Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed writes:
Metacognition is the point at which students begin to think not just about facts and ideas, but about how they think about those facts and ideas.
What if they think about facts and ideas badly, and become aware of this? Doe that count as metacognition? I suspect not. I don't think Flaherty (and other people who talk this way) really means what she says. She goes on:
Metacognition has always underpinned a liberal arts education, but just how to teach it has proved elusive. Hence the cottage industry around critical thinking – even in an era when employers and politicians are calling for more skills-based training, competency and “outcomes.”
Thinking about thinking, as metacognition is defined elsewhere in the article, has surely not underpinned a traditional liberal arts education. I think that what she means is something like what Dewey calls reflection, and that is basically being rational, or thinking for oneself, rather than swallowing beliefs uncritically. It means, in a nutshell, believing what there is good reason to believe, and knowing what the reasons are (and, perhaps, why they are good). It's the kind of thing that you learn by writing essays rather than taking short answer tests, by being grilled in class rather than lectured at, and by being held to (more or less) objective standards rather than being encouraged to think that every opinion is equally valid. In other words, if critical thinking skills are less than they used to be (and they might not be), then I suspect this is because of large class sizes (and the labor-saving pedagogy they encourage) and perhaps also some sloppy relativism floating around in classes where students do have to write and argue.
This bit is interesting too:
As a possible solution [to the problem of untenured professors being afraid to make their students think critically], Sheffield and his colleagues from the summer institute are hoping to talk with administrators about a way to offer some “immunity or amnesty” for professors who are taking chances to make their curriculums more rigorous, but who fear negative student reactions. 
Over at the Daily Nous dmf points out that we lack a definition of critical thinking, to which Matt Drabek responds that Sheffield appears at least to be familiar with Peter Facione's work on the subject. The essay by Facione that Flaherty links to seems to be aimed at a non-scholarly audience and deliberately avoids defining 'critical thinking', but ends with this as something like a working definition of the term:

(It really does end like this, I'm not just snipping badly.)

The idea seems to be intellectual virtue. But can such virtue be taught? I would think that "CT skills" can be taught, although not in big lecture classes with multiple-choice tests. And quite possibly not by people worried about being popular with their students. Nurturing the relevant dispositions is another matter. That seems like something that might have to be done outside as well as inside the classroom. It's a matter of socialization. And a kind of socialization that goes against the grain of much contemporary culture. 


  1. is it just me or is this a kind of contradiction "Metacognition has always underpinned a liberal arts education, but just how to teach it has proved elusive" ?

    1. is not the argument (usually - not nec. in what DR links to) that some students may have succeeded in the past, but others are held back by not being taught the skill clearly/explicitly enough? and that it is only with our bold new etc etc that we will be able to etc etc?

    2. maybe, but how can something that is elusive to teach always have underpinned lib-arts ed?
      I think that in fact the students who are high achievers grade wise are not by and large the sorts of gifted thinkers that DR gestures towards (in fact such thinking may be a hindrance to most forms of formal ed in the long run) and will by and large resist any attempts to pull them out of their comfort zone (punishing teachers who try with poor reviews/enrollment), but also I think this is a kind of talent (or personality type) that some have more than others which people might be taught to mimic like I learned to play some music but only with lots of time and practice far beyond the kinds of time/commitments that undergrads make to their classes. Probably would be easier to teach kids from a very young age like John Dewey once suggested.

    3. I think j is right. Or perhaps (if this is a different idea) the thought is that it would be better to do directly and deliberately what has in the past been done indirectly and intuitively.

      One thing wrong with the idea, I think, is that what people really want is for more people to be smarter, more like the way we people with PhDs in the humanities like to think of ourselves. And I'm not sure that there is any recipe for that other than getting a PhD in the humanities (and even that only gets you part of the way, at best).

      Another problem is that the desired skills are not at all encouraged by the kind of assessment typically used throughout schools (at all levels, including at least some college). I think they are skills valued by philosophers (though surely not only by philosophers) but I have met a large number of students who appear never to have been encouraged to think in this kind of way. One possible solution is more philosophy. But I think what's really missing is the kind of rigor required in tutorials (in any subject). That form of education is very expensive though.

      Another problem is political. Being open-minded, trustful of reason, unbiased, etc. sound like rather liberal ideals. I don't mean that all conservatives are biased, closed-minded, etc., but I'm not sure that this list of virtues is the one a conservative would be likely to come up with. If you want to deny climate change or evolution, for instance, then you probably don't support critical thinking defined in this way. So arguably there is a liberal bias in this idea of critical thinking. Even if that's not the case, I think a lot of conservatives are actively, if perhaps unwittingly, working against critical thinking as defined here. And it might not be unwitting in every case.

      As Wittgenstein said, "Teach them to think. Work against the government." The government does not want this. Nor do many other institutions. So it's an uphill battle. What people really want, I suppose, is a safe version of critical thinking. But I think that's a chimera.

    4. "the thought is that it would be better to do directly and deliberately what has in the past been done indirectly and intuitively" but this is what I'm questioning the degree to which this is (or as I suspect is not) a widely held ability, I find most folks (including most academic philosophers who tend to perform within very narrow technical parameters that they rarely step back from and or invite outside feedback about) that I have met don't do these sorts of thing well. And I think that the socialization that often comes with PhD/tenure often works against people who question too much of the norms.
      As for this not being the educational norm and calling for something more akin to apprenticeships than our current consumer model of learners I think we are in agreement.

    5. Oh yes, we might do these things less well or less often than we think we do, but the thought (I think) is that they used to be done indirectly and intuitively. Or if they weren't then they should have been.

      The consumer model is not great, agreed.

    6. well that would be a different point I think than the claim I quoted and questioned about this being foundational/underpinning, and not sure if making it explicit than leads to it being teachable, tho worth testing if we can ever decide what 'it' is that we are talking about

    7. I took the foundational/underpinning idea to be that it was there but not clearly visible, and I took you to be questioning whether it was really there at all. And to be questioning whether it makes sense to say that it underpinned a liberal arts education but that we didn't know how to teach it.

      On the question whether it was ever there I'd like to think that it was, but I don't know how to demonstrate that. What we actually know was in a liberal arts education is just the contents of a liberal arts education. It's when you try to describe what that is, or why it might be relevant to something else, that you start to get into talk about critical reasoning, etc. This might be a distortion of reality or pure myth.

      If it really did underpin a liberal arts education, i.e. if it was there supporting such education, then we did know how to teach it, or at least how to provide it (even if this was a knowing how rather than a knowing that). And making it explicit might well not help at all.

      Worth testing if we can ever decide what it is? Yes, I would think so.

  2. ed-reformist thinktank-funded assessment-improvement initiative at my former employer has this sketch in a recent missive about key 'learning outcomes' to be studied in their project:

    "Currently we are seeking faculty to participate this fall in the first phase of the project. Each of these faculty members will be asked to submit one assignment (“artifact”) completed by 10 students this fall term that assesses one of the following learning outcomes:

    Critical Thinking - exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts and events before formulating a conclusion
    Written Communication - development and expression of ideas in writing
    Quantitative Literacy - habit of mind, competency, and comfort in working with numerical data"

    i don't know what keeps them from just exhorting us to teach students to learn good better and leave it at that.

    1. i don't know what keeps them from just exhorting us to teach students to learn good better and leave it at that.

      No one would pay them to do that.

    2. good point, and in this case, participating faculty actually get paid too (however, within the yearly cap on this kind of enrichment/whatever funding, which for some reason this institution has) - a straight up extra bit of compensation for the time

  3. Duncan wrote: ". . . arguably there is a liberal bias in this idea of critical thinking. Even if that's not the case, I think a lot of conservatives are actively, if perhaps unwittingly, working against critical thinking as defined here. And it might not be unwitting in every case."

    That's an odd but, sadly, not uncommon view in today's academia, though it was not so different in my day. It is, however, an unfortunate prejudice which has become embedded in the culture. While it's true that there is a yahoo element on the conservative side of the political spectrum, it does not follow that it's present on the conservative side of the intellectual spectrum. There is, indeed, a long conservative tradition in intellectual culture and, besides, there is more than one type of conservatism. It's not all knee-jerk know-nothings intent on battling evolution, sound environmental practices, and "godless atheism." Critical thinking and open mindedness are as important to thinking conservatives as to their liberal counterparts and a truly open minded curriculum, dedicated to developing critical thinking, should no more dismiss ideas which question received liberal views than conservatives should disregard the possibility that some liberal theses might be right or even more right than wrong. But certainly you're right that critical thinking can never be "safe" thinking, neither for the right nor the left. The risk cuts both ways.

    1. When I refer to what "a lot of conservatives" are doing I don't mean what a lot of people on the conservative end of the intellectual spectrum are doing. I just mean what I say. I teach a largely conservative student body, so I have a pretty good idea of what they think. I know that many of them do not believe in either climate change or evolution, and I know that the number of people encouraging them to think as they do is not small. Of course it could be argued that this has nothing to do with critical thinking, but I believe the people who came up with the wording about being trustful of reason, etc., had in mind belief in scientific findings like these. Certainly there are intelligent conservatives and conservatives who embrace Enlightenment values. But many conservatives, in my experience, don't. And quite a few, I suspect, would be suspicious of (some of) the values included on the list quoted above.

      You are absolutely right that there is more than one kind of conservatism. Again, this is something that I know first-hand. It makes teaching at a largely conservative school far more interesting than some people might expect. And possibly more than teaching at a mostly liberal school would be, but I've never done that so I don't know.