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Although engaging students in the learning process is a daunting task, it is necessary if we want to teach students thinking skills that will help them to be critical thinkers and independent learners. This issue of CDTL Brief on Engaging Students discusses the importance of engaging students in the process of teaching them thinking skills.

July 2006, Vol. 9, No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Thinking Skills: A Discipline-centred Approach
Associate Professor Anjam Kursheed
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Are thinking skills innate or acquired? If they are acquired, what is the most effective way of learning them? Should universities mount general purpose pedagogical courses aimed at teaching students to think creatively and critically? These are some questions commonly asked when discussing the need to improve students' thinking skills. Over the past 20 to 30 years, there has been a growing number of pedagogical literature advocating that thinking skills are primarily acquired and that they should be taught in non discipline-specific courses that exist outside college curriculum. Ruggiero (1998) criticises traditional learning for its lack of explicit instructions on thinking (particularly in science and mathematics) and how a new era seems to be dawning where thinking instruction courses will become mandatory in universities and colleges.

In this paper, I shall argue against Ruggiero's view and propose that in science and engineering, thinking skills are best taught using a discipline-specific approach. I will also show how students can learn creative and critical thinking through discipline-specific examples (e.g. getting students to become familiar with great intellectual achievements within the discipline he or she is studying, or by being an apprentice to a successful and experienced mentor) where students can see thinking skills in action. In addition, I will draw on my own experience of teaching and research in science and engineering subjects, my service in inter-departmental/faculty committees that aim to promote better teaching and learning, and my participation in university level multi-disciplinary teaching programmes to show how students can learn to think creatively and critically through a discipline-specific approach.

In my view, there are definite reasons why general pedagogical materials and courses aimed at fostering or acquiring thinking skills are usually not popular amongst those from science or engineering backgrounds. In making this statement, I am drawing not only from my experience, but also the experience of my colleagues and students. I do not think this reaction indicates that those from science or engineering are not interested in teaching methods or thinking skills, but it suggests that problems across disciplines are solved differently.

Compared to subjects taught in the Arts faculty, science and engineering subjects place a greater emphasis on mathematical equations, logical proofs and experimental demonstrations. This is an important point to bear in mind when trying to develop science or engineering students' thinking skills. As experimental data and proofs are the cornerstones of any scientific discovery, it is much more important for science and engineering students to learn the basic laws of physics and how to apply them, than say receive instruction on how to develop, criticise and evaluate an argument. This is because progress in science and engineering is ultimately made through physical demonstrations as opposed to rhetorical arguments. There is no need to tell science and engineering students how they should go about evaluating their own ideas, how they should use certain principles and techniques of creative thinking or how they should persuade others (Ruggiero, 1998). Though written scientific communication is extremely important in science and engineering, it is not the ingenuity of an argument that counts. Experimental data is much more important than the art of persuasion. And, unless the required experimental data is present, no one needs to be persuaded.

On a more general note, there is something selfdefeating in teaching a person to think creatively or critically using prescribed techniques and methods. Students only learn valuable lessons in creative and critical thinking when they are free to evaluate something for themselves. Just like a person cannot learn how to ride a bicycle simply by analysing how to do it, creative and critical thinking needs to be experienced rather than analysed. However, this is not to say pedagogical studies on thinking skills are of no value to science and engineering students; it remains largely as a subject students can pursue on their own. However, there may be a much greater synergy between pedagogical studies on thinking skills and disciplines such as Arts or even business.

In Kursheed (2005), I summarised my positive experience in teaching engineering fundamentals through a hands-on/historical approach using historical case studies to put students in the inventors' or discoverers' frame of mind. I also set assignments where students devised their own recreations of classic experiments using their own materials. I found this approach helpful not only for teaching engineering fundamentals, but also for getting students to think creatively and critically. History contains a wealth of ingenious experiments and unconventional ideas that are the results of creative thinking. By learning from both successful and unsuccessful historical examples, students can draw from these resources and learn how to be creative. Numerous great controversies and debates between past and present eminent scientists also constitute powerful illustrations of critical thinking in action (e.g. Einstein-Bohr's debate on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics). Besides learning from history, getting students to work directly under an experienced mentor in the field also allows them to see how the mentor exercises his/her thinking skills through the way he or she solves problems.

I am not proposing that we should keep to what we already have. But at least in the science and engineering context, thinking skills are best taught using a discipline-specific approach. In this article, I have shown how a hands-on/historical approach in science and engineering subjects and getting students to work under an experienced mentor can help science and engineering students develop thinking skills. While a discipline-specific approach might have been effective in teaching science and engineering students thinking skills, the initiatives and means used would vary according to disciplines.


Kursheed, A. (2005). 'Teaching Engineering Fundamentals by Using a Hands-on/ Historical Approach'. CDTL Brief. Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 1-2.

Ruggiero, V.R. (1998). The Art of Thinking: A Guide to Critical and Creative Thought (5th ed.). New York: Longman.

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Teaching Students to Think: A Matter of Engaging Minds
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Thinking Skills: A Discipline-centred Approach