Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Critical thinking in science education

Welcome to the 2010 – 2011 School Year. I hope this year to continue to bring you semi-regular updates around issues in science, science education, the revised Colorado Academic Standards in Science, and most specifically Evidence Based Science Teaching.

To start this school year I want to focus on critical thinking and the role of critical thinking in the science classroom. Colorado has identified critical thinking as one of the essential 21st century skills that all students in Colorado need in order to be competitive in the 21st century workplace.

The focus of education is changing. In the past a well educated person had a mind full of facts as well as the mental tools to pull those facts together in meaningful and unique ways, to draw connections and make conclusions. It seems that as the number of facts has risen exponentially and as knowledge that can be measured on a multiple choice standardized test took center stage, the number of facts to be memorized grew and the emphasis on developing students mental tools for doing meaningful and unique things with those facts diminished.

But in our information rich world, what is valued in the world education largely based on multiple choice tests (knowing the facts) and what is valued by society (being able to do meaningful and unique things with the facts) has diverged. An educated person is no longer one with a brain full of facts, because there are too many to memorize and because you can look them up in seconds on your phone. Instead the world needs people who can do things with the plethora of facts now available at their finger tips.

Critical thinking has always had a place in science education, unfortunately that place has been in what is often referred to as the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum is defined by Glatthorn in Curriculum Leadership (2009) as “those aspects of schooling, other than the intentional curriculum, that seem to produce changes in student values, perceptions, and behaviors.” In the revised Colorado Academic Standards critical thinking has moved from the hidden to curriculum up to the intentional curriculum. The realization is that we need to make 21st century skills, like critical thinking, more explicit and more intentional.

So why has Colorado chosen to bring critical thinking to the fore front and make it an explicit part of the Colorado Academic Standards? Tthe web site criticalthinking.org says it well, “much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life.”

So what is critical thinking? Many definitions abound, but I like this one, again from criticalthinking.org
“A critical thinker:
• raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
• gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
• comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
• thinks openmindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
• communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.”

That sounds exactly like good science education to me!

The revised Colorado Academic Standards in science get to this type of critical thinking by having students “ask testable questions” “gather, analyze, and interpret data” “develop communicate, and justify evidence based scientific explanations” and “Critically evaluate scientific claims made in popular media or by peers”. The challenge now is to make sure that curriculum and instruction in science now reflect these critical thinking pieces.

Critical thinking is also crucial in science because science is constantly under attack by those who don’t like or feel threatened by science. Critical thinking is crucial for citizens as well to make sure that they are not taken in by false claims made by those who wish to profit off of our fears and human nature with pseudo-science, such as alternative health folks, the anti-vaccine movement, young earth creationists, astrologers, and the like. Students also need critical thinking skills in science to make critical civic decisions about how to vote when candidates take standards on issues of science (like should creationism be taught in the schools or should homeopathic medicine receive Medicare/Medicaid money).

For students to really be able to think through these types of issues and avoid becoming victims they need to not only be able to look at data and come to well-reasoned conclusions, but they also need to recognize logical fallacies so they don’t fall victim to others faulty reasoning. The Skeptics Guide to the Universe provides a great resource for spotting logical fallacies (http://www.theskepticsguide.org/resources/logicalfallacies.aspx) and identifies the top 20 that people often use in arguments. While these are not called out in the revised Colorado Science Standards, they could be explicitly called out in district curriculum so that these important thinking skills are also a part of the intentional curriculum of schools and not the hidden one.

A few great web resources about critical thinking:





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