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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Critical thinking and the mastery of child development concepts, Part 2

Here is part 2 of an unpublished paper discussing the use of critical thinking concepts in teaching child development courses.

What is Critical Thinking? And Why Do We Care?
Critical thinking is thought that uses a set of skills specialized for evaluation of evidence and of logical processes that support or fail to support conclusions. The alternative approach, uncritical thinking, accepts evidence and logic that would be rejected if critical thinking skills were applied to the information. In academic circles, critical thinking skills are considered to be highly desirable, but it is unlikely that any human being manages to use such skills on every occasion when they are called for.
In fact, avoidance of critical thinking seems more characteristic of human beings – and more comfortable for them—than its use. As J.A.C. Brown (1963), a student of techniques of persuasion that combat critical thinking, commented, most people want to feel that issues are simple rather than complex, to have their prejudices confirmed, and to find an enemy to blame for their frustrations. To satisfy those common desires usually requires uncritical thinking.
As teachers of developmental science, we would like to move our students away from the characteristics Brown noted. We would prefer for them to do the following, all of which require critical thinking:
1. Understand that human issues are complex.
2. Become willing to examine their own assumptions.
3. Realize that humans behave and may even develop in varying ways, but all share some aspects of human development.
4. Minimize the use of developmental science material to sermonize against “the wrong”, while remembering that understanding of development can improve outcomes.
In considering our situation and goals, we would do well to realize that other disciplines are experiencing similar problems. Natural scientists, in particular, are concerned that “[v]ast numbers of adults fail to take a scientific approach to solving problems or making judgments based on evidence. Instead, they readily accept simplistic answers to complicated problems…” (Alberts, 2009, p. ). In the hope of encouraging students to use critical thinking, natural scientists have set goals for science education such as knowing science facts, generating and evaluating evidence and explanations, understanding the nature and development of scientific knowledge, and participating in scientific practices and discourse (Alberts, 2009; Moore, 1999). Except for the simple knowledge of facts, these goals also require critical thinking.
We cannot devote a semester of a child development course to instruction in critical thinking, but we can give some consideration to reasons for uncritical thought, and to the ways that improvements in critical thinking can improve student understanding and retention of the material they study.
General Critical Thinking Skills
A set of critical thinking skills can be considered as generally applicable to assessment of information, including information about developmental science. Some are more likely than others to be demanded in a first undergraduate course in child development.
Inference. Inference is the skill of discriminating among degrees of truth or falsity of conclusions drawn from given data. While this is a particularly important skill for developmentalists at more advanced levels, few students in the first undergraduate course are called upon to make inferences. Such courses rarely involve examination of data or reading of research articles in professional journals. In addition, inference as carried out in developmental science generally involves statistical analysis, and statistics or research methods courses are usually not prerequisites for the first child development course.
Recognition of assumptions. This critical thinking skill involves the detection of unstated assumptions or presuppositions in given statements or assertions, including, of course, those the person makes himself or herself. Recognition of assumptions is an important skill for students of developmental science, as common beliefs frequently contradict empirical research about development; students who cannot recognize their own a priori beliefs may become confused by what they see as the unlikely results of systematic investigation.
Deduction. The critical thinking skill of deduction involves determining whether certain conclusions necessarily follow from given information. Deduction is an essential aspect of developmental science, and is especially relevant to questions about correlation and causality. As most students do not enter the first course with a background in statistics and research design, coursework may need to emphasize ways in which developmentalists examine conclusions.
Interpretation. The critical thinking skill of interpretation stresses the weighing of evidence and determining whether generalizations or conclusions based on the evidence are warranted. This skill, so important for more advanced developmentalists, is only at its beginning in younger students. Textbooks offer little specific evidence and less evaluation of the source of the evidence, and research reports are generally too complex and difficult for undergraduates to read. Study of research design is needed before most students can evaluate evidence effectively. However, instructors can model evaluation of evidence by discussing research designs as they have been used in the study of child development. Thoughtful Internet assignments may also be valuable in development of this skill.
Evaluation of arguments. This aspect of critical thinking involves distinguishing between arguments that are strong and relevant and those that are weak or irrelevant to a question. Before students can evaluate arguments, they must abandon the position that all evidence is equal, and the belief that it is inappropriate and intolerant to reject someone’s argument. Practice and feedback from the instructor or classmates are helpful supports for development of this skill, but these are rarely provided in child development courses. When students’ performance is evaluated through multiple choice examinations, feedback about irrelevant arguments is quite infrequent. Instructors who want to encourage the development of evaluative ability must commit themselves to dealing with extensive written assignments. Attention to detail is a necessity for critical thinking, and assignments cannot reveal the presence or absence of critical thinking unless they themselves display reasoning in detail.
Attempts have been made to design courses that will improve critical thinking with respect to the study of psychology. Lawson (1999) designed a course that guided study of experimenter bias, single versus multiple causation, correlation as opposed to causation, the use of comparison groups or measures, and the problem of confounding variables. Penningroth and her colleagues (Penningroth, Despain, & Gray, 2007) put together a one-credit course intended to improve psychological critical thinking. These efforts are obviously relevant to the enhancement of critical thinking about developmental science, but the latter topic requires emphasis on additional specific issues that are not necessarily important to the general field of psychology.

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