TES letters

18th April 2014 at 01:00

Should we think again on critical thinking?

Daisy Christodoulou's feature "Deep in thought" (11 April) questions the value and the feasibility of teaching critical thinking as a discrete skill. Her main line of argument is that one needs information about a topic in order to reason about it. But there are many problems with her analysis.

First, it is possible to reason with little or no knowledge. Any explicit teaching of deductive reasoning (such as "A or B, not A, therefore B") can happen away from subject content.

Second, those of us teaching critical thinking do not argue for it as a replacement for information. Clearly, the more we know about a subject the more detailed our reasoning responses can be. However, this is not to say that young children cannot come up with creative responses to scientific puzzles, even though they have little specific information on a topic.

A third problem is that there is considerable evidence that Christodoulou's central thesis is straightforwardly wrong. The huge meta-analysis of 117 studies of critical thinking interventions carried out by Abrami et al (Review of Educational Research, 2008) shows that the best critical thinking teaching is the opposite of expecting skills to develop from acquaintance with the facts. It is a combination of discrete teaching of critical thinking and the explicit application of critical thinking in subjects.

Dr Roy van den Brink-Budgen

Director, If.then

Daisy Christodoulou is right that critical thinking depends on knowledge, but she suggests that "committing facts to long-term memory" must come first, with all the Gradgrindery this implies. She seems unaware that there are three critical thinking programmes that teach information at the same time as developing students' reasoning. All three have been repeatedly validated by research over many years. They are Philosophy for Children, Feuerstein's Instrumental Enrichment, and Adey and Shayer's Cognitive Acceleration.

A critical thinking programme that disregards this research is likely to divide teaching unhelpfully between rote learning and enjoyable mind games. An example is De Bono's CoRT and Six Thinking Hats, for which there is no research evidence of improving reasoning.

Laurie Smith

Research associate, department of education and professional studies, King's College London

Some support for Daisy Christodoulou's insightful article on critical thinking may be found in Arthur Koestler's The Act of Creation: "The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of the Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, reshuffles, combines, synthesises already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills. The more familiar the parts, the more striking the new whole."

If we are happy to regard critical thinking as one particular instance of creativity (both require the constructive challenge of apparent orthodoxies) then Koestler's reference to "already existing facts" indicates that relevant knowledge is indeed a prerequisite.

Dennis Sherwood

Exton, Rutland

Make time for talk

Talk will never receive its rightful place in the curriculum until writing is dethroned ("Speaking skills are a moral issue", 11 April). Schools need to create writing-free zones for around half the working week and at least half of homework tasks should involve reporting findings orally. That way, the quality of talk and written work would likely improve, as would student motivation and teacher marking load.

Colin Richards

Spark Bridge, Cumbria

I wholeheartedly endorse Peter Hyman's crusade to improve speaking skills. The most effective way to ensure that this is taken seriously in schools is to incorporate oral exams into GCSE and A-level assessment.

When I was a student, I took the European Baccalaureate: 15 per cent of my final grade consisted of oral exams, and not just for languages. This ensured lots of practice in making speeches, interpreting texts, producing arguments and so on.

If we are preparing young people for the real world of work, which in most cases is hardly a meeting-less environment for a mute mass of assembly-line workers, then the current system is doing our pupils a serious disservice.

Corinna Ferros

Head of sociology at William Morris Sixth Form, London

We must stand together

Your article "Unionisation: good for teachers but bad for students" (11 April) produces convenient support to suppress the role of teaching unions. But it is spurious at best and academically unsupportable at worst, given that the US and the UK have hugely different systems.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, manages to strike a more balanced tone: "Our unions can be positive forces.and teachers with higher morale will be more effective and more inspirational in the classroom." How uplifting it is to see public declarations of support from our colleagues in management positions.

Fred Greaves

Division secretary, Surrey NUT

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