes almost inevitably employ this two-step procedure: teacher presentation of content followed by a practice session.

Lest mathematics be singled out for criticism unfairly, it seems appropriate to raise another example, this one in classes teaching new a language (e.g., Spanish classes at schools with English as the instructional language). In these classes, it is common for teachers to present content such as conjugation rules in a lecture format, followed by the dissemination of a worksheet that puts students to work applying the rules.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Content: Knowledge and skills manifested in a domain, such as the multiplication table or the procedure for using a microscope.

Advantage Status: Characteristics that foster favor or unfavorable conditions for students, including SES and classification as an English language learner.

Domain-General Models: Conceptions of human cognition that posit universal structures or functions thought to vary minimally (if at all) across domains.

Critical Thinking: Cognitive activities in which students are tasked to go “beyond the information given” instead of simply repeating it, including such processes as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Integration of Content and Critical Thinking: Pedagogical approaches that provide content and activate thinking skills simultaneously, in such a manner as to require students to think critically while acquiring content.

Domain: An area of human endeavor which may be as broad as an academic discipline (e.g., biology) or as narrow as a task within a discipline (e.g., sculpting).

Sequencing of Content and Critical Thinking: Pedagogical approaches that provide content prior to intervention of activities requiring thinking skills.

Domain-Specific Models: Conceptions of human cognition that posit meaningful differences in structures or functions across domains.

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