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Thinking critically on critical thinking: why scientists' skills need to spread

MATHS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION: We’ve asked our authors about the state of maths and science education in Australia and its future direction. Today, Rachel Grieve discusses why we need to spread science-specific…

The skills that underpin science should be better incorporated into the rest of the curriculum. Thinking image from www.shutterstock.com

MATHS AND SCIENCE EDUCATION: We’ve asked our authors about the state of maths and science education in Australia and its future direction. Today, Rachel Grieve discusses why we need to spread science-specific skills into the wider curriculum.

When we think of science and maths, stereotypical visions of lab coats, test-tubes, and formulae often spring to mind.

But more important than these stereotypes are the methods that underpin the work scientists do – namely generating and systematically testing hypotheses. A key part of this is critical thinking.

It’s a skill that often feels in short supply these days, but you don’t necessarily need to study science or maths in order gain it. It’s time to take critical thinking out of the realm of maths and science and broaden it into students' general education.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is a reflective and analytical style of thinking, with its basis in logic, rationality, and synthesis. It means delving deeper and asking questions like: why is that so? Where is the evidence? How good is that evidence? Is this a good argument? Is it biased? Is it verifiable? What are the alternative explanations?

Critical thinking moves us beyond mere description and into the realms of scientific inference and reasoning. This is what enables discoveries to be made and innovations to be fostered.

For many scientists, critical thinking becomes (seemingly) intuitive, but like any skill set, critical thinking needs to be taught and cultivated. Unfortunately, educators are unable to deposit this information directly into their students’ heads. While the theory of critical thinking can be taught, critical thinking itself needs to be experienced first-hand.

So what does this mean for educators trying to incorporate critical thinking within their curricula? We can teach students the theoretical elements of critical thinking. Take for example working through statistical problems like this one:

In a 1,000-person study, four people said their favourite series was Star Trek and 996 said Days of Our Lives. Jeremy is a randomly chosen participant in this study, is 26, and is doing graduate studies in physics. He stays at home most of the time and likes to play videogames. What is most likely?

  1. Jeremy’s favourite series is Star Trek

  2. Jeremy’s favourite series is Days of Our Lives

Some critical thought applied to this problem allows us to know that Jeremy is most likely to prefer Days of Our Lives.

Can you teach it?

It’s well established that statistical training is associated with improved decision-making. But the idea of “teaching” critical thinking is itself an oxymoron: critical thinking can really only be learned through practice. Thus, it is not surprising that student engagement with the critical thinking process itself is what pays the dividends for students.

As such, educators try to connect students with the subject matter outside the lecture theatre or classroom. For example, problem based learning is now widely used in the health sciences, whereby students must figure out the key issues related to a case and direct their own learning to solve that problem. Problem based learning has clear parallels with real life practice for health professionals.

Critical thinking goes beyond what might be on the final exam and life-long learning becomes the key. This is a good thing, as practice helps to improve our ability to think critically over time.

Just for scientists?

For those engaging with science, learning the skills needed to be a critical consumer of information is invaluable. But should these skills remain in the domain of scientists? Clearly not: for those engaging with life, being a critical consumer of information is also invaluable, allowing informed judgement.

Being able to actively consider and evaluate information, identify biases, examine the logic of arguments, and tolerate ambiguity until the evidence is in would allow many people from all backgrounds to make better decisions. While these decisions can be trivial (does that miracle anti-wrinkle cream really do what it claims?), in many cases, reasoning and decision-making can have a substantial impact, with some decisions have life-altering effects. A timely case-in-point is immunisation.

Pushing critical thinking from the realms of science and maths into the broader curriculum may lead to far-reaching outcomes. With increasing access to information on the internet, giving individuals the skills to critically think about that information may have widespread benefit, both personally and socially.

The value of science education might not always be in the facts, but in the thinking.


This is the sixth part of our series Maths and Science Education.