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Singapore’s 21st Century education vision of Thinking Schools, Learning Nation has set the precedence for a change in mindset and teaching paradigm in our local schools and institutions of higher learning. In this issue, we bring to you a selection of articles by various educators, both local and foreign, on their experiences with the teaching of Thinking Skills.

July 2002, Vol. 5 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Thinking Skills in Education: Ideal and Real Academic Cultures
Dr Francis Adu-Febiri
Sociology Professor and Diversity Consultant
Camosun College and University of Victoria
Victoria, B.C., Canada

Thinking, that is, the ability to reason systematically with logic and evidence is a valuable human attribute. Thinking is learned and can help people become original, creative, and innovative problem-solvers. However, many educational systems do not systematically develop thinking skills in students. In my own education up to the bachelor’s level, nobody consciously or systematically taught me how to think. Consequently, I have made it a principle of my teaching to introduce thinking skills to my students through my course organisation and delivery.

Thinking Skills: Going Beyond Conventional Learning/Teaching Approaches

I provide learning tasks that involve thinking, that is, assignments that require students to look for connections among concepts, relationships between evidence and conclusion, and apply concepts and relationships to solve practical problems. However, this attempt to go against conventional teaching and focus on making students think has been frustrating.

Some of my students resist thinking by criticising my approach to teaching as unreasonable. For example three years ago, in my research methods course, I began to use an active participation and problem-based approach. I asked students to read suggested texts and gave them a list of concepts. Based on the texts and the concepts, I asked students to go through application questions in small groups and provide me with unresolved issues that would form the basis of my interactive presentation to the whole class. Many of the students criticised this approach on the grounds that they expected me to give lectures, and that my presentation on a selected topic should come before the small-group exercises on the topic. In my laboratory sessions, students would usually get perfect scores in the production of statistical outputs, but they performed dismally on interpretation of the outputs because it involved thinking. Pat Rogers’ insight helped me to manage this frustration. According to Rogers (2001, p. 121),

Indeed, they [students] will be quite resistant to any task that demands thinking and understanding because associated with their conception of what learning entails are strongly held convictions of what constitutes good teaching. They expect to be fed “right” answers by experts who tell them what to do and reward them for following the rules. They see the teacher as bearing all of the responsibility in a course, including selecting material, presenting it and testing what students have learned (that is, memorized)—a teaching practice that has been termed “closed” (Gibbs, 1992, p. 6).

The good news, however, is that at the end of the course, students demonstrated enhanced thinking skills. This experience supports Gibbs’ (1992) research findings that students show increased sophistication in their conceptions of learning when they experience more open-ended learning tasks. What these studies do not show is the frustration of students later on when they take courses that are closed-ended. The problem is with the normative educational practices that promote shallow learning. In many of our educational institutions, “learning” usually means learning facts; students who demonstrate they have learned the facts generally earn the highest grades (Giarrusso, et al., 2001, p. 8).

Despite the prevalence of such surface learning approach in educational institutions, one of the major expectations of the social sciences and humanities is that they produce students skilled in critical thinking. According to Giarrusso, et al. (2001, p. 8), college students are expected to understand entire systems of knowledge and to develop analytical reasoning and thinking. There is a contradiction between expectation and reality here. In a teaching seminar that I attended on critical thinking, a university counsellor made an incisive remark that he was frustrated by the contradiction between professors’ rhetoric of supporting critical thinking and yet setting examination questions that usually demand regurgitation of course material.

What Teachers Can Do to Promote Thinking Skills

The works of Kolb (1984), Gibbs (1992), Rogers (2001), and Giarrusso, et al. (2001) about deep learning suggest that teachers can help students develop thinking skills through their course organisation and delivery. The following are the typical suggestions:

  1. Present concepts, ideas, theories, methods, perspectives, and facts of the disciplinary area in integrated wholes rather than bits and pieces. Teachers should motivate students to identify, understand, and explain the relationships among the pertinent dimensions of the issues.
  2. Present students with problems and provide them with supportive climate to take the risk to learn what they need to know in order to solve them. The focus here is on the process of solving the problem, not the problem to be solved.
  3. Provide students with assignments that require them to work in small discussion groups in class and outside of class. This framework encourages students to think and develop effective strategies to negotiate meaning and manipulate ideas.
  4. Provide students with questions and exercises that will compel them to make sense of experiences, concepts and theories from many viewpoints.
  5. Present students with assignments that require making evaluations, drawing conclusions and explaining. It is important to note that although teachers may play an important role in promoting thinking skills, students also have their part to play.

What Students Can Do to Acquire Thinking Skills

According to O’day (1993) and Giarrusso, et al. (2001), students can develop critical thinking on their own when they know that thinking is about assessing the credibility of what they hear, read, and present; not accepting anything at its face value. O’day (1993, p. 31) specifically stresses that learning to think critically appears more difficult than it really is. Students can develop thinking skills simply by asking simple questions of What? Where? When? Why? Who? and How?

Questions to stimulate thinking when examining communication:

  • What is the purpose of the communication?
  • What does the communication assume or take for granted? Is the assumption correct, reasonable?
  • Are the key concepts of the communication clearly defined?
  • What is the main idea/thesis/argument of the communication?
  • Is the communicant’s point of view biased or neutral? Does it consider alternative points of view?
  • Is the evidence relevant and adequate?
  • How was the evidence collected?
  • Is the interpretation of information reasonable?
  • What explanation is provided? Is it convincing?
  • Does the conclusion flow from the discussion and the facts?
  • What are the implications and consequences that flow from the conclusion?

It is crucial to point out that teachers and students may have all the competencies to develop thinking skills, but they will not succeed in promoting and learning thinking skills, respectively, if the education system and the larger society do not value thinking. Given the paucity of thinking skills development activities in the education system, the sociological conclusion is that thinking is not highly valued. Consequently, teachers and students are not provided with the incentive to develop and apply it. The larger society does not demand that the education system promote thinking among students because it does not realise that the valuable qualities of originality, creativity, and innovation are the products of thinking, and that thinking is a learned behaviour.

The Role of Normative Practices in Promoting Thinking Skills

The acquisition of competencies to promote thinking skills is necessary but insufficient to develop thinking skills in the education system. For competencies to work in any substantial way, the normative practices in both the education system and society at large must provide adequate incentives for thinking. Teachers who symbolise thinking are not adequately rewarded. In some cultures, there is the notion that the reward of teachers, like pastors, is in heaven not on earth. Furthermore, academia rewards doing research more than helping students to develop thinking skills. Students who apply critical thinking in their classes are usually not popular among their classmates and teachers. Moreover, students do not necessarily need to acquire and apply thinking skills to succeed in the education system and society.


Thinkers are original, creative, and innovative. When society values these attributes and believes that they are learned rather than innate qualities, it is likely that it would provide teachers and students with enough incentives to develop thinking skills. Originality, creativity, and innovation are valued and rewarded in the larger society but it is assumed that these qualities are innate. It is the responsibility of educators to show the larger society that thinking is learned, and it is thinking that produces originality, creativity, and innovation. And it is precisely these qualities that are the means for creating wealth and solving social problems.


Giarrusso, Roseann, et al. (2001). A Guide to Writing Sociology Papers (5th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.

Gibbs, Graham. (1992). Improving the Quality of Student Learning. Bristol: Technical and Education Services.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

O’day, Danton H. (1993). How to Succeed at College: The Complete Student Guide. Oakville: Trilobyte Press.

Rogers, Pat. (2001). ‘Using Theories about Student Learning to Improve Teaching’. In Janice Newton, et al. (Eds.). Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Aurora, Ontario: Garamond Press.

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Inside this issue
Thinking Skills in Education: Ideal and Real Academic Cultures
Fostering Thinking in Large-group Teaching and Small-group Tutorials
Nurturing Thinking Skills
An Exercise in Thinking, Writing, and Rewriting