MOOCs and Critical Thinking

Another point Daphne Koller brought up in that Ted video I mentioned yesterday was that MOOCs, especially if they were implemented as part of a flipped classroom, would enable professors to spend less time lecturing and more time helping students master important skills, notably critical thinking.

Having spent the last several years trying to figure out how critical thinking can be taught and assessed in online environments, my ears tend to prick up whenever I hear that phrase.

While my own attempt to create an online course on the subject was a personal project, the last professional experience I had in this area came from working for one of the major higher ed textbook publishers.  And while we can have all kinds of conversations around textbooks (never mind the industry that produces them), I bring this experience up now to point out how this established part of most college curricula (the textbook) deals with integrating critical thinking into their material.

Generally, this takes the form of dedicating a page or two per book chapter (sometimes more, often less) to what are labeled “Critical Thinking Exercises” (or the equivalent).  Often, these exercises appear in a section of the book referred to as “back matter,” those multiple-choice questions, discussions or writing prompts added to the end of a chapter which teachers are free to either assign or ignore.

Generally, those multiple-choice questions suffer from the same problems I’ve pointed out when talking about testing within MOOCs (not designed to professional standards, too easy, too many true-false questions, etc.).  But the other issue I have with the approach taken by most textbooks in their back matter is that they end treating anything that can be measured by a multiple-choice question as objective (i.e., fact-based), then lump everything else under the catch-all category of “critical thinking.”

Which means that something tagged as “Critical Thinking” might actually involve research or writing.  And while critical thinking is an important element of both of those activities, that doesn’t mean someone engaging in any writing or research effort is necessarily learning (or practicing) critical thinking skills.

After all, critical thinking is taught as its own discipline, or at least sub-discipline (usually by someone with some philosophy training).  And just as writing involves mastering a certain body of knowledge (grammar, syntax, etc.) then putting that knowledge to work, critical thinking has its own body of knowledge that needs to be mastered, as well as different types of activities needed to turn that knowledge into action.

And what does this body of knowledge consist of?  Well, as in all disciplines, everyone who has taught a course or written a book on the subject has developed (and likes to push) his or her own preferred framework.  I’m partial to the Six Pillars of Critical Thinking developed by Kevin deLaplante, a professor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies department at Iowa State University and the man behind Critical Thinker Academy, pillars which include logic, argumentation, rhetoric, background knowledge, creativity and character.

I had the chance to interview Kevin for my own critical thinking curriculum project noted earlier, and I was taken by how his six pillars can be prioritized differently for different disciplines.  Since my podcast involved using the 2012 election to teach critical thinking skills, I tended to emphasize argumentation, rhetoric and background knowledge.  But someone studying engineering is likely to be immersed more in logic (until it’s time to convince someone to fund a project, or go out on a date).

So how does this relate to the subject of this year’s project?

Well MOOCs are new enough that they don’t have to repeat the mistakes noted earlier of treating everything that can’t be taught and assessed objectively (i.e., by a computer) as a critical thinking skill.  And given that creative assignments designed to give MOOC students the chance to put the knowledge they’ve obtained from lectures and reading to work are still the most underdeveloped aspect of large-scale online courses, perhaps the development of genuine critical thinking exercises (vs. generic writing assignments rebranded as critical thinking projects) can distinguish MOOCs from other learning tools.

My Science and Cooking class, for example, includes optional advanced modules that go more deeply into the science (and often the math) related to the topic of the week.  And my Einstein class actually created a separate quantitative track that allowed students to work on reasonably challenging open-ended problems, rather than just answer multiple-choice questions.  So why not make critical thinking modules a standard element in any MOOC class?

The videos in Michael Sandel’s JusticeX, for example, included some fairly fiery discussion of important ethical issues.  Might some students enjoy a supplementary module (one that didn’t need to be taught by Sandel) that broke down the arguments seen in the class in a way that taught students the tools for effective argumentation?  Could my Udacity Psychology class have turned their scientific discussion of cognitive biases into a broader analysis of how bias interferes with critical thought?  Might students in either of the entrepreneurship classes I’ve taken have benefited by being shown how they can map out the business hypotheses they want to test using old but still valuable tools such as the syllogism or Venn diagram?

Keep in mind that skills like logic and rhetoric were not only taught for Millennia, but formed the backbone of higher education since ancient times.  And while it’s great that students can now study subjects beyond ancient Trivium of logic, rhetoric and grammar, we’ve lost something if we assume these foundations for all thought are no longer necessary now that so many science, humanities and business courses have been added to the curriculum.

So if I were to add one more thing to an already too-crowded list of things I’d like to see MOOCs add as they evolve, it would be a mechanism whereby the critical thinking elements that underlie the subject being taught could be made part of the package.  There are certainly worse ways for a new educational medium to distinguish itself from other methods of teaching and learning..

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