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 bachelors 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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Provide students with questions and exercises that will
compel them to make sense of experiences, concepts and theories
from many viewpoints.
- 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
What Students Can Do to Acquire Thinking Skills
According to Oday (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. Oday (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?
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 communicants 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
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
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
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential
Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Oday, Danton H. (1993). How
to Succeed at College: The Complete Student Guide. Oakville:
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.