Higher Thinking and Higher Education

Virtually every higher education institution has in its mission statement or some other sloganistic pronouncement reference to the development of critical thinking skills – also known as higher thinking skills of formal operational thinking. We know from extensive research that brain development during adolescence confers on adults without intellectual disability the ability to engage in formal operational thinking. The challenge is that the actual expression of these abilities must be taught. The higher in higher education refers to these thinking abilities. Students enter universities and colleges to learn how to use formal operational thinking, whether they know it or not. We, however, do not teach them how to think.

One of the hallmarks of information abundance is the explosion in the sheer amount of information that is known. I know that the estimates for how often information doubles in the world are somewhat exaggerated, but there is an information explosion. In teaching students to think, they must have some corpus of knowledge about what to think. Since the first university was founded a millennia ago, one of the core purposes of a university is to transmit the world of knowledge to our students. If we are to believe in the knowledge doubling estimates, and we try to keep pace with the transmission (which it seems that we are) of the world of information, we have a mammoth task that we are desperately trying to achieve.

According to the information doubling estimates, the content for a five-minute lecture segment from 1965 expanded to become a 90-minute lecture by 1979, and could fill an entire 15-week course by 1990. To fully explore the 1965 five minutes of content today would fill a lecture lasting five years – non-stop. What we have done as a result is to offer ever more classes on topics that cover smaller and smaller slices of minutia about more and more specialized fields of knowledge – and we wonder why our students disengage.

What we have forfeited in the process is the teaching of higher order thinking skills. While we bemoan the lack of critical thinking skills amongst the students, because of the crammed curriculum in our various subject areas, we don’t have time to cover anything other than stuff – whether it will ever be needed or not. Except for a hyper-specialized expert in the field, I’m unsure why a final year undergraduate needs to know what the 14 neurons three millimeters to the right of the left eyebrow do, or why the citation style used by Bede was adopted by him. And yet, this is exactly what we are doing!

We know how to teach these skills (or we did once), but it takes time. Time that could be better used to publish more papers and get more grant applications in. Time that is vitally more useful spent in committee meetings. Time that can be used to do something that counts towards a promotion. Time that is spent on anything other than teaching (which doesn’t really count for a promotion anyway).

Even those second class academics who focus on teaching spend their time honing their lecturing skills or trying out the latest evidence empty fad sweeping through education or trying to figure out how they might get one of the latest tech gadgets that will make their teaching greater.

The scholarship that is needed is the scholarship of learning. There is already more than enough written, usually with no other evidence than student evaluations, about how we can have great teaching. We know how people learn. It is a well respected scientific endeavor. What we are lacking is taking that knowledge and applying it to formal learning environments.

We can do it. We can use technology to teach masses of undergraduates to learn how to think. We must stop focussing on teaching the ever expanding minutia within our fields and start focussing on teaching students how to think critically. Unless we do this, we risk becoming irrelevant and losing our place in producing students who can change the world. We have enough experts at memorizing (for a day) enough to successfully tick the right multiple choice answer. We need graduates who can think in order to solve today’s problems, let alone face whatever tomorrow will bring.


How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

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