Why Teach Thinking: Thinking in the Classroom

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  • THINKING IN THE CLASSROOM 229

    Why Teach Thinking: Thinking in the Classroom Neil Bolton, Universiry of Shefield, UK

    Commentary on Why Teach Thinking? by Jonathan Baron

    1 would like to begin my commentary on Barons paper by declaring, not my myside bias, but my personal confusion. The first half of my academic career was spent in a Psychology department in a British University, teach- ing, among other things, the psychology of thinking. The other half has been spent in a University Education Department, teaching, and, as often, learning from, experienced teachers. My present state of confusion arises from the fact that there is no obvious and easily formulated relationship between the two disciplines-that, on the contrary, there are a great number of profound problems in our understanding of the relationship between the kind of knowledge that psychology deals in (which may be called theoretical knowledge) and the sort of knowledge in action that successful teaching involves.

    I can illustrate this with a further personal experience. When the UK National Curriculum for science education was being introduced some years ago, I boldly stated to a group of primary school teachers my belief that such teachers got their children to carry out all kinds of activities (observation, co-ordination of data, testing, etc.) which seemed to be related to the development of scientific thinking but that, in the absence of any considered theoretical rationale for their activities, I doubted whether their pupils were acquiring the intended skills. Not surprisingly, this assertion was vigorously challenged, and examples of good practice outlined to me. The examples were impressive, my doubts remained.

    Baron, I imagine, would recognise this scenario. He, too, broadly criti- cises education for engaging in the rhetoric of active learning, then presents convincing examples from teachers own practice of well-considered pupil activities. The activities are likely to promote thinking, he argues, because they are based on a view of thinking as a process of active and open-minded criticism. I guess this means that there are real challenges in teaching (particularly leading to the avoidance of bias and overgeneralisation), not just a series of unchallenging pupil activities. The major issues, in my opinion, arising from Barons paper are: does education currently lack a view of thinking as open-minded, critical enquiry; and would the adoption of such a theoretical rationale succeed in developing teachers practice in the classroom?

    In answer to the first part, it must be pointed out that Baron is hardly working on virgin land. There are many well-trodden paths to the same theoretical rationale for teaching thinking in specific areas of the cur- riculum, developed from the work of Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner. In

  • 230 BOLTON

    Piagetian theory, for example, much is made of disturbances of equilibrium (often occurring through group discussion) which challenge the pupil to advance to a new hypothesis. And teachers are not unfamiliar with these theories. A substantial paper could be written showing just how many theories there have been in education that are similar, if not identical, to Barons.

    If this is true, however, why have these theories not resulted in better practice? There are, no doubt, a great number of reasons, including the fact that psychologists do not speak in one voice; there are many technical languages and sometimes conflicting advice. But possibly the most significant factor is that teaching is not just the implementation of a theory, but a performance art or craft. It is a form of expertise, a skill acquired on the job. To understand this kind of knowledge, we need to turn, not to Popper and deductivist views of knowledge, but to authors such as Michael Polanyi (1959; 1967) and Donald Schon (1983) who emphasise the largely tacit basis for knowledge in action.

    My own view is that, contrary to what most psychologists seem to believe, the effectiveness of psychology depends very largely on what kind of philosophy i t embodies. This is because any high-order psychological statement inevitably rests on a view of knowledge, values, or purposes that is open to discussion. I n the present instance. for example, Barons emphasis on t h e centrality of testing. hypotheses in education needs to be set against other perspectives which emphasise the role of personal, active commitment on the part of the learner, who follows hunches, endures uncertainty, and takes instruction from respected experts. The creativity of science, or any other discipline, from this perspective, depends as much on persistence and faith as on critical thinking.

    I suspect many teachers would react to Barons paper with two com- ments. First, they would say: Yes, but we are doing this already when circumstances allow us. When we teach history or chemistry we wish to engage students in the process of historical thinking or experimentation in chemistry. Thank you for your justification anyway. Second, they might say: Without in any way casting doubt on the value of open-minded critical thinking, our problems are mostly to do with getting students to feel a commitment to the discipline and to enjoy it . The kind of advice you give us is likely to work well with students who are motivated towards the disciplines, but many students do not see any relevance to their own lives in what the disciplines offer. Perhaps we need to be thinking critically and open-mindedly about what the cuniculum offers as well as about how we teach it?.

  • ARE THESE THE ONLY SHORTCOMINGS? 231

    REFERENCES Polanyi. M . (1959). Per;-nof knowledge. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Polanyi. M. (1967). The tacit dimension. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Schon. D.A. (1983). The rflective practitioner: How professionals rhink in action. New

    York: Basic Books.

    Are these the Only Shortcomings of Human Thinking and is this Method of Training Sufficient? Dietrich Dorner, Universitat Bamberg, Germany

    Commentary on Why Teach Thinking? by Jonathan Baron

    I t is the opinion of Professor Baron, that the human ability to think is restricted by two main sources of error. The first one is myside-bias,which means that human subjects have the tendency to argue in favour of their own opinion or value system. The second source of error is the human tendency to overgeneralise. (For me the difference between these two sources of error remains unclear: Myside bias seems to me to be a form of overgeneralisation too.)

    As these two sources of errors restrict the human ability to think, training in thinking seems necessary. Professor Baron discusses the main attempts to teach thinking. There is a widely held opinion that group discussions will improve the thinking abilities of the participants. Barons objections to discussion as a teaching method seem to me to be sound. The same holds for his objections to the training of single capabilities. His general recommendation is that one should improve the ability of subjects to analyse the reason why a thinking process has taken the wrong direction. Additionally one should improve the ability to reflect on ones own heuristic rules. According to Professor Baron, one possible way to train these abilities, for instance in school, is learning by detection. He pro- poses that one should not present to the students the results of scientific work, but should lead the students through the process of inventing and testing hypotheses. Baron believes that such a form of creative teaching, which forces the student to find explanations for events instead of simply receiving these explanations, will train the ability to think. Again, I believe that this method could be helpful.

    In my view, however, Professor Barons recommendations for teaching thinking are too coarse. The two sources of error that Baron identifies seem to me to be neither the only shortcomings of the human cognitive system, nor the most basic ones. The efforts of Reason (1990) to reduce human error to the basic mechanisms of similarly matching and frequency