Critical Thinking in Distance Education and Traditional Education

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The authors of this paper see critical thinking as a disciplined manner of thought (Scriven & Paul, 2000) that a person uses to assess the validity of something (statements, stories, arguments, research, etc.). The behaviors or habits of mind associated with critical thinking include asking questions, defining a problem, examining evidence, analyzing assumptions and biases, avoiding over-simplification, reflecting on other interpretations, and tolerating ambiguity (Facione, 1998). Critical thinking requires a deep understanding of the issues being investigated. However, critical thinking also requires flexibility-the willingness to change one's point of view as a result of examining and re-examining ideas and facts that may seem obvious. Critical thinking not only takes time and effort, it also requires a certain attitude toward the self and the outside world-willingness to say the three words that are often not so easy to use: "I don't know."

The role of critical thinking and discourse in education has been recognized through the centuries. In fact, it was Socrates who, through discourse, challenged his students to become critical thinkers by formulating and asking questions and by developing a thorough and profound understanding of the issues they were studying (Facione, 1998). Indeed, it was already evident in Socratic times that discourse-the dissemination and exchange of information to negotiate understanding and generate new knowledge-was a central mechanism for the development of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking underlies reading, writing, speaking, and listening (the basic elements of communication).

When discussing critical thinking and discourse, we assume that these play an important role in all levels of education, and particularly in graduate-level education. It is assumed that critical thinking and discourse should create new understandings among learners. Being able to think critically is vital, as it allows one to adapt to a changing environment (Facione, 1998). In education, critical thinking can be viewed as a learning outcome, but it can also be viewed as a mediating mechanism for the attainment of other learning outcomes (Fisher, 2001).

What Do We Know About the State of Critical Thinking in Higher Education?

In considering the extent of integration of critical thinking and discourse in higher education, the seminal question to consider is: Are we, as students and instructors (as reflective practitioners and as lifelong learners) helping our students to become critical thinkers? This question formed the basis of a research study carried out in 66 California universities (both public and private). In the study (Paul, Elder, & Bartell, 1997), the researchers assessed current teaching practices and investigated the knowledge of critical thinking among faculty, while also identifying exemplary practices in teaching critical thinking. The findings from this study are somewhat sobering. Among other things, it was found that while almost 90% of the instructors claimed that critical thinking was the primary objective of their instruction, only 19% of the instructors could give a clear explanation of critical thinking. Furthermore, the study found that basic concepts essential to understanding critical thinking were poorly understood by faculty participating in the study. For example, only 9% of faculty could clearly differentiate between an assumption and an inference; and only 4% could differentiate between an inference and an implication. In addition, it was found that while 67% of the participating faculty said that their concept of critical thinking is largely explicit in their thinking, only 19% could elaborate on their concept of critical thinking. In other words, there was a certain degree of overconfidence among participating faculty in terms of the extent of their understanding of the concept of critical thinking. …