I have written a number of articles about learning (or not) higher order thinking skills in higher education. I have engaged in numerous conversations and too many of you are saying the same thing. No matter how hard we try, we aren’t going to change the established way of doing things in higher education.
The problem is clear to all who take the time to look. Our graduates are not going out with higher order thinking skills. Although we talk about critical thinking skills as being central to what we expect and teach (99% of professors and teachers), the number who can even come up with an adequate definition of critical thinking, let alone list the six attributes a student needs to gain the skill, is incredibly small. If we can’t even define it, how can we hope to teach it?
Critical thinking is only one of a number of higher order thinking skills that we should be teaching – or that we are expected to teach. Higher order rational thinking, logic, reason, complex inductive reasoning, hypothetico-deductive reasoning, creativity, and metacognition. All of these higher order thinking skills have to be taught in late adolescence or early adulthood – when they become our students. And yet, the evidence is clear that we are not teaching them and the majority of our students are leaving with few if any of these skills.
In the discussions that have taken place with my articles, the message is that we are not going to suddenly see students graduating with these skills anytime soon. I have asked over and over again, where can we send students, any students, to gain these skills? Every higher education institution claims to imbue students with at least some of these skills, but we know that they aren’t. This is not the priority of higher education today – research is. We can’t have it both ways. It is like multitasking. In reality, there is no such thing as multitasking, there is just attention switching. The research clearly demonstrates that as you devote more attention to one or the other of the tasks that you are trying to accomplish while multitasking, the task receiving the lowered attentional level suffers. It is the same in higher education. As research becomes the primary function of an institution, teaching students to think becomes less and less of a priority. We can’t have it both ways.
And so, I ask again, where can students go where they can find an institution that is devoted solely to teaching them higher order thinking skills?
Businesses and other sectors of our society constantly bemoan the fact that our graduates arrive totally unprepared for work. We know that the qualifications that they leave with are not comparable to the qualifications that students were awarded 30 or 40 years ago. We know that too much has been lost along the way to mass higher education. We also know that there has been nothing put in place to replace it. In order to free up more precious time for the really important work, like research (and administration in many cases), more and more classes that are bigger and bigger are taught by low paid, often inexperienced sessional instructors. We have lost our way, so why don’t we fix it?
There is no will to fix the current system. Success in higher education is predicated almost entirely on research. Don’t start with the “teaching is just as important” mantra. All of us within the system know that success is defined as research. In most institutions positions that focus on teaching alone are almost always paid half or less than equivalent research and teaching positions. When those within the system find themselves successful within the system as it currently is, why would they want the system changed? When the current system has made you successful, what is in it for you to lobby for any changes to the system, let alone a wholesale overhaul of the system?
Higher education isn’t going to change.
This means that if our society needs people who can think in order to address the problems we see in the world today, they aren’t going to come from our current higher education system.
If our students need to gain the skills that will allow them to survive (and thrive) in a world where half of them will soon be trying to do a job that hasn’t even been thought of yet, where are they going to go to gain these skills? Where can they get the skills that aren’t going to be replaced by automation in the near future? I guess there is always the caring sector where the highly paid nursing home assistants and child care assistants will be needed for the foreseeable future. And, this is where too many of our graduates end up.
This leads us to the only viable alternative – we need to begin establishing institutions that don’t carry out research, but are dedicated solely to teaching people to think. We need governments and the wealthiest members of our society to contribute to the building of, at least one, institution that is dedicated to the teaching of higher order thinking skills. Based on The Science of Learning, as opposed to the fads and trends of education, we need to establish a place that we can hold up to the world as the place for students to learn to think.
If we put any value on higher order thinking in our society, we need to establish a place where we can learn it.
We can do this. We can change the world. We can establish a place where we can teach our students to think. And once we begin, we can establish numerous places where the primary purpose is to produce thinkers.
Just as in centuries past, we realized that we had to separate church and state. Today we need to find the way and means to separate teaching and research. At least the teaching of higher order thinking skills.
We can make a difference and we can change the world and we can begin today.