Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Multiplicities or Manna from Heaven? Critical Thinking and the Disciplinary Context

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Multiplicities or Manna from Heaven? Critical Thinking and the Disciplinary Context

Article excerpt

This paper explores the nexus between epistemic culture and academic conceptions of the generic skill of critical thinking. Although generic skills are seen as being of great importance in higher education, there has been little examination into the ways in which the knowledge culture of each specific discipline influences the academic staff's conception of generic skills. This paper investigates the ways in which critical thinking is understood by academic staff in two related but distinct disciplines, history and economics. It finds that while there are some similarities, critical thinking in economics is defined primarily as the use of economic tools whereas critical thinking in history is described from a range of perspectives. Thus the epistemic culture of the discipline appears to influence conceptions of critical thinking. This has implications for the ways in which generic skills are framed within the broader university community and indeed has implications for policy at both the university and the political level.


This paper examines the ways in which the disciplinary cultures of economics and history shape the understanding of one generic skill, critical thinking. It is a discussion of data gathered as part of a larger study on generic skills across five disciplines. The central aim of this paper is to explore the ways in which contrasting epistemic cultures shape the teaching and learning of critical thinking. It considers a central and contemporary idea in higher education, the notion of generic skills, with a view to examining the ways in which they operate in a disciplinary context.

That generic skills have become of increasing importance in a changing educational environment is clear (Assiter, 1995; Barnett, 1990; Bligh, 1990; Clanchy & Ballard, 1995; Scott, 1995); however, the nature of generic skills is unclear, as is the relationship between generic skills and the disciplinary context in which the skills are learnt. There is an implicit assumption that generic skills are independent of disciplinary contexts even though they are taught within them. This leads to a more overt expectation that generic skills will be transferable between disciplines and beyond the university into the workforce.

This paper argues that there is a need to explore how one skill, critical thinking, is defined or conceptualised by teaching staff in higher education and to explore the ways in which that conceptualisation is shaped by the epistemic culture of academic disciplines. Through examining the two related but distinct disciplinary cultures of economics and history, this paper argues that the knowledge cultures of these disciplines have a profound impact on notions of critical thinking. Further, it suggests that although critical thinking is valued across the disciplines, what constitutes this skill is shaped by the epistemic culture.

The skills landscape

Although generic skills are of great importance in higher education, there is a lack of clarity as to their characteristics. Changes in the relationship between higher education and employers reflect the considerable interest at political and educational levels in the skills which graduates take into the workforce (AC Nielsen Research Services, 1998, 2000; Association of Graduate Recruiters, 1995; Australian Council for Educational Research, 2001; Conference Board of Canada, 2000; Dearing, 1997; Gibbs, 1994; Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 2000; Stanton, 1995). Generic skills are seen as meeting the needs of employers because they are thought to be flexible, transferable and applicable to a rapidly-changing and increasingly service-focused market requiring skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and communication (Bennett, Dunne, & Carre, 1999; Candy, Crebert, & O'Leary, 1994; Drummond, Nixon, & Wiltshire, 1998). The idea of generic skills, however, is based upon the assumption that there exists a set of skills which can be learned in the context of disciplinary knowledge and yet function independently of that knowledge. …

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