Can We Teach Thinking Skills and Transfer?
Richard Wenchao HE
CoCo Research Centre
Faculty of Education and Social Work
The level that thinking skills can be taught for and transferred to has been debated and examined for many years. However, there is still no consensus on this topic. In this essay, the author will review, analyze and evaluate the ideas, thoughts and experiments through out the last three decades on the teachability and transferability of thinking skills.
It seems that comparative experiments can not tell the truth since the different results showed both significant and insignificant improvement. Even repeating the same experiment within a program, the findings varied from region to region (e.g. Blagg, 1991; Savell, Twohig and Rachford, 1986). Hence, it is worthwhile for us to look deep into different aspects of teaching thinking skills before any further implementation of similar programs. On the one hand, the failure of teaching thinking skills does not imply that they would never succeed again. Instead, they were based on the lack of many essential conditions, most of which were from teachers, instruction and students. If such conditions were not satisfied, some scholars would keep objecting that we could teach thinking skills and transfer. On the other hand, more and more supports for this educational practice, such as further approach design and theoretical exploration, have been provided to eliminate the barriers.
Inappropriate teaching styles
Sometimes the thinking-skills material is not transmitted in the first place, even if teachers think they are transmitting it (Sternberg & Martin, 1988). One major source of failure in transmission relates to teaching style (Spear & Sternberg, 1987). Some teachers prefer a didactic style and fact-based questioning style, while some teachers use a dialogical approach with many open-ended questions. Though different styles have their own instructional purposes, the fact is that the former two styles, which are good for presenting and reinforcing information, lead to less thinking, whereas dialogical approach seems to be the most efficient style for encouraging the students to engage in higher-order thinking.
From Sternberg and Martin’s (1988) observation, in most thinking-skills courses (or in other courses, for that matter), students kept listening to the didactic-style teacher if the material was presented in a way that was interesting, well organized, and at least somewhat entertaining. Students are used to this style, and are comfortable with it. Students would generally answer the questioning-style teacher’s questions, and were comfortable with “correct-incorrect” feedback. When teaching occurred in dialogical style, the response was almost always the same: Silence. Try it. Students were not familiar with or comfortable with this style of interaction, and were unprepared either to do the thinking it required or to take the risks it involved. For the most part, they sat there, waiting and hoping that someone else would respond. Someone else usually ended up being the instructor. The greatest proportion of teaching takes place in didactic style, and most of the remainder of the teaching is in questioning style. Relatively little of the teaching that goes on in most classes takes place in dialogical style. Hence, relatively little of the teaching that goes on in the classroom directly encourages higher order thinking.
Teachers’ preferences on teaching styles are not easy to change, and those teachers using dialogical approaches would still encounter embarrassment during the “silence” and next time they might turn to teach in the former two styles. This real situation leads to less and less opportunity for students to learn thinking skills.
Problematic instructional materials
Insularity, placement and fragmentation are the three main errors of thinking-skills materials that undermine the transmission to students. An examination of teachers’ manuals for the variety of textbooks reveals that most of the thinking-skills material is isolated from the rest of the material. Not only is the thinking-skills material separates from the body of the text, but it is almost always placed at the end, usually at the end of each chapter. Material that is supplementary and that comes at the end of the chapter is likely never to be reached at all. So even if thinking-skills materials were designed and supplied, they could also be ignored. In terms of fragmentation, the way in which the text writers relate the instruction to the taxonomies, such as those of Benjamin Bloom and Madeline Hunter, may do more harm than good. In particular, the writers present sets of exercises, each of which is linked to a particular taxonomically derived scale. For example, one problem might be an analysis problem, another a synthesis problem, and so on. This is a mistake, because virtually no problems we encounter in our everyday lives are soluble through the application of just a single thinking process or skill (Sternberg and Martin, 1988).
While those thinking-skills materials within the content areas seem to have some problems, teaching thinking-skills as a separate subject matter apart from content would go more far away. This is an ineffective but common approach with schools often importing various thinking skills programs from the commercial market, usually as self-contained adjunct courses (Bereiter, 1984; Jones, 1986).
Transfer across domains is not automatic (Costa, 1987; Heiman, 1987). Students are usually unable to use what has been taught about how to think. The knowledge they have about thinking skills is inert when they need to gain access to it. Even to the extent that they have them, they often do not use them when they need them (Sternberg and Martin, 1988). This is because problems we present to students in order to encourage them to think do not resemble everyday problems. For example, in the everyday world, the first and sometimes most difficult step in problem solving is the recognition that a problem exists. But in school, we give students problems and ask that they solve them. In everyday life, it almost never happens that someone gives us a problem and asks us to solve it. Another example is that most of the problems we present to students in class and in textbooks are well-defined problems, but few of life’s problems are well-structured (Sternberg, 1985).
Back to the school system, considering different subjects, those students involved in thinking-skills programs still feel that they would not be understood if they were to use what had been taught elsewhere and they are afraid that the teachers in other subjects do not know about it (de Bono, 1978).
All these mean that, in many circumstances, thinking skills can only be taught and used within a specific program. Without further effort, it can not be transferred (if ever).
Proven Effective Programs
Bruning, Schraw and Ronning (Bruning, Schraw and Ronning, 2004) assert that they have examined several stand-alone instructional programs to improve thinking skills, such as Productive Thinking Program, the IDEAL Problem Solver, the CoRT Thinking Materials and the Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Program. The research indicates that all of these programs enhance thinking skills, although each promotes a different set of skills. Besides these, Adey and Shayer’s (1994) two-year evaluation of Cognitive Development through Science Education (CASE) indicates that CASE pupils’ grades in GCSE Science were on average one grade above the control groups. Lipman et al. (1980) reports the results of an evaluation of Philosophy for Children Program that the experimental group has many improvements in intellectual performance, especially in reading and mathematics and also on creativity measures.
Moreover, evaluations of thinking skills embedded into subjects or across the curriculum are also documented. Schoenfield (1992) reports findings from his program for teaching mathematics to college students in which he models problem solving through analysis, exploration and verification. He claims that a ‘before and after’ comparison of the problem-solving skills of students who attended his own courses compared with those students attending other courses indicate a marked difference. His students performed better not only on problems which he had covered during his course but also on different problems. Peel (1967) suggests that pupils who had worked through the School’s Council’s History Project achieved higher levels of understanding of the nature of historical enquiry.
Though there is also evidence indicating some programs do not help experimental groups gain significant improvement (e.g. Blagg, 1991), the majority of research in this domain, at least prove the possibility of the teachability and transferability of thinking skills.
Improved Teacher Education
A widely accepted approach is the integration of thinking skills into the total curriculum and various content areas (French and Rhoder, 1992). This suggests the need for broad curriculum revisions as well as inservice and preservice teacher training programs to integrate thinking into the curriculum (Strahan, 1986). The Irvine Thinking Project (Tama, 1989) and the Inclusion Process (Worsham, 1988) are two examples of programs developed by school personnel who have identified what needs to be included, revised curriculum to include it, and then taught the program within the regular classrooms using academic materials. Talents Unlimited is designed to develop critical and creative thinking in elementary and secondary students. Over 20,000 teachers in 1,500 schools in 49 states of
The voices from the objection to the teachability and transferability of thinking skills are mostly based on the distinction between students’ good thinking, which is the goal, and thinking-skills instruction, which is the approach. However, according to Harpaz’s (2007) formula for teaching thinking (Good Thinking = Thinking Skills + Thinking Dispositions + Understanding of Knowledge), good thinking is based on not only thinking skills but also thinking disposition and understanding of knowledge. Since the other two important elements—“thinking disposition” and “understanding of knowledge” are ignored, only teaching thinking skills could hardly achieve the goal—good thinking. Though this, we can not ascribe the failure of achieving the goal to thinking skills if the other two elements are not taken into account. Hence, once we notice the goal is not achieved, we should review all the three approaches, but not only concentrate on thinking skills or even object to it.
After looking through both sides from the objection and the support, we can articulate the limitations of the arguement.
The basic model of the objection is because some conditions and requirements are not satisfied and these conditions and requirements are essential for successful thinking-skills instruction. This is the goal that can not be achieved. But, what if those conditions and requirements were satisfied? Would thinking skills become teachable and transferable? It seems that the objection still does not focus on teaching thinking skills itself but turns to its result. However, the current and temporary result can not always indicate the characteristics of an approach. If we could not do something at the moment, it would not always mean that thing could never be done.
On the other hand, the supports for the teachability and transferability of teaching thinking skills seem to be demonstrating the possibility but not predetermination. If thinking skills were really teachable and transferable, they would be always teachable and transferable without any exception. However, it seems that this point could not be proven. The supports were trying to add more and more favorable conditions to contribute to the final goal, such as promoting improved teacher education and taking “thinking dispositions” and “understanding of knowledge” into account. But these new conditions have not been guaranteed controllable.
All in all, the significance of the debate is not to fight for a victory, but to explore how to improve our education. The two sides have shifted their original arguments (teachability and transferability) to the discussion of the goal and its conditions. Then we could follow their thoughts to continue the exploration and research these areas:
Teaching methods: how do teachers improve their teaching methods to convey better thinking-skills instruction? How do they treat the issue of teaching styles?
Instructional materials: one set of thinking-skills materials would never fit for every situation because students, teachers and their environment vary from school to school. How can we develop a scientific system for instructional design to meet different needs?
Comprehensive assistance: without enough cooperation of different aspects, after being taught thinking skills, students can not transfer them because they lack opportunity to practice. So how can we utilize different resources to create an environment with comprehensive assistance for thinking-skills instruction?
Modification of thinking-skills instruction programs: regardless the success and the failure of the programs, our task is to keep improving according to what we have discovered and what we need to modify.
Updating the content of teacher education: how teachers are skillful would determine how well they could perform during thinking-skills instruction. Keeping updating the content of teacher education by integrating latest outcomes of research and exploration would prepare them better.
Comprehensive exploration: we should not focus on a narrow scale while successfully teaching thinking would be influenced by many factors and variables. So we can try to explore a wider domain around thinking-skills instruction and try to integrate different domains’ productions.
Based on the debate and the discussion, we can conclude that there are different theories, practices and experiments to develop the arguments from both sides. The side of objection raised their points from the perspectives of teachers, instructional materials writers and students while the opposite emphasize the successful cases and the further improvement. However, the real significance of the debate is to help improve our thinking-skills instruction, rather than to fight for a victory. The points that both sides raised inspire us to think deeper into what should be further researched and explored. This could stimulate further debate. But our education could keep improving at the same time!
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