by John Larmer
Editor in Chief
The following is an excerpt from chapter 1, “Critical Thinking in PBL” from PBL for 21st Century Success: Teaching, Critical Thinking, Collaboration, and Creativity, published in 2015 by BIE; principal author Suzie Boss.
Discussions of 21st century learning consistently emphasize the need for critical thinking, as if this were a new goal for education. Of course, these competencies are far from new. The teachings of Socrates — exhorting us to seek evidence and examine assumptions for bias or faulty logic — are as applicable today as they were 2,500 years ago.
Although critical thinking has been with us for centuries, the need for better critical thinkers has grown more urgent in the Information Age. Making an informed decision is more challenging when there is so much information to search and evaluate for reliability. Meanwhile, automation is changing the nature of modern workplaces. With many of yesterday’s jobs becoming obsolete, those who can demonstrate complex thinking are in high demand. Employers asked to predict which attributes would be most valuable in the near future put critical thinking at the top of their list (Conference Board, 2006).
Not surprisingly, being able to think critically is now considered a key to college readiness. Students who excel at memorization in high school arrive at college unprepared to engage in a give- and-take of ideas, evaluate evidence, reach conclusions, or make convincing arguments. “The college instructor is more likely to emphasize a series of key thinking skills that students, for the most part, do not develop extensively in high school,” reports Redefining College Readiness (Conley, 2007). Looking beyond college and careers, we can see the need for critical thinkers to help society address an array of complex problems with global implications. Tackling challenges involving public health, poverty, energy, or economics — sometimes called “wicked problems” or “grand challenges” because of their complexity and scale—demands skillful thinkers who can understand how systems work and anticipate the consequences and implications of potential solutions. On a smaller scale, local issues often require the same kind of careful analysis from community members. From the polling place to the workplace, all of us need to be able to evaluate information and approach both problems and solutions with a critical lens.
Thinking Across the Curriculum
Over the years, many fine minds have wrestled with defining critical thinking. Part of the challenge comes from the requirements of different disciplines. The nature of evidence may be different in science or math than in social studies or English, for example. Yet despite sometimes subtle distinctions, there is a connecting thread of teaching students to make well-reasoned, thoughtful judgments in every field.
Roland Case of The Critical Thinking Consortium suggests that we do students a disservice if we too narrowly define discrete thinking skills and processes. Students faced with a laundry list of thinking skills—research, problem solving, decision making, goal setting, predicting, comparing, and so forth — may lose sight of the big picture of why critical thinking matters. “As long as critical thinking remains but one type among many forms of thinking, there will never be adequate time devoted to it” (Case, 2005, p. 45). Case also raises the concern that, if critical thinking is categorized as higher-order thinking, then it may mistakenly be reserved for only top-achieving students. Lower achievers may get stuck in lower-order thinking, lacking opportunities to hone their critical faculties. Likewise, Case cautions against separating thinking skills from content mastery in the classroom. “Thinking without content is vacuous, and content acquired without thought is mindless and inert.” Instead, Case recommends embedding critical thinking in the curriculum so that students will have something to think about.
That recommendation reflects best practices in Project Based Learning, which puts academic content and application of 21st century competencies – including critical thinking – at the heart of project design. In projects that focus on problem solving, as most do, students have to make informed judgments to choose from an array of possible solutions. When the subject matter is “problematized,” as Case puts it, there is more than one plausible or correct answer. That means students have to think critically to arrive at, and explain their reasons for, their solutions or conclusions.
During projects, students are applying critical thinking when they recognize and define problems worth solving. Critical thinking comes into play when they pose relevant questions, or closely examine a text (which can mean written materials, videos, and other forms of expression), and ascertain the author’s perspective. They are thinking critically when they evaluate information and draw on credible sources to support an argument. Students demonstrate critical thinking again when they show that they understand academic vocabulary (such as hypothesis, causation, or evidence) and are able to use such terms with precision to talk about what they have learned as a result of their sustained inquiry.
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