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This study has been criticized for relying too much on the CLA, but that overlooks a much more fundamental issue underscored by a growing body of research: we don’t know what critical thinking actually is, and we can’t be sure that it even exists. Yet, if we realize that “critical thinking” implies a set of general thinking skills that transfer from one subject or domain to another, then the task of identifying exactly what those skills are becomes extremely difficult, and perhaps impossible, to accomplish.
That metaphor leads us to look for a packaged set of thinking skills that apply with equal relevancy to virtually any situation or domain, when, while still debatable, it seems increasingly clear that no such skills exist.
When it comes to thinking skills, it would be much more productive if we stop thinking “transfer” and start thinking “overlap.” That is, once thinking skills become more explicitly taught, especially in general education classes, both professors and students will notice how thinking in the context of one domain (say, economics)overlaps with the kind of thinking processes at work in another (biology).
The student can then manage those overlapping experiences as a kind of portfolio that shows him or her how content is processed and problems are solved.
If a core set of thinking skills can be distilled from this portfolio, great.
If there is one thing that we know for sure, it is that thinking skills, general or otherwise, can’t be learned if they’re not taught in as overt a manner as other content in college courses.
Finally, we need to adjust the metaphor of “transfer” that drives how we view thinking skills in general and critical-thinking skills in particular.“The university seeks to foster in all its students lifelong habits of careful observation, critical thinking, creativity, moral reflection and articulate expression.” “…University fosters intellectual inquiry and critical thinking, preparing graduates who will serve as effective, ethical leaders and engaged citizens.” “The college provides students with the knowledge, critical-thinking skills and creative experience they need to navigate in a complex global environment.” These are but a tiny sampling of the mission statements from higher education institutions around the country where critical thinking is a central focus.The question remains, however, can we actually teach students that skill?The Thinking Skills Debate The debate over whether or not general thinking skills, or GTS, actually exist is well traveled within a relatively small circle of researchers and thinkers, but virtually unknown outside of it.Moreover, the metaphor of overlap -- like a Venn diagram -- makes the differences between sets of thinking skills as instructional as the similarities.So, as thinking skills become explicitly taught in different subjects, the student, proceeding through college, will gather overlapping investigative experiences based on his or her efforts to employ said thinking skills in various courses.A key question in the debate, therefore, is whether thinking skills can exist independently from discipline-specific content in a meaningful way such that transfer is possible.Writing on this, Tim John Moore, a senior lecturer at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, called this “the generalizabilty debate.” On one side are the generalists, who believe “critical thinking can be distilled down to a finite set of constitutive skills, ones that can be learned in a systematic way and have applicability across all academic disciplines.” Some notable proponents of this position are Robert Ennis, emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the University of Illinois; Peter Facione, former provost at Loyola University of Chicago; and Richard Paul, director of research and professional development at the Center for Critical Thinking.In other words, Willingham argues, critical thinking is only possible after one acquires a significant amount of domain-specific knowledge, and even then, it’s no guarantee. Norris wrote in : “There is no scientific legitimacy to [the] claim that critical-thinking ability involves ability to control for content and complexity, ability to interpret and apply, and ability to use sound principles of thinking.If anything, scientific evidence suggests that human mental abilities are content and context bound, and highly influenced by the complexity of the problems being addressed.” More recent research that Moore has conducted continues to support the finding that the existence of a set of thinking skills applicable across disciplines is indeed dubious.