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Critical Thinking, Scientific Thinking, and Everyday Thinking: Metacognition about Cognition.

"In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual." Galileo

When I began teaching science I had hoped that students could learn to employ biological concepts in a reasonable way to solve the everyday problems they will face in the future. I wanted students to have beliefs and even passionate beliefs, if not about the environment and the miracle of their own bodies, then about something--anything--that was important to them.

The scientific method is, of course, very powerful in continually refining our view of how the world works. However, in science classes, the scientific method is taught as a series of steps that are dutifully memorized and repeated usually without any detailed explanation about how to get from one step to the next. I believe that if science teachers had a better understanding of critical thinking they could provide students with the necessary link between learning factual knowledge and applying that knowledge to their belief systems.

In order to clarify this statement, let me explore two questions: First, what is meant by the term critical thinking. As a trained biologist, I was not aware of the time and effort that education and psychology has invested in the term critical thinking. In 1916 John Dewey imagined that we deliberately seek out the basis for our beliefs and the adjunct information to support them (Dewey, 1916). Dewey called this process reflective thought. Self-directed thought examines a belief to determine what it is based on and to ascertain what consequences will follow from that belief. Dewey felt that reflective thought was the only thing that keeps us from acting on habit and impulse alone.

Many others define critical thinking (see Adams, 1993; Facione, 1984; Moll & Allen, 1982; Morgan, 1995) but rather than list all of the definitions, it probably makes more sense to determine what they may have in common. First, nearly every definition has some reference to reason or using reasoning. Second, the terms reason or reasoning also convey the notion of logic or being logical. Those who study logic appear to agree that, with or without formal training in logic, humans are (at least in principle) reasonable and rational (Eysenek & Keane, 1990).

The second question to explore is, if we are all reasonable and rational then why do we not think critically all the time? There has been some research that suggests why we may not. Perkins and Hafner (1983) found that reasoning processes were routinely impaired by problems of bias and incomplete reasoning. The adult and college students they studied had committed sins of omission where reasoning skills were all right as far as they went, but never went far enough. What is of interest here is that even though we as humans are logical and rational, we cannot recognize our own biases, the biases of others, and the validity of opposing arguments. Thus, another point that the definitions appear to have in common, is the assumption that there is an awareness on the learner's part about the thought process itself, and therefore a willingness and desire to make appropriate decisions.

In order to clarify this last concept Zeidler, et al. (1992) studied Dewey's concept of reflective thought. First, critical thinkers possess a certain mind-set with which they approach ideas. Dewey imagined that one must be willing to endure suspense and to undergo the trouble of searching. Second, the critical thinker is a skeptic who is willing to suspend judgement or is unwilling to accept any idea until evidence can be demonstrated to permit its acceptance, perhaps developing a critical thinking ethic as recommended by Halpern (1998). This mind-set or ethic will require learners to reflect on the reasoning of others and on their own reasoning to solve the socio-scientific dilemmas of the future (Zeidler, et al., 1992).

Unfortunately, undergraduate and graduate college students do not seem to exhibit the level of reflective judgement and reasoning skills expected for 16-20 years of education (Mine, King, Hood, & Wood, 1990). In addition, people from various ethnic groups, religions, and social classes tend to form unique but equally egocentric belief systems and use them equally unmindfully (Paul, 1992). If this is so, then learners need also to recognize that they evaluate and interpret information within the constraints of their own perspectives and biases. Brookfield (1989) indicates that as learners we need to recognize (1) we always have a point of view, (2) we live inferentially, (3) we do not have a direct pipeline to reality, and (4) that it is possible to have an overwhelming inner sense of the correctness of our views--and still be wrong.

This last point would seem to be a major stumbling block in critical thinking and teaching critical thinking. If we are already capable of reason and logic (which I think we are; in some way that must have been important in human evolution) then we must be willing to become aware of the critical thinking process, recognize our biases, and make appropriate decisions. We must be willing to develop a thinking strategy or ethic to evaluate information such that we will change how we think about the world. In essence, we must be willing to change our beliefs.

In science classes, instructors attempt to teach scientific thinking usually disguised as the scientific method. We speak about steps (observations, developing hypotheses, designing experiments, gathering data, evaluating results, and coming to conclusions), the null hypothesis, and blind and double blind strategies, all to reduce the likelihood that our personal biases will affect our conclusions. Through reflecting and reasoning about the relationship between our results and our hypotheses (theories) we come to conclusions about what to believe. Is this critical thinking? Is there a connection between scientific thinking and critical thinking? What information might be available from research in cognitive studies to answer these questions?

A search of the literature provided a number of pre-test, intervention, post-test types of studies, but few of these interventions appeared to provide a measurable difference in the level of critical thinking (Mine, et al., 1990). Furthermore, few of these studies attempted to determine how a change in thinking might actually take place. The only researchers that appeared to be looking at the mechanisms involved in the thinking process were the cognitive scientists studying problem-solving and scientific thinking.

One important contribution in this field was promoted by Thomas Kuhn. He imagined that observation in science was not a neutral activity but instead was strongly dependent on prior knowledge (Kuhn, 1962). This prior conceptual knowledge was viewed by Kuhn as the paradigms scientists use to direct the kinds of questions they could ask. Kuhn believed that most of the time scientists engage in puzzle-solving activities that clarify, reinforce, and patch-up the prevailing paradigm. When the exceptions to the existing paradigm become so numerous that a new paradigm becomes necessary, a scientific revolution occurs. A number of cognitive researchers imagine that this process of change within the scientific community may be similar to the process of how individuals modify/change their conceptual theories of how the world works and that this process is thinking (see D. Kuhn, 1986). Other philosophers of science, notably Stephen Toulmin (1972), imagined that conceptual change occurs in a gradual, elaborate, and evolutionary process. He proposed that major conceptual shifts are a product of the displacement of one concept with another more powerful concept, and "... instead of a revolutionary account of intellectual change, which sets out to show how entire conceptual systems' succeed one another we therefore need to construct an evolutionary account, which explains how conceptual populations come to be progressively transformed."

Knowing whether the change is by revolution or evolution or both may have a major impact on our pedagogical expectations about the length of time it takes learners to modify their conceptual systems. If scientific thinking, critical thinking, or everyday thinking is determined by how thinkers change their conceptual systems, then how this cognitive change takes place must be important. One researcher who has investigated cognitive change is Deanna Kuhn. Her work spans more than two decades and would provide at least one historical thread into how psychologists have changed their thinking about how thinking takes place. In addition some of her recent work attempts to link scientific thinking with critical and everyday thinking. Understanding this link may be useful in assisting students to integrate scientific thinking and methods with everyday thinking and critical thinking.

In 1977 Kuhn began to study the process of thinking by asking when and how children develop the ability to solve syllogisms. This ability is of theoretical interest due to the association suggested by a number of authors between attainment of this ability and the development of formal thinking operations (Kuhn, 1977). Kuhn hypothesized that children who were concrete thinkers may be able to exhibit conditional logic if tested appropriately. The tests of logic given by psychologists at that time were steeped in the traditions of physics and math. She imagined that young children may have experienced difficulties with the physics and math rather than the logic. If these tests were more pragmatic would children be able to solve them? She concluded that correct conditional reasoning indeed can be attained with children in simple conversational situations. Kuhn does not appear to have done any more work with stage attainment, but her research (up until 1997) contained two elements derived from this study. She always employed real-world situations in her testing schemes, and she focused on the process of change rather than the attainment of stages.

In 1979 her work focused on the nature of the process which leads to cognitive development. She was still influenced by Piaget, not by stage attainment, but by his explanations about the process of development that allowed for stage attainment (Kuhn, 1979). Specifically, she questioned whether cognitive schemes interact with the external environment in ways that lead to changes in those schemes. Her research shifted from a pre-testing, intervention, post-testing scheme to methods that focused on the intervention itself to determine how change takes place.

In general, Kuhn provides individuals with complex or ill-structured problems. The subjects were usually a cross-section of either children, adolescents, or adults. Subjects were asked to provide a theory that (if tree) would explain the phenomenon, a justification for the theory, to generate evidence for or against their theory, and to generate alternative theories. The interviewers could provide made-up evidence that supported or refuted a theory originally provided by the subject, or ask questions of the subject, but they could never provide a solution to the problem. The subjects were questioned about problems or presented new problems over a period of weeks or months (called a microgenetic method by Kuhn). Her results indicate that the process of change required to solve complex problems was slow, gradual, and uneven in all her subjects. Test subjects often ignored contradictory data to their theories. Most subjects exhibited advanced thinking strategies, but few carried them through to full problem solution. Subjects were unable to give up primitive thinking strategies until new ones were tested and fully in place. Perhaps an evolutionary process that results in a revolutionary change?

By 1986, Kuhn's research on determining how developmental change takes place was recast into the terms of critical thinking. A common thread of education was the development of the ability to think, but Kuhn did not believe that education was particularly successful in teaching thinking skills. Her review of the literature on critical thinking indicated that there was very little information on the nature of reasoning in critical thinking. What did exist came from treatment-outcome studies on cognitive development, and this literature was not grounded in everyday contexts. She concluded that we must investigate processes as they occur within the individual. Not surprisingly she indicated that this must be done with real-world problems and direct observation rather than treatment-outcome models.

Kuhn appears to have abandoned Piaget in the 1980's for more theory-laden cognitive schemata and new epistemological approaches. She now believes that thinking occurs in a context that shapes its form and expression, and cannot be accounted for in formal structural theories of development. She believes that
 One might, as a number of researchers have begun to do, regard cognitive
 development as a process of theory revision, that is, partially correct
 theories and mini-theories within particular subject domains are
 successively revised over the course of development until they eventually
 approximate the commonly accepted adult versions ... the aim of education
 might be regarded as the facilitation of this process of theory revision
 (Kuhn, 1986).

The results of these studies are similar to earlier findings except that she is now interested in why the change process (to consolidate, exclusive use of the advanced strategies) takes so long. Kuhn suggests that subjects are not only acquiring use of these strategies, they are also gaining in metacognitive understanding of them, and this metacognitive development is much more complex and difficult. Recall that awareness of the thinking process itself is a condition of our critical thinking mind-set/ethic as promoted by Dewey and Halpern. Increased awareness of the strategy might improve the likelihood of the user's ability to transfer the strategy into other contexts. Exercise of strategies within very specific content-delimited contexts may promote their transfer, while didactic teaching of the strategy without domain specific knowledge will not. Kuhn suggests that, similar to Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, (Vygotsky, 1962) the educator must become a facilitator and continually attempt to pose problems that are familiar enough to permit application of strategies within the student's abilities. There is some irony in the fact that we in science have been didactically teaching the tactic of scientific thinking (via the scientific method) with the hope that it would also transfer to other content domains. Rather than focusing students on memorizing the steps of the scientific method in Piagetian fashion, we probably need to spend more time and repetition on how to get from one step to the next. The common practice of critiquing primary literature in science classes may not be nearly as productive as we imagined given that there is usually not enough repetition for metacognitive awareness, and student competence level is not usually taken into consideration.

In 1989 Kuhn began studying the possibility that the revision of our mental theories is the coordination of those theories with evidence (Kuhn, 1989). The coordination of theories and evidence is well within the realm of scientific thought, and indeed one issue that is addressed in the paper is whether or not children coordinate theories and evidence the same way that scientists do. As children we all hold a variety of naive intuitive conceptions about how the world works (often false), that are resistant to instruction. But what of the process by which these models, or theories, are revised or constructed in the first place? Are the processes in which the child, the adult, and the scientist go about exploring the world, and adapting their mental models, comparable? To determine if subjects could develop skills in differentiating and coordinating theory and evidence, she evaluated their ability to (1) recognize the possibility of alternative theories, or (2) recognize the possibility of evidence that doesn't fit a theory.

The results of this research, like previous studies, indicated that the coordination of theory and evidence is complex, rendering unlikely any simple conception of cognitive mechanism. First, there is rarely a turning point at which acquisition can be said to occur. Instead, more and less advanced strategies exist simultaneously in an individual's repertory of skills with the more advanced strategies only gradually overpowering the less advanced strategies. Second, both inclusion of new strategies and discarding of old ones involve metacognitive as well as strategic understanding. Third, this development takes place not once but many times over. What was learned in one context remains to be mastered in others. The study also indicated that exercise can be a sufficient mechanism to induce change, but the fact that many adults reason at a sixth grade level indicates that sufficient exercise is probably not available. The developmental process she describes requires thinking about theories, rather than merely with them, and thinking about evidence, rather than merely being influenced by it. Kuhn does not see these skills as being derived from a logical competence (Piaget), but rather as emerging from pragmatic goal-related schemes. In addition, coordination of theory and evidence by children and lay-adults is not the same as that employed by science and scientists. Children (and many lay-adults) were, by far, less able to make the distinction between the theories they use to understand the world and the evidence that could support or refute those theories than scientists.

The methods employed in the 1989 study may provide some prescriptive strategies about how to provide enough thinking exercises at the appropriate learner level. Individuals were asked to develop a theory about a particular phenomenon. At the next meeting, the researchers presented made-up evidence that either supported or refuted their theory, and the subject was required to explain how the information affected their theory. I am not suggesting that teachers make-up evidence to support or disprove learner-generated theories. I can, however, envision case studies (less complex than primary scientific literature) that would ask students to develop their own hypothesis/theories about a phenomenon (scientific or not) and then ask students to provide evidence from the case study which would support or refute their theory. Formalizing the process may provide a metacognitive awareness of the difference between theories and evidence. By asking students to develop their own theories, instructors can be somewhat confident that they are challenging students at appropriate levels. This type of problem would also provide exercise in how to get from one step of the scientific method to the next--in this case from observation to hypothesis/theory development.

The connection between everyday thinking and scientific thinking in terms of the concept of coordination of theory and evidence was the focus of a paper in 1993 (Kuhn, 1993). Her justification for this connection was "... that significant benefits will accrue both conceptually and practically if we treat scientific thinking not as a rarefied form of thought but instead bring it into the realm of the ordinary" (Kuhn, 1993). She indicated that teaching reasoning strategies has come to be seen as a narrow, even sterile, approach to science education. Science as a way of knowing does not have facts but instead draws upon continually revised theories about the way the world works. These theories are under constant scrutiny and as such are exposed to the process of argument.

If theories are revised through argument then Kuhn believes that we can find scientific thinking in older children, adolescents, and lay adults if we conceive of it as argument. Argument would then be one way of adjusting our naive theories about the way the world works. The results of this paper are similar to the results of previous papers and will not be repeated. What is of primary interest here is the linking of this research on the coordination of theory and evidence with scientific thinking, critical thinking, and everyday thinking
 In linking scientific thinking to thinking more broadly--in bringing it
 into the realm of the ordinary--we stand not only to introduce students to
 what is significant and powerful about a scientific mode of thought but
 also to make them aware of the role it can play in their own lives. This
 may be the most significant, far-reaching, and long-lasting benefit that
 students take away from their learning in science.... I have undertaken
 here to show that these two abilities--the ability to recognize the
 possible falsehood of a theory and the identification of evidence capable
 of disconfirming it--are the foundational abilities that lie at the heart
 of both informal and scientific reasoning. These abilities lie at the heart
 of critical thinking, which similarly can be regarded, at the most global
 level, as the ability to justify what one claims to be true (Kuhn, 1993).

The concept that scientific thinking, critical thinking, and everyday thinking are linked together by the argument that adjusts our naive theories is probably not entirely accurate. In science, argument does not necessarily occur at the level of the individual but, rather, in the community of science. Individual scientists rarely speak equally of alternative hypotheses. Only through journal articles and scientific meetings do opposing viewpoints compete to shape scientific beliefs. The process is not always accomplished in a graceful way, and it is hardly ever documented. Although the scientific community may change how they view the world, some individuals never will. The critical thinking and everyday thinking process of argument, on the other hand, seems much less formalized, more individualized, and therefore less public. Even when the debate is public, argumentative participation is usually limited to a few acquaintances, friends, fellow students, or family members. There does, however, appear to be validity in linking the modes of scientific, critical, and everyday thought together as the ability to recognize (with the use of evidence) that a theory may be false. This ability may be key in the process of recognizing our personal biases.

In 1997 Kuhn abandoned a research approach that she has employed since the 1970's. In an attempt to determine what type of exercise would promote critical and scientific thinking, she pre-tested, provided an intervention, and then post-tested a study population. The object of this research was to provide an explicit test of the hypothesis that engagement in thinking (exercise) about a topic enhances the quality of reasoning about that topic (Kuhn, Shaw, & Felton, 1997). Her subjects were adolescents (7th and 8th grade), young adults (community college), and Latino/African Americans. Pre-and post-tests were given to determine their opinions about capital punishment. The intervention consisted of five dyadic discussions with peers of both supporting and opposing opinions. The results provided evidence that a sustained engagement involving multiple dialogues with different partners over a period of weeks significantly enhanced the quality of reasoning about a topic.

The concept of repetition is probably not politically correct in education today, especially if it is conceived of as drill. Yet all the evidence from these studies would indicate that becoming aware of the thinking processes, generating the ability to coordinate theory and evidence, and developing the capacity to recognize false theories is dependant on sufficient repetition of thinking tasks. These are the skills that are necessary to overcome the stumbling blocks in critical thinking because they increase our willingness to make appropriate decisions, and help us to recognize our biases and the biases of others. One of the most important points of this research may well be that our pedagogical expectations for teaching thinking skills in six to twelve months may be unrealistic. The task of teaching thinking skills is going to be slow, fitful, with numerous reversals. When students do regress in their thinking skills, we must remember that it is a part of the process that will eventually help them to become better thinkers. Eventually students may have the capability to coordinate scientific knowledge with reflective thought to shape their beliefs if we:

?? Provide many exercises at learner level that are in the content domain which require thinking, evaluation, and debate.

?? Provide enough exercises for metacognition as well as metastrategic understanding so that students understand they are also thinking about thinking.

?? Attempt to link these thinking strategies to everyday thinking strategies rather than linking these exercises to everyday phenomena thereby promoting a critical thinking ethic.

However, as indicated by Brookfield (1988) teaching critical thinking will always be a less than perfect process, and learner satisfaction should not be the sole aim of teaching critical thinking. For many students the process will be frustrating.


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Brookfield, S. (1989). Developing critical thinkers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.

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Facione, P. A. (1984). Toward a theory of critical thinking. Liberal Education, 70(3), 253-261.

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Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Kuhn, D. (1986). Education for thinking. Teachers College Record, 87(4), 495-512.

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Kuhn, D. (1993). Connecting scientific and informal reasoning. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 39(1), 74-103.

Kuhn, D., Shaw, V., & Felton, M. (1997). Effects of dydaic interaction on argumentative reasoning. Cognition and Instruction, 15(3), 287-315.

Mine, R. A., King, P. M., Hood, A. B., & Wood, P. K. (1990). Stages of intellectual development and associated critical thinking skills in college students. Journal of College Student Development, 31, 539-547.

Moll, M. B., & Allen, R. D. (1982). Developing critical thinking skills in biology. Journal of College Science Teaching 12(2), 95-98.

Morgan, W. R. J. (1995). Critical thinking-What does that mean? Journal of College Science Teaching (March/April).

Paul, R. (1992). Critical thinking what every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world. Santa Rosa CA.: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Perkins, D. N., & Hafner, J. (1983). Difficulties in everyday reasoning. In W. Maxwell (Ed.), Thinking the expanding frontier (pp. 177-189). Philadelphia: Franklin Institute.

Toulmin, S. (1972). Human understanding Vol. 1: The collective use and evolution of concepts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Zeidler, D. L., Lederman, N. G., & Taylor, S. C. (1992). Fallacies and student discourse: Conceptualizing the role of critical thinking in science education. Science Education, 76(4), 437-450.

Roy E. Dawson is a Doctoral Student in Educational Leadership and Innovation in the School of Education. He taught biology to students not majoring in science for eight years at the University of Colorado (Boulder and Denver campuses). He is currently an academic advisor in EPO Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. E-mail: <>.
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Author:Dawson, Roy E.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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