Wouldn’t it be great if you could start people in an online course entitled, “Critical Thinking 101” and they’d come out ready to conquer the world?
The Foundation for Young Australians research shows the demand for critical thinking skills rose by 158% between 2012-2015.
If only Critical Thinking 101 existed and proved effective . . .
Sadly, teaching general critical thinking skills without content tends to fail. Even experts can’t transfer their knowledge between domains. For example, neurologists suck at diagnosing cardiac problems (we’ll assume cardiologists also suck at diagnosing brain injuries, just to be fair).
If even the brightest lights in our societies can’t think critically across disciplines, how can learning designers hope to teach this skill?
Luckily, learning designers can teach critical thinking in all of their courses. We have developed a few steps you can add to your instructional design process based on the recommendations educational researcher, Daniel T. Willingham prepared the New South Wales Department of Education for a K-12 context. We’ve tweaked them to fit with current instructional design models for adults.
Step 1: Analyse on-the-job critical thinking needs
Instructional designers will love this first step because it’s already part of your course design process—perform a needs analysis. You just add one small step. Think about the critical thinking skills learners need to perform in their everyday jobs.
For example, nurses need to evaluate prescribed drugs based on their interaction with patients and their understanding of other medications they might be on, while sales reps need to analyse prospective clients by interpreting their business needs. As learning designers, we discover and teach whatever critical thinking skills underpin the discipline.
Key research-based takeaway for learning designers—critical thinking skills change by discipline.
Step 2: Incorporate critical thinking into the learning objectives
Teachers can use one simple phrase to incorporate critical thinking: “Think like a _______ (writer/mathematician/oceanographer or whatever they happen to be teaching).”
They’ve got the basic idea right, but beginners can’t magically think like experts. They need to be taught explicit skills.
Learning designers usually begin constructing learning objectives after a needs analysis. To add critical thinking skills, break down the skills you found in your needs analysis into their component parts. Then, you can build your learning objectives out of this breakdown. For example, a writer might learn how to edit based on a particular format, but first, they need to learn the format.
Key research-based takeaway for learning designers—teach domain-specific critical thinking skills explicitly.
Step 3: Give just enough background knowledge
Knowledge dumps get a deservedly bad rap. But, it turns out you need background knowledge to think critically.
Intuitively, it makes sense. It’s impossible to evaluate a subject without background knowledge. Obviously, people can’t critique mathematical proofs without understanding mathematics. Similarly, historians need a deep understanding of the period to discern bias in primary documents.
That’s why experts study for years.
But we don’t have years to teach people new skills when a skill’s average half-life is only 5 years.
During the development phase, we need to decide what domain knowledge is non-negotiable. Decide what knowledge do your learners need to do their job? Another option is that we could give learners support to look up any knowledge-based questions quickly.
Unfortunately, our biology works against us when using performance supports. Our working memory can only hold so many pieces of information at one time. Therefore, anyone busy trying to hold pieces of knowledge in their working memory won’t have enough space to think critically. In fact, experts often group separate entities into one to create more space in their working memory.
Key research-based takeaway for learning designers—research shows knowledge and critical thinking skills aren’t separate entities and deep knowledge improves our ability to think critically.
Step 4: Design learning activities to encourage critical thinking
Experts became experts through practice. But is there a better way to practice?
As you develop your learning activities, Willingham suggests two types of activities that encourage critical thinking and place our learners on the fast track to becoming experts: 1) open-ended questions, and 2) identify a problem’s deep structure.
Just like the name suggests, open-ended questions do not have a clear and correct answer. Instead, learners use their background knowledge to determine novel solutions. Often, real-world problems present themselves as open-ended questions because there’s rarely one solution available. Robust discussions also allow learners an opportunity for social learning as they realize not everyone thinks like them.
Even though problems may appear different on the surface, their deep structure might be the same. Since the deep structure is by nature abstract, learners find it hard to understand. Experts often “just see” it after considerable practice, but that’s not helpful for learning designers trying to impart skills quickly.
One study used a comparison technique to help students see the deep structure. They asked students to compare two problems with different surface features, but similar deep structures. For example, two students involved in an argument vs. two international companies in shipping negotiations. The issues may be different, but both problems could be solved with a contract on a deep level.
Similarly, learning designers can have learners label sub-steps in a process to help them see the underlying structure. We do this in the writing process by explicitly separating brainstorming, planning, drafting and editing phases. Similar phases (with a few additions) could be applied to a design process. Through labelling, learners can see how the deep structure of brainstorming applies in multiple situations.
Key research-based takeaway for learning designers—critical thinking can be taught.
Why critical thinking remains elusive
Our minds give us shallow thinking first because critical thinking is hard.
The above-steps highlight just how hard. First, learners need deep domain knowledge, then they need to practice and, finally, they probably need feedback to reach expert status. Easy to see why many of us never become experts.
At the same time, these steps give learning designers hope.
You can design online courses to teach critical thinking skills. In fact, with a few tweaks to your existing practice, you’re probably already halfway there.
During your needs assessment, just think about where critical thinking fits into the skills your learners need to know. Then, add those critical thinking skills to your learning objectives. When designing your course, make sure to add enough domain knowledge so they don’t get lost. Finally, consider adding open-ended questions or using one of the deep structure techniques in your learning activities.
Voila! You’ve just added critical thinking to your course with these 4 easy steps.
At Oppida, we believe in creating dynamic learning environments through learning management systems which engage with your learners on a deeper level. Whether you’re at project inception or you’re struggling knee-deep to manage content deliverables, Oppida will tailor learning design support for you. Setup a quick consultation with our founder Bianca Raby and discover how we can help you project manage, design, develop and enhance your online courses from any stage in the course’s lifecycle. Also, sign up for our FREE Designing Digital Learning Course to better understand how to design for digital.
Jay is a K-12 educator and Freelance Writer with a passion for learning about learning. You’ll find her trying out new teaching strategies in her classroom or reading about them online. When she’s not reading about teaching, she can be found hanging out with her toddler, preferably at the library.
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