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Let's Banish Critical Thinking, Part 2: Learn

Kyle examined his bookmarks. If he’d printed out all the information he’d found the paper would pile up to well over an inch high. Even though he’d been discerning in the references he noted, the information available was overwhelming and defeating, an obstacle that prevented Kyle from moving past the data collecting stage of his project. Whether he chose the traditional approach and wrote a paper or the technological option of a multimedia presentation, Kyle couldn’t communicate ideas he didn’t yet “own” himself, and the list of bookmarks represented more than he could ever apprehend.

His teacher expected evidence of his learning, but Kyle lacked the know-how that could enable his success. Kyle was a successful student in traditional classrooms, but he did not know how to learn, especially when he was responsible for the process.

As teachers we tend to focus on our teaching and assume students know how to learn. It’s a natural perspective—we teach, students learn. Focusing on learning can seem misdirected because what we’re going to do in the classroom demands our immediate concern—it’s what we describe in the required lesson plans. However, failing to focus on student learning capacity produces the predicament Kyle faced: expectation without enablement.

I suggested in the previous post that we examine thinking as a target. “Memorize” formed the target’s outermost ring. Learning represents a movement toward the target’s center and beyond mere recall. In fact, we’re moving from a relatively straightforward process (rehearse→remember→recall) to more complicated combinations of processes.

Learning often involves four core processes, or four “states” of thinking. (Thinking is more fluid than the term states suggests, but this simplification can help us understand its flow.) Through experience, the brain gains raw sensory data. During comprehension, the brain sorts, labels, and organizes the raw sensory data. Through elaboration, the brain examines the organized data for patterns, recalls relevant prior experiences, and blends the new data with your experiences to construct understanding. During application the brain practices using or expressing the new understanding. There’s much more that could be said just about these core processes (an entire chapter of The Architecture of Learning explores these in depth), but allow me to move on and introduce a related idea.

The influential book 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times argues for a greater emphasis on “Learning and Innovation Skills.” Such skills, explain authors Trilling and Fadel, “are the keys to unlocking a lifetime of learning and creative work.”1 We should increase instruction in the skills of learning, not just guide student learning of core subject matter. In other words, we need to place more value and emphasis on teaching students how to self-teach (or self-learn). We need to teach them how to engage learning’s core processes; we need to teach them the thinking skills that enable self-directed learning.

As we explore learning’s core processes in detail, a myriad of related skills emerge. Here’s a partial chart I’ve compiled. (Click on the table to enlarge it.) All these skills either contribute to a core process or engage a combination of learning’s core processes.


Going deeper, learning to learn becomes even more interesting (or complex, depending on your perspective), but what we can actually teach comes into focus. For example, a group of educators in Philadelphia took part of the very first skill (identifying, clarifying, and phrasing questions) and discussed, “What is the range of this skill? What do its initial steps of development look like? What would its fullest expression look like?” After we grappled with these concepts, we considered when instruction for each step might begin and where it might mature to mastery. Here’s what evolved: As we saw this potential scope emerge, the group became excited. For the first time, many of them felt they knew what to teach to equip students to think critically. (I know, I used the term I’m advocating we banish!) My response, and what I still believe, is that we identified, at least in part, the skills we could teach that would equip students to learn independently. Learning is not separate from thinking but dependent on it:

What we know results from what and how we think. Researcher and critical thinking expert Diane F. Halpern explains:

Knowledge is not something static that gets transferred from one person to another like pouring water from one glass to another. It is dynamic. Information becomes knowledge when we make our own meaning out of it…[We] create knowledge every time we learn a new concept.

Educator Laura Erlauer agrees, explaining that thinking processes “allow the brain to thoroughly understand the new concepts and internalize them into meaningful memories.” Learning is a product of thinking.2


Where does that leave us? Here are a few possible conclusions:

  • Learning is more than memorizing. It engages cognitive processes (comprehension, elaboration, application) that extend beyond rehearsal and recall. Learning is powered by thinking, and learning provides new material for thinking. (As one commenter on the last post put it, you have to have something to think about.)
  • Teaching students how to become learners requires helping them develop these cognitive processes and their associated skills/sub-skills.
  • The associated skills possess “steps” of development that provide more specific direction for what we can emphasize in the classroom.
  • Teaching these skills should be our priority. Everything else, such as the specific topics we teach, should be the material students learn through practice in using these skills. In other words, these skills should “drive” the curriculum. That does not mean we do not teach the traditional disciplines, but that the traditional disciplines are a means to the desired end of equipping self-directed learners.

I realize this leaves plenty of unanswered questions, such as:

  • What are the developmental steps for all the other skills?
  • What about problem solving? creativity? reasoning?
  • How can we “cover” the mandated curriculum while teaching students the skills to become self-directed learners?
  • How does teaching students to become self-directed learners aid achievement as measured on standardized testing?
  • Are there approaches we can use that would engage students in utilizing these skills while becoming knowledgeable of new subject matter?

I’ll address some of these in future posts, but honestly, I don’t have answers to all of them. It seems current educational mandates and structures hinder good answers to some of these critical questions (and produce the very problems Kyle faced). Changing direction likely requires a rethinking of current emphases and structures.

But then you probably already knew that.

References
  1. Trilling, B. & Fadel, C., 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 49.
  2. Washburn, K.D., The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain (Pelham, AL: Clerestory Press, 2010), 186).
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3 comments to Let’s Banish Critical Thinking, Part 2: Learn

  • Elizabeth

    I'm really enjoying this series of posts on thinking. I came across it googling "rethinking Bloom's Taxonomy" for online learning.

    I agree it's hard to balance teaching how to learn while trying to cover all of the curriculum in k-12 education and in higher ed there's an assumption students already know how to learn.

    I'll take your target of learning into consideration.

  • Elizabeth

    I'm really enjoying this series of posts on thinking. I came across it googling "rethinking Bloom's Taxonomy" for online learning.

    I agree it's hard to balance teaching how to learn while trying to cover all of the curriculum in k-12 education and in higher ed there's an assumption students already know how to learn.

    I'll take your target of learning into consideration.

  • [...] if students have mastered the full range of question forming, it is difficult to inquire about topics with which they have no familiarity. [...]

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