January 22, 2009

Where's your google now

I think my physics problem (and nine step solution) demonstrated how difficult it is to think critically about Physics unless you know quite a bit physics and have had quite a lot of practice solving similar physics problems. Your 21st century skills don't seem to be much help here now do they.

RWP also has a post demonstrating the same thing with not one, not two, but three business problems.

And, Pondiscio has, I believe the best post of the week showing how much of President Obama's inaugural speech you missed out on if you lacked the needed historical and literary content knowledge.

For all you connectivists out there I see a pattern emerging.

To paraphrase Edward G. Robinson -- "Where's your google now, nyahhhh?"


Stephen Downes said...

The only pattern established, is that there are some things that are not critical thinking.

But we knew that before.

Nothing in these examples shows that critical thinking is either (a) not essential, or (b) not distinct.

In order to show this, you need to offer a proof that (a) encompasses all instances of critical thinking (not just cherry-picked examples) and (b) shows they are not content-independent.

The failure thus far to do this, and to rely instead on unrepresentative examples (some of which aren't even cases of critical thinking) shows the need for critical thinking in this debate.

KDeRosa said...

Stephen, problem solving is a part of critical thinking. There's no getting around that. So, your assertions are wrong, though I'd love to hear your explanation.

It appears that you're trying to equate critical thinking with critical reading skills -- something that I, and everyone else agrees, is also part of critical thinking.

I'll post on this.

Anonymous said...

I haven't really followed this "21st century skills" debate, but I'd sort of gathered that that crowd wouldn't think that being able to solve a physics problem like yours quickly was a particularly important ability anyway. (Not "21st-century" enough, maybe.)

Are the 21st century skills people really committed to the proposition that content knowledge is irrelevant to successful problem solving ability?

KDeRosa said...

That does seem to be part of their argument.

If physics is deemed unimportant, I can also make the same case for biology, chemistry, physical science, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, history, geography, etc.

I'm thinking we could abolish schools and just teach some broad critical thinking skills, which might take a semester. Then hand them a card that reads "www.google.com" and kick them out the door to "discover" and "explore" their way to learning for the next 11 1/2 years.

It certainly would be cheaper.

Anonymous said...

Where is William of Occam when we really need him? The term "thinking" is useful. But loading it with ANY adjective is NOT useful. It's merely wishful.

Who would support "uncritical thinking" or anything other than "21st century" skills. Ironically, the "critical thinking" enthusiasts, have not critiqued the term.

Go figure.

Tracy W said...

The only pattern established, is that there are some things that are not critical thinking.

You missed that no one managed to solve the physics problem using critical thinking skills without significant domain knowledge about physics.

This may not be a pattern, it is entirely possible that there is someone out there who could solve that problem within 20 minutes without knowing how to do them already, but it is an interesting result.

Nothing in these examples shows that critical thinking is either (a) not essential, or (b) not distinct.

I don't think KdeRosa was intending to show that critical thinking was not essential, or not distinct. I understood him to be intending to show that critical thinking is often dependent on domain specific knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Well, saying "this physics concept isn't important" isn't the same thing as saying "physics isn't important".

Also, the idea that you can do problem solving with no content knowledge whatever is so preposterous that I'm skeptical anybody actually believes it, "21st century skills" people included.

Anonymous said...

You're right -- before we started talking about 21st century skills and looking up answers on Google and Wikipedia, any American on the street could have easily solved problems like this. It's a shame that we no longer teach all students projectile motion physics.

I propose (modestly) that we call for the destruction of all websites and give their leftover office supplies to textbook publishers.

KDeRosa said...

any American on the street could have easily solved problems like this.

My point is that this is the primary deficiency (lack of content knowledge) that needs to be addressed if you want students to be able to think critically. I am not against using new technology, but the evidence does not suggest that technology can substitute for lack of content knowledge or that the technology is capable of being used proficiently in the absence of content knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I applaud your efforts to investigate critical thinking. The results may not prove anything or convince anyone of anything, but I think you've gone a step in the right direction. I have tried to figure out what we mean, or should mean, by critical thinking for a long time, and I haven't gotten very far. But I don't think anyone else has either. I think your last comment states your point very well.

But it occurs to me that maybe critical thinking is not all that we should be concerned with. How about disciplined thinking? Is that less important than critical thinking? What might we mean by disciplined thinking? What about focused thinking? Is that the same as disciplined thinking? Is it important? What about directed thinking? Where does that fit in? What about imaginative thinking? Is that the same as creativity? Creativity has a long association with progressive education, so it has not lacked for attention, but I don't think it has ever been defined and analyzed to any substantial degree. Is disciplined thinking in opposition to imaginative thinking? Is there a place for both?

We might argue that critical thinking is a synthesis of all of these, and perhaps more. I’m not sure.

And what about "group think"? Is that something to celebrate and promote, or something to stamp out, or tolerate, or sweep under the rug and hope nobody notices?

I'm just asking. I don't have any answers. But I do think critical thinking is not all we should be looking at.

Tracy W said...

Brian, how do you define disciplined thinking, and focused thinking, and directive thinking and imaginative thinking?

I understand that you are just raising questions, as you yourself said. But "disciplined thinking", "focused thinking", etc are just labels. It's not very informative to ask what they are. Propose a definition of each of those, and how they differ from critical thinking, and then perhaps your questions will be more useful for sparking discussion.

You can either get a definition of critical thinking from a dictionary or encyclopedia, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_thinking, or definie it yourself.

Anonymous said...

Tracy is right in saying I haven't developed the terms such as "disciplined thinking", "directed thinking", "imaginative thinking", etc. I thought it worthwhile to mention them anyway. Call it "brainstorming". I have not defined or developed these terms, but I can give just a little background about how and why I thought of these terms.

A music professor had a poster up about a year ago. I don't remember much about it, other than it contained the statement, "Practice is the research of the musician". That stuck in my mind, and now and then I would think about that statement in relation to critical thinking. I am enough of a musician to know about practice, and the discipline it takes. But I am not talking about just the discipline to actually do it, to get off the couch, turn off the TV, and go to the piano. I am talking about the disciplined thinking involved in practicing piano. Is there any connection between this and critical thinking?

Disciplined practice, I decided, doesn't really seem to be critical thinking, but it is very much disciplined thinking The other night while working on some classical piano pieces I was also analyzing my thinking. Much of my practice is a matter of working out finger and hand motions, and then drilling on them enough for smooth performance. In one particular bit of the music, and this is very typical, a right hand run of a little over an octave must be executed automatically so that my attention can focus on my left hand jumping an octave to repeat the previous chord an octave higher. This leap in the left hand is problematic. It's not easy, at least for a person on my level of proficiency. I have to lose one hand position and find a new hand position. I will either have to feel for the keys under my left hand (a tactile solution), or just judge the distance my left hand has moved to the right (a kinesthetic solution), or take my eyes away from the notes for a very brief moment to visually find where my left hand should go (a visual solution). Each of these three alternatives has to be considered, one chosen, and then developed until it first becomes possible, and then fluent. I chose the tactile method. After moving my left hand the approximate distance to the right from the lower chord, I will feel for the keys under my left hand, while keeping my eyes on the printed page. To make this work my attention must quickly and determinedly go to feeling with my left hand for the correct keys at just the right time, and then return to the printed page just as quickly and determinedly. To learn this requires many repetitions of about three measures, each time shifting my attention from one thing to another quickly and precisely. Immediately before these three measures my attention had to be on other things in the music. Immediately after these three measures my attention again must go to other things. All that, I decided, is disciplined thinking. It is not critical thinking. But it is not easy. It takes determination and discipline. No one learns to play piano without it (unless maybe you're a genius like Mozart).

But, one might argue, that is a matter of disciplined direction of attention, not disciplined thinking. Is there a difference? I'm not sure. But of one thing I am sure. The disciplined mental gymnastics involved is important. It's important for a lot more than just music. I presume athletes must do this same thing, and many other people besides.

What is the role of schools and teachers in developing disciplined thinking? I don't know, but I think it's worth thinking about.

I can also relate the background of the term "focused thinking". Some years ago I was trying to make a living by giving guitar lessons. I never got enough students to make a living, but I got some very valuable experience. I remember two eight year olds. One was not an apt student. He didn't really care anything about playing guitar, but he did what his mother told him to. The other was quite the opposite. She could focus like a laser, and that impressed me. Why couldn't the little boy focus like that? Indeed, what do we mean by "focus". I'm afraid I can't define just what I mean by "focus" in this context, but I have no doubt it is important. The little girl, by the way, was home schooled. She and several other guitar students I had that were homeschooled led me to the conclusion that children benefit greatly by the close attention, direction, and supervision that home schooling typically provides. One important way that they benefit is they can focus their efforts.

Is focused thinking the same as disciplined thinking? I'm not sure. Is it critical thinking? Again I'm not sure. But I do know it's important.

I also used the terms "directed thinking" and "imaginative thinking". There's no background here. The terms just came to me and seemed to fit, so I threw them out.

But "group think" goes way back. Did Orwell use that term in his novel "1984", or was it something similar? I can't say that I have defined "group think", but I have developed some related ideas to considerable length in my article, "Let's Do It Together" which is on my website. Here's a link.

I have also developed (dare I call it critical thinking) some ideas on attention, also on my website. Links are here, here, and here.

I took Tracy's suggestion and looked up critical thinking in Wikipedia. While doing so, of course, I also tried to analyze why I had not thought of that. I realized that I expect no gain from it. Sometimes, like in math, definitions are crucial and germinative. Other times (like often in education) a definition is just a general idea put into somebody else's words. I could take Wikipedia's definition. Or you could take a class of thirty college students and have them each write a twenty-five word definition of critical thinking, put them all in a hat (the definitions, not the students), pull one out and use that definition. In other words in this situation I do not expect much of definitions. Definitions followed by some new ideas, followed by some development of those new ideas, is something else. That, sometimes, can be very productive.

I did get one thing very valuable from Wikipedia. It uses the word "analytical", as either a synonym for "critical", or related to it. The piano practice thinking I described above, it seems to me, certainly includes a lot of analysis. So maybe that phrase on the poster I mentioned, "Practice is the research of the musician." has more meaning than I thought it did.

And yet another thought comes from this term "analytical". How do we analyze? On what basis do we analyze? One obvious answer is by comparison. We compare the new to the old. If there is no old, there is no basis on which to analyze the new. So once again content knowledge is crucial. Critical thinking in isolation is like one hand clapping.

Tracy W said...

Hi Brian,
That sort of background thinking was what I was asking for. Disciplined thinking sounds like what I am trying to do when learning tribal dance - keeping track of multiple things at a time. Eg, if I am leading, one part of my brain is keeping track of the beat, another part of my brain is controlling the movements I am doing now, a third part is trying to decide what to do next and to do that it helps to have some knowledge of what the music is going to do next.

I'm not sure how well disciplined thinking translates between new domains. Eg I learnt to drive on a manual car, which requires doing multiple things at once and making rapid-fire decisions, but this doesn't seem to help me that much with the tribal dance, except in the knowledge that I learnt to drive a manual car, so I can learn anything (I have a mild case of dyspraxia, so motor movements are a bit of a problem).

Focused thinking - was it just the case that the non-apt student didn't care? I was never very focused when I had to take a typing class.

The terms "directed thinking", or "imaginative thinking" aren't that useful without a definition. They may seem to fit to me, but I've spent a fair few arguments going around in circles because I had a different definition to the person I was arguing with without realising it. A definition may be a general idea put into somebody else's words, but if we fundamentally disagree about what that general idea is, discussion is at best difficult.

As for analytical thinking - years ago I came across an interesting discussion from an AI point of view about what it means to think. The hypothetical situation here is that there's a trolley in a room with a bomb on it. The bomb will go off if it is removed from the room and it will also go off in ten minutes, but the room is bomb-proof so we don't care if that happens. The task is to remove the trolley from the room before the bomb goes off. Now humans generally know that either the bomb needs to be removed from the trolley before removing the trolley from the room, or the bomb needs to be disabled (with the apparent exceptions of those guys in the video). So we build some AI machines that are capable of manipulating matter and test them.
But, hypothetically, we send the first AI into the room to fetch the trolley. The AI removes the trolley, with the bomb on it.
The second AI is built to think about all the consequences of its actions ahead of time. It is proving that removing the trolley from the room will not affect the colour of the paint on the trolley when the bomb goes off.
The third AI is built to only consider relevant consequences. It is deciding whether the acceleration of the heat death of the universe is a relevant or an irrelevant consequence when the bomb goes off.

The point of this hypothetical example is that it's non-obvious to decide what is going on with analytical thinking. The blokes in the video pulling down the tree didn't consider the consequences of their actions, but even the smartest amongst us clearly don't consider all the possible consequences of our actions before doing something, as the example of the AIs indicates. So how do we decide what to consider? I think this consideration comes to your final anaylsis, that content knowledge is critical.