This summer there were 7,700 candidates sitting the AS-level in critical thinking. It was introduced by OCR only four years ago and is already deemed a success. "It's not just the elite institutions," says Ruth Matthews, OCR's subject manager . "It's being used by independent schools, further education colleges and comprehensive schools, so it goes across the whole spectrum."
Because critical thinking is skills based, it can be used to develop thinking in any subject. Jill Shield, assistant head of sixth form at Eastwood School in Nottinghamshire, says that in her experience, scientists, geographers, and historians take to it most easily. Her students believe that, as an AS Level, it has more status with university admissions tutors than the key skills qualification.
Whatever its standing, some applicants to higher education have found it has a very practical advantage. Last year, Yahsir Qureshi was a student at Sir George Monoux Sixth Form College in Walthamstow, north-east London. He believes it helped him to gain his place reading history and economics at Cambridge.
"When I went to the university interview I had to review a piece and it helped me to think a lot quicker," he says. "I could spot an argument before, but this course could helped me to give it a name and analyse it."
While all A-level subjects depend on thinking skills, this course makes those processes explicit and assesses them directly. Candidates are required to identify and evaluate different kinds of reasoning and assumptions (see box, above right), clarify ideas and present arguments.
They are tested on their ability to make a judgment based on reasoning from evidence provided, and on finding the strengths and weaknesses of arguments presented to them. They must also learn to use the language and concepts of reasoning.
Having already done general studies, Yahsir Qureshi was reluctant to take another course he thought would be the same. "But everyone engaged in it," he says. "It surprised a few people. It's a lot more challenging than general studies, and a lot more useful because it applies to your other subjects."
Rob Hobbs, who teaches the subject at George Monoux, sees critical thinking helping students across a wide ability range. "It gives them skills they can use at university and in the workplace. You want young people to be engaged, reflective, able to spot problems."
Because critical thinking needs no prior knowledge, the coursecan be used by those whose education has been disrupted, such as students in a young offenders institution. Dr Roy van den Brink-Budgen, deputy director of education at Warren Hill prison started using thinking skills with young inmates in 1997 and now teaches the AS-level. "The paper is skills based, and they don't know what it is, so they think they could do it," says the former Cambridge academic. " They haven't failed at it before so they start with a clean slate and it gives them confidence. Very quickly they find they can do something and apply a skill to whatever passage is in front of them. Sometimes they'll come up with things you would not have thought of yourself, beyond what Joe Public would have thought of, and that's glorious."
The prison students believe that the course helps with the other subjects they study, such as business studies and public understanding of science.
They also expect it to give them an advantage in the job market.
One student reported that if he had studied the subject at school it might have changed his attitude. "It would have raised my self-esteem because it makes you more confident. I might have stayed in lessons more and stayed in school more."
Dr van den Brink-Budgen, who is chief examiner in critical thinking for OCR and has written books on the subject, believes that thinking skills can change behaviour. In fortnightly meetings, elected representatives of the thirty 15 to 18-year-old trainees in the prison's Carlford Unit put their requests to prison staff, and he sees them argue their case rationally.
Their attitude to each other is also better than might be expected.
"Critical thinking encourages them to reflect and reason. I've seen examples where boys who, before, would have thumped each other, now reason it through. They are able to resolve conflicts better. We have very, very few assaults and I think it's a contributory factor."
FROM A CRITICAL THINKING AS-LEVEL PAPER. Test your own critical-thinking powers with this sample multiple-choice question:
Argument: Many of the most brilliant creative artists have died at a young age. For example, the poet Keats died when he was only 25 and the composer Schubert died when he was 31. This suggests that creative genius involves a short life lived intensely and that the price an artist pays for living longer is to be mediocre in their creative output. Salieri might have outlived Mozart but it is the latter's music that has achieved immortality.
Therefore, the enormous strain that creative genius puts on the mind and body is incompatible with a long life-span.
Which of the following is the best statement of the flaw in the argument?
A. It draws a conclusion about creative artists from limited evidence on them.
B. It fails to consider other forms of genius, e.g. scientific discovery.
C. It fails to offer an explanation of why genius shortens life-span.
D. It assumes that all people who live short lives are creative geniuses.
E. It fails to provide a definition of the term 'creative artist'.
A is correct