Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Critical Thinking and Mastery of Child Development Concepts: Final Part

Last part of "Critical Thinking and Mastery of Child Development Concepts".

The final section of "Critical Thinking and mastery of Child Development Concepts", and a reference list.


Some Ways to Foster Critical Thinking
It is very possible that most students will not advance in critical thinking on their own, without instruction, emphasis, modeling, and guidance. An example borrowed from another area of psychology shows that even quite advanced study does not necessarily result in reliable critical thinking. Recent concerns about critical thinking among clinical psychologists (Lilienfeld, Lynn, & Lohr, 2003) have triggered research on the critical thinking abilities of professionals. Work by Sharp, Herbert, and Redding (2008) presented evidence that some clinical psychologists do relatively poorly in critical thinking, and that these uncritical practitioners are more likely than others to choose clinical practices that are unsupported by evidence. These authors noted that "Critical thinking skills may function as a sort of information filter, especially for unorthodox or extraordinary claims" (Sharp, Herbert, & Redding, 2008, p. 28).
As attention to detail and line-by-line reading appear essential to critical thinking, it seems likely that students will benefit from practice in systematic approaches to developmental science information. One useful systematic approach, suggested years ago by Everett Waters (Waters, Kondo-Ikemura, Posada, & Richters, 1991) but rarely mentioned in a teaching context, involves a set of five questions that can be applied to any developmental topic and that help to organize thinking and to stress "what's important". The helpful organizing questions are these:
1. What develops? That is, what aspect of the phenomenon under consideration actually changes with age, and in what way does it change?
2. What are the rate and pattern of development? How quickly or slowly does change occur? Is change gradual and continuous, or are there periods of rapid change and other periods with little or no change in this particular phenomenon?
3. What are the mechanisms of development? What actually causes these specific developmental changes to occur? Does it depend on genetic characteristics of the individual or species? Does the environment directly cause change? Or is there some interaction between the two, as when the environment guides the direction of developmental change that is caused genetically? Does the environment have an effect only at certain periods in development?
4. Are there normal individual differences in this aspect of development? Is it to be expected that there will be variation on this factor among a large group of healthy individuals, or does atypicality indicate that an individual is at risk for developmental problems?
5. Are there predictable population differences in this aspect of development? Are there differences between populations (e.g., boys and girls) in the amount of developmental change, its speed or pattern, its variability, or its causes?
It is not possible to answer these questions with respect to development in general, so their use helps to emphasize the need to work with detailed information and to begin with the choice of a specific type of developmental change.
Conclusion
Developmental science is not a topic for children to study; its very real conceptual difficulties are exaggerated by common misunderstandings. Students usually enter their first developmental science course at a point where they have not yet grown to have certain important cognitive abilities. The first course rarely deals with detailed evidence, so material showing critical thinking is not readily available to students. Instead, textbooks often oversimplify and overgeneralize, and model uncritical thinking when students should be encouraged to think critically. Common critical thinking errors can interfere with beginning students' understanding of developmental science, but there are some approaches that may help correct these errors.
References
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Waters, E., Kondo-Ikemura, K. Posada, G., & Richters, J. (1991). Learning to love: Mechanisms and milestones. In Gunnar, M., & Sroufe, L. (Eds.), Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology,23; Self-processes and development (pp. 217-255). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.

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