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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Critical thinking and the mastery of child development concepts, Part 4

This is the fourth section of an unpublished paper on critical thinking and teaching child development.

Why Don’t Students Already Think Critically?
I will take it for granted that undergraduate students need to improve their critical thinking abilities. Although research in this area is complicated by the fact that few humans ever perfect this set of skills, so it is hard to choose a comparison group, recent work suggests that even professional psychologists with graduate training may be far less competent in critical thinking than we would like to see (Sharp, Herbert, & Redding, 2008). The remarkable difficulties shown by adults who need to ignore irrelevant information have been demonstrated for many years, beginning with the work of Tversky and Kahneman (1974). Superficial information included in a question confuses many adults (Waldrop, 1987).
What factors limit the critical thinking skills of professionals, those of other adults, and, we can assume, those of undergraduates? Some of these factors are developmental in nature, while others involve past and present instruction, intentional or otherwise.
Formal Operations and Horizontal Decalage
The study of formal operational thought by Piaget ( ) provided some important insights into critical thinking. Formal operational thinkers can create a variety of hypotheses as possible explanations for an event and can figure out experimental tests to support or reject a hypothesis. In addition, they are able to co-ordinate factors rather than having to consider each one separately, allowing them to deal with issues like rates or proportions. They can also collect data systematically and consider sources of error and the possibility that their conclusions are wrong. Without all these abilities, critical thinking would be much impeded.
Students in undergraduate child development courses are generally at least in the sophomore year of college, and the youngest are about 20 years old. The textbooks we assign them state that they have had the ability for formal operational thought for some years, and surely formal operational thought is the foundation of many critical thinking abilities. However, anyone who has attempted to teach undergraduates what formal operational thought is, must have become very aware that the students did not seem to bring formal operational abilities to the study of formal operations. Demonstrations or videos showing the use of ratios and isolation of variables are commonly met with anxious student faces, behind which are anxious minds questioning whether they themselves are able to do the tasks represented as possible for 12-year-olds.
Piaget’s concept of horizontal decalage is an important part of the explanation of apparent delays in formal operational thought. This concept suggests that cognitive abilities can appear to be less uniform than we expect, depending on the familiarity of a problem for a student. Unfamiliar material is less easily treated with formal operational or other high-level cognitive abilities than is familiar material; for example, as Burbules and Linn (1988) demonstrated, reasoning ability can be improved simply by free exploration of a situation. Characteristics of infants and children are relatively unfamiliar for most undergraduates in the United States; small families and intense age-grading have prevented them from having much opportunity to observe younger children. It would be surprising if undergraduates were able to apply critical thinking skills to child development information as they can to, say, cooking, or repairing a car.
For developmental reasons, then, it is unlikely that students in undergraduate child development courses will be able to muster formal operational skills without help or effort, and thus unlikely that they will be able to use critical thinking abilities effectively throughout the course.
The Perry Scheme
There have been relatively few discussions of cognitive changes that occur during the college years. One approach to this topic, based on a small number of students at Harvard, offers some ideas that are intriguing although somewhat speculative. The “Perry scheme” (Perry, 1970) proposed stages of undergraduate development with strong relevance to critical thinking. Perry proposed that entering freshmen tend to focus their thinking on the idea that there are right and wrong answers, known to authorities; this position is referred to as “Dualism/Received Knowledge.” Perry suggested that the initial, basic attitude is that all problems are solvable, and the student’s task is to learn the right solution. A second step in this dualistic position has to do with attitudes toward authorities. Some authorities (for example, literature professors) are seen to disagree, whereas others (like physicists) are believed by the student to agree. Those authorities who have agreement about right answers are the ones to pay attention to. (It seems doubtful that developmental scientists are considered to be among those who agree on right answers.) Critical thinking by the student is not an option.
A second position, taken by students who have passed the dualistic freshman stage, is one that acknowledges conflicting answers, but concludes that the existence of conflict means that only one’s own intuitive response is correct, and external authorities are not correct. Perry referred to this position as “Multiplicity/ Subjective Knowledge.” Students at the beginning of this position assume that there are problems whose solution is known, and others whose solution is not known; the student’s job is to find the right solutions that are known. Later, a new assumption appears: most problems have no known solution, so either everyone has a right to their own opinion, or it doesn’t matter which solution you choose, and the student’s task is to amplify on these points rather than to try to solve the problems. Critical thinking would be a waste of time, and opinions are nothing more than unexamined prejudices.
A third position described by Perry develops out of the first two. This position, called “Relativism/Procedural Knowledge”, is a step that makes critical thinking possible. It includes the idea that there are reasoning methods favored by disciplines, and that study of a discipline requires mastering these as well as amassing a supply of facts. Subjective responses are considered, but separated from techniques of objective analysis. In the initial step for this position, “Contextual Relativism”, the student acknowledges that there are reasons for all proposed solutions to problems, and that solutions need to be examined in context and relative to the type of support they have. Although solutions may be equally good, one may be better than others in a given context. The student’s job is to learn to evaluate solutions—a matter requiring critical thinking skills. Contextual Relativism would seem essential to the serious study of developmental science, an area in which multiple causes are responsible for multiple outcomes, and dynamic systems theory suggests that nonlinear relationships are common. Value-laden aspects of developmental studies also make it important that students have the understanding of subjective responses characteristic of this period of development.
“Relativism/Procedural Knowledge” is not the last step in Perry’ scheme, but it may be the lowest level that allows for mobilization of critical thinking skills, and thus the first level that permits good understanding of the complexities of developmental science. It is not clear how we can persuade or push students to arrive at this level, however, nor can we make it a prerequisite for enrollment in a child development course.
Students’ Past Experience
College students who received their secondary education in the United States have generally received some encouragement to think critically and may believe that they are accomplished at critical thinking tasks. However, examination of secondary school experiences suggests that these may diminish rather than foster critical thinking abilities. Some years ago, the novelist Francine Prose examined efforts toward critical thinking used in high school English textbooks and other assignments (Prose, 1999). In her article, aptly named “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read”, she noted a failure to require close, line-by-line reading, and a tendency to questions about social or moral implications rather than about the actual content of the novel. Prose referred to one teacher’s manual that asked students reading Huckleberry Finn to count the ways in which Mark Twain negated the humanity of the slave character Jim, rather than comparing the number of such incidents with the number in which his humanity was witnessed. Prose also noted the frequency of assignments in which questions asked were peripherally relevant to the information available to the student. For example, students might be asked what a character might do about a situation not mentioned in the book. Similarly, students might be asked to answer questions whose answers they would be unlikely to know, such as a question about the mental health prognosis of the heroine of The Bell Jar. Assignments of these types discourage a focus on relevant, available information, and encourage the view that all possible answers (if long enough) are acceptable.
College students who have experienced high school assignments of the kind Prose described are likely to feel comfortable with irrelevancies and low levels of abstraction, and even to believe that they are excellent critical thinkers because of their handling of such matters. Facing a child development course, with its demands for identification of relevant information and for evaluation of ideas and practices, such students may feel offended, even humiliated by their perceived failure to succeed with the methods they have been rewarded for.
Seductive Ideas
Kagan’s fascinating book, Three seductive ideas (2000), discussed a number of common preconceptions that interfere with understanding of psychology in general and the study of development in particular. These “seductive ideas” are broad assumptions about the nature of human beings, and when they are unrecognized or incorrectly applied, they can well create confusion about material commonly included in the teaching of developmental science.
Kagan proposed that one important “seductive idea” was abstractionism, the assumption that if two phenomena have some characteristics in common, these characteristics can be abstracted and used to reason from one phenomenon to the other. For example, as animals and human beings have certain things in common, especially in their early lives, the application of abstractionism would suggest that whatever is true about young animals can also be expected to be true about young humans. Similar reasoning can be applied to brain and mind, with the assumption that whatever is shown to be true about brain processes can also be assumed to be true about mental processes. Both of these applications of abstractionism have the potential for confusing thinking about development.
A second “seductive idea” is infant determinism. This is the assumption that in all aspects of development, early events influence outcomes more powerfully than later events. The assumption of infant determinism can cause confusion about the nature of plasticity by blurring the distinction between experience-expectant and experience-dependent plasticity, as well as by convincing students that a reliable principle makes it unnecessary for them to examine the evidence about the effects of experience.
The third major “seductive idea” mentioned by Kagan is the pleasure principle. The belief that motivation is determined by the pursuit of gratification (and, perhaps, by avoidance of discomfort) is at odds with a number of important ideas about development. For example, difficulties in teaching of Piagetian concepts are confused by student application of the pleasure principle, as students search for ways in which infants “must” be positively reinforced for cognitive developments. Similarly, the idea of mastery motivation as a general principle, and of attachment behavior as seen from an ethological viewpoint, are difficult to comprehend when the pleasure principle is a starting point for thinking.
“Folk Psychology”
Not all “seductive ideas” are broad generalizations. Some are specific beliefs, common currency of thought about development and reinforced by repetition in the media and in casual conversation. There are probably hundreds of these claims that “everybody knows” and few approach critically. Here are some examples of folk or naïve developmental psychology (Mercer, 2009):
Sugar causes hyperactivity (which is, incidentally, the same thing as hypertension).
Toddlers drop food off their high chairs because they want to make their parents mad.
Teenagers learn to be antisocial under peer pressure from bad companions.
Autism “clusters” mean that something in a local environment causes the disorder.
Breastfeeding causes a baby to become attached to her mother.
These common beliefs contradict and confuse understanding of evidence-based information about development. Addressing them directly and modeling critical thinking for students may help to lessen their potential for damage.
Mass media and other sources of information
Newspapers, television, and other media sources repeat much incorrect information which they garner from each other. This is especially true with respect to any topic which is “flavor of the month”, as is the case currently for attachment. The television program “20/20” recently presented a show which uncritically described the practice of keeping adopted children within three feet of a parent at all times, night and day, for a number of weeks. “Made for TV” movies have dramatized similar ideas. In addition, materials written for parent or child care use may be quite unreliable; for example, a pamphlet distributed to child care workers (Koralek, 1999; still in use) claimed that securely attached children will usually not be upset when dropped off at day care, and that they will smile and show interest in other people— questionable statements unless they are accompanied by information about the age and circumstances of the children.


  1. This post is pretty old, but I'll try.
    Do you think that some early education things could hurt the development of critical thinking, completely illogical things like Santa Claus/the Easter Bunny - innocent games, but clearly not supportive of learning about reality, about understanding things in any kind of sensible way? These things, and numerous others must be at the least 'missed opportunities' for proper intellectual development.
    Again, I'm obsessed with punishment, so I see a lot of pretty arbitrary "consequences" for various actions, again, 'missed opportunities' for learning about how things really connect in the world.
    I thought you were hinting at it in this post, that maybe to say 'lacking critical thinking skills' isn't so different from saying 'intellectually impaired?'
    Thanks for your previous answer to me. I hope I'm not going to be wasting your time; I'm kind of a one-note instrument, and I'm no kind of professional. Honestly, I'm looking for a little professional validation (or correction), my ideas get very little support from my fellow lay people.

  2. Hi, Jeff. You have some interesting (i.e., unanswerable) questions here.

    I'm sure you're right that Easter Bunnies etc. fail to encourage critical thinking, in the sense that adults telling these stories don't model critical thinking. Lots of other things we do and say either fail to model crit thought or actually work against it-- e.g., we say the moon is rising, rather than that the relative positions of moon and earth are changing and putting the moon in line with our gaze.

    But what are the trade-offs?What do we get in return for our negligence about fostering critical thinking? One thing is that children become socialized to share stories and ways of thinking with their community and have references that they can use with any other member of their group. Another is that eventually they figure out that adults have not been truthful and get a much-needed lesson in considering other people's motives in making certain statements. A third is that the adults think it charming that children accept these stories and therefore are happier about the children and about themselves as caregivers-- a very positive state of affairs that makes it easier for them to do a reasonable job of child-rearing.

    Are people who lack crit thinking skills "intellectually impaired"? It's true that they don't display the highest levels of cognitive functioning that appear to be possible to human beings, but they can do perfectly well in daily life, perform most jobs, read instructions on medicine bottles, etc. They don't act like genuinely impaired people.My great concern about them is that they may be very easily persuaded by advertising and propaganda and thus make bad decisions for themselves and others.

    I'm not at all clear about what you're thinking about punishment. If you're considering that "the punishment should fit the crime", yes, it's probably quite true that not being allowed to go to a movie has little to do with swiping your sister's piggy bank. On the whole, though, punishment is not very effective in itself,however well it may be chosen. Unless a punishment occurs immediately after (or preferable,during) unwanted behavior, it probably won't have much effect except to put everyone in a bad mood.

    Since I'm not positive what your ideas are at this point, I don't know whether I've validated them or what!

  3. Thanks again! On the chance you're curious, here's my stance on punishment - I'm agin' it!
    If you find yourself with 10 or 15 minutes and nothing real to do, here's my blog so far, it's pretty short, still working on it:
    Thanks again.

  4. Jeff, forgive me, but I have to tell you that punishment is not the same thing as negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is the removal of some aversive situation following a desired behavior, with the intention of getting the desired behavior to happen more often. It's very effective but also very hard to do outside the lab. Punishment is causing an aversive event to occur during or after an undesired behavior, with the intention of preventing that behavior in the future. Punishment can be effective but is entirely dependent on timing and therefore not necessarily easy to use.

    Unfortunately, punishment can be very reinforcing to an angry punisher, so even though it's evident that it isn't working, people keep on and on with it,or escalate it as if it's the intensity and not the timing that does the job.

    My opinion is that punishment should only be used in effective ways, and when it is used, it should be less aversive than the natural consequences of the target behavior... e.g. we don't break children's bones as a way to keep them from running in front of cars.

    I confess that there is one thing I never managed to teach my two sons without punishment: not to hit me. To this day,I feel I should have been able to think out how to do this, but I didn't manage to. (Incidentally, as adults, they say they don't remember that I ever punished them, but they remember feeling bad when they had done something wrong.) I'd like to see you blog about that issue. I don't think Alice Miller ever mentioned it.

    Another interesting question involves what we do that we don't intend as punishment, but it works that way: facial expressions of contempt or anger, aversion of the gaze, changes in voice tone. Can or should parents try to control these responses? What do you think?

  5. OK, I feel pretty foolish. Is there a term for it besides 'punishment?' Not 'positive reinforcement used negatively' as I heard somewhere, is it?
    You know I can't recall what we did for the hitting thing very well - but my kids are girls, and they would have been very young when that issue came up, I don't think they've hit us since they were big enough to hurt us - one major benefit of the non-punishing parenting style. We probably just whined and argued, maybe distracted them. Her, really. It's just the younger one that's the kind of hairball to pick a fight. I have a theory about it, but it's not really in line with the main theory - hit 'em back. Seems like some 'reality education' to show a small person what happens in reality when they pick a fight with a big one. Not to hurt them or anything, just a wrestling thing, pick 'em up, toss 'em around. Show them the reality of the fight they're starting. Save then from worse consequences they might encounter from someone else they pick a fight with.
    Probably only effective while they still trust you not to actually hurt them, not if they've ever been physically punished. Most importantly, no lecture on how it's good for them, keep it simple, a fight. Don't twist it out of shape with a rationalization.
    I'm not married to that thought. It's just how I do it with my cat. He's a toughie.
    About the scowls, I will try to write something on it. Again, I imagine it would make it different for me whether there had ever been any punishment/violence. If the scowl isn't seen by the child as a prelude to more, I would think it's OK. We shouldn't be lying about how we feel.
    My next post will probably about censorship of what the kids see, on TV and in the world.
    Thanks again for the attention.

    (I found you from 'Skeptic Magazine,' if you wondered. There was a mention of the punishment myth. Boy, 'Skeptic.' Talk about critical thinking! They're a fun bunch, huh?)

  6. Don't feel bad, people get this wrong ALL the time. Anyway,if you cause something aversive to follow an unwanted behavior, and the person can't escape it by changing what they're doing but can only avoid it in the future by refraining from the behavior, you're using punishment. There's no other name for it.

    So, if you advocate hitting the kid back to stop them hitting you, how do you counter the argument that you're modeling violent behavior?
    Please note that I'm not saying that you shouldn't do either one, but since you cite Alice Miller as an influence, I'm curious as to how you handle this issue.

    By the way,do you know about Richard Solomon's puppy-punishing study? See if you can find it. Actually, I ought to blog about it if I can ever get through the pile of things on my desk.

  7. OK. Thanks for that - I remember now someone explained about 'negative reinforcement' to me before. Wrong and stubborn. Oh, well, I changed my pages.
    I asked my wife what she did about the hitting thing. She says I made that stupid speech to her then, too, but she's more of a 'feel' parent than me and she didn't do it. She says she just looked hurt, told them it hurt, and if she couldn't talk them out of it, or if she started getting angry, she'd run away and get behind a door - removal of affection/love? She says timeouts are for grownups. Those incidents are very hard for me and my wife, we're not very cool around anger of any sort. I'm surprised we got through that without doing anything we'd regret. It's very stressful.

  8. These are probably the most confused concepts in psychology, and your readers may still get what they expect out of what you've written-- but it's good that you revised that.

    My kids didn't hit me because they were angry, but because they thought it was funny (this was at under age 2). They had quickly learned not to hit, but to talk when angry. Still, they were intrigued by my complex reaction when smacked in the nose or something else painful. One smack on the bottom apiece finally solved the problem-- I always remember one guy putting his hand over his rear and saying "No hit mommy!"

    I don't mind anger so much, but as a glasses-wearer at the time, I especially didn't like anything done to my face. With infinite time and nothing else to do, could I have stopped this behavior without responding in kind? I don't know-- maybe not!

    I should point out that there was no involved father in the picture. If I had had adult back-up (perhaps just to say "hey, don't hit your mom,that hurts her") the scenario might have been different. I do think it's a mistake to assume that every parent can use the same methods in every situation with every child.