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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Critical thinking and mastery of child development concepts, Part 5

This is the fifth section of an unpublished paper discussing critical thinking issues and the teaxhing of child development.

Problems in the Classroom: Critical or Uncritical Thinking?
We have considered what developmental issues and what experiences may make it difficult for undergraduate students of child development to think critically. It is unpleasant but important to ask whether there are also factors in coursework that encourage uncritical thinking about development and discourage critical thinking.
Coursework and Assessment
One possible factor has to do with the types of assignments and particularly of assessment approaches used by instructors. Unless they are carefully discussed and analyzed at some later time, multiple-choice tests do little to encourage critical thinking; even though very good multiple-choice examinations may require the instructor to think analytically, they do not have the same effect on students. Essay assignments and examinations have a far greater potential for revealing student thinking patterns and providing opportunities for encouraging critical thinking, but this potential is realized only if instructors devote themselves to providing feedback—and, of course, if students pay attention to it. Small classes may offer opportunities for oral discussion with critical thought about evidence and reasoning, but instructors may find appropriate responses difficult, and students may resent having their thinking dissected in public. Instructors can model critical thinking by commenting at length on issues, but of course this takes away time from “covering” other points. All the solutions available to instructors involve trade-offs between encouragement of critical thinking and the achievement of other goals for the class.
Trouble with Textbooks
In addition to instruction, discussion, and assessment methods, faculty members have some choice of textbooks for developmental science courses, but there are some serious difficulties involving these books. Almost all of them are beautifully produced, colorful and interesting to look at, and engagingly written, with many vignettes about specific children and rich description of some events in development. They are loaded with “features”, boxes discussing research issues, thought questions of various kinds, and attempts to engage the student by raising questions about real-world applications. Regrettably, however, many of them provide no more impetus for critical thinking than did the high-school assignments discussed by Francine Prose.
I have chosen some quotations from a very popular textbook which had best be nameless, especially because it is really no worse than its competitors. As the reader will see, both statements and questions fail to use or trigger critical thinking skills.
“…theories have contributed to new approaches to education that emphasize exploration, discovery, and collaboration. As a result, children express greater enthusiasm for learning.” [No information in the chapter supports the latter claim, or suggests how enthusiasm would be measured or whether it is associated with actual learning.]
“Cite an aspect of your development that differs from a parent’s or grandparent’s when he or she was your age. How might contexts explain this difference?” [Nothing in the question or the chapter directs the student to ways to measure aspects of development, or comments on effects of memory on the older person’s presentation of his or her past. In fact, the student is not asked to get information from an older person. The first part of the assignment is irrelevant to the second, which basically asks for some contextual factors and effects they might (not do) have.]
“Find out if your parents read Gesell, Spock, or other parenting advice books when you were growing up. What questions… most concerned them? Do you think that today’s parents have concerns that differ from those of your parents? Explain.” [Whether the parents read advice books is irrelevant to the questions that concerned them, so this aspect distracts from a critical approach ; the question does not guide the student to ways to find what concerns today’s parents have, so he or she is asked to respond without sufficient supportive information; the student is unlikely to have an informed opinion on this point unless he or she is a parent, so the question further encourages uncritical thinking without sufficient information.]
“What aspect of behaviorism made it attractive to critics of psychoanalytic theory? How did Piaget’s theory respond to a major limitation of behaviorism?” [The student is asked to work with insufficient information. The text does not state that either assumption is true. In addition, to ask how Piaget’s theory “responded” to an aspect of behaviorism suggests that the theory was shaped by shortcomings of behaviorism, which is not correct and tends to confuse the student’s attempt to compare behaviorism and other theories. This language may simply be an ill-advised attempt to avoid saying “Compare and contrast”.]
“Return to [the] table… which lists advantages and disadvantages of parenthood. Which are most important and which least important to you? What is your ideal family size?” [Other than the use of the table, this question appeals only to the student’s personal views and does not involve the weighing of evidence or other critical thinking skills. There is little connection between the question and information about development. In addition, neither the student nor the instructor can use a response to this question to determine whether the student understands relevant information or has given a considered answer.]
“____, who is expecting her first child, recalls her own mother as cold and distant. ___ is worried about whether she will be effective at caring for her new baby. What factors during pregnancy are related to maternal behavior?” [The details about ____ are irrelevant to the question, and potentially distract students into answering in terms of relationships they have experienced. In addition, the question cannot be answered on the basis of any information in the related chapter, which refers to maternal attitudes but not maternal behavior.]
“Which explanation of infants’ cognitive competencies do you prefer, and why?” [This question is couched in terms of personal preferences, not of evaluation of evidence or logic. A student who reads closely may be tempted to say “I like this one because the words are easier to spell”, but most will simply search the text for the right answer.]
“Do you believe that teaching infants and toddlers to control the expression of negative emotion is very important? Explain.” [This question asks the student to state a personal value (very important), without explaining either the goal of the training, what it would mean for the training not to be very important, or whether control means suppression of emotion or regulation of modes of expression. Once again, the ambiguity of the question encourages an uncritical response.]
Finally, the frequency of emotional language in this book should be noted, as it encourages an uncritical approach by providing irrelevant details and distracting the student from the task at hand. The table of contents contains the following words: amazing, tragedy, mysterious tragedy,and powerful, none of which are necessary descriptions of the contents. Here is the caption under a picture of a toddler: “ This boy has spent his first two years in a Romanian orphanage, with little adult contact and stimulation. The longer he remains in a barren environment, the more he will withdraw and wither and display permanent impairment in all domains of development.” This vivid writing is no doubt engaging, but creates a barrier rather than a bridge between the illustration and available evidence concerning the later, non-withered, development of the Romanian orphans who have received such careful study.
Trouble with Instructors
Regrettably, it is all too easy for instructors to contribute to critical thinking problems by responses in the classroom or by assessment of essay assignments. For example, most instructors attempt to make their remarks vivid, memorable, and student-friendly by including dramatic events and descriptions of interesting but extraneous factors. Students do remember such information, and many instructors have found that answers to essay questions sometimes refer to “what you said about what your little boy did” or other personal details. However, it has been demonstrated clearly that extraneous information, however attention-getting it may be, confuses critical thinking about the real issues ( Stanovich, 2004; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974; Waldrop, 1987). To omit those interesting details seems undesirable, as they do help establish memory for concepts; however, it may be a good idea to follow such examples by reminding students about individual differences.
Instructors often permit or provide plausible, unsupported explanations of developmental events, as indeed do developmental theorists. Discriminating between the plausible explanation and the explanation supported by evidence is one of the steps in developing reasoning capacities (Kuhn, 1993). Of course, recognizing that an argument is a plausible one is an important critical thinking skill, without which the formulation of hypotheses would be extremely time-consuming, if not impossible. But recognizing that an argument is only plausible is an essential advance, without which “confident speculation” is a likely response. It is easy enough to remind students of the evidence that would be needed to support a plausible argument found in developmental science work. It is more difficult to respond to a student’s offered plausible explanation in such a way that criticism is perceived to involve the nature of all plausible arguments, rather than the acceptable plausibility of this one.
Instructors may find it quite difficult to avoid emphasizing confirmatory data over non-confirmatory, or permitting students to stress confirmatory data (Klaczynski & Narasimham, 1998). Having asked students to participate by offering examples of the developmental phenomenon under discussion, and having received one or two appropriate examples, how many of us inquire, “how many people have had completely different experiences? “ rather than simply thanking the students who have commented? Generally, instructors are happy if examples are relevant to the issue, and fail to concern themselves with the importance of counter-examples.
Instructors generally fail to give adequate attention to the examination of false statements. If a student has made the statement, the instructor politely turns to someone else for the answer, knowing that students are offended by any clear statement that they are wrong, or by any attempt to examine the reasoning behind the statement. (Even if the statement is correct, trying to explore the reasoning behind it often makes the respondent feel that he or she has made a mistake-- if it’s right, it’s right, and that’s all there is to be said.) If a false statement has appeared in the textbook or come up in media presentations, instructors often ignore, ridicule, or dismiss it, rather than modeling for students the process of examining it thoroughly. These practices play into the problematic tendency to stress what is true rather than what is false, thus creating problems in examining the consistency of a set of statements ( Johnson-Laird, Legrenzi, Girotto, & Legrenzi, 2000).

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