This is the first of a series of posts that may be of interest to instructors and students in child development or developmental psychology courses. Each post is part of a paper entitled "Critical Thinking and Mastery of Child Development Concepts." This post is the introduction to the paper.
Developmental psychology, developmental science, child development, childhood and
adolescence, lifespan development: all these terms can be used for courses that attempt to teach
how developmental change functions in humans from conception through adolescence. Why so
many different names? Part of the answer has to do with the ways course materials are organized
and divided, but more is related to rapidly changing characteristics of a field that is quite
different from what it was fifty years ago.
A changing field creates a challenge for instructors, but the study of child development
(to choose one of the labels) presents other challenges too. Child development courses involve
more natural science components than other psychology courses, with the exception of
physiological psychology and of sensation and perception. Students, and even instructors, may
find it unexpectedly difficult to master neuroscience and genetics concepts for which they may
have little background. Research design and its implications are essential to the understanding of
causal factors in child development, but few psychology curricula have statistics or research
methods as prerequisites for child development courses, even though variability is at the heart of
any discussion of development. These natural and mathematical science aspects of child
development courses are particularly difficult to combine with more value-related material
("how should parents behave?") or material with immediate practical effects ("how should
schools be run?")
Further challenges arise because of expectations and beliefs about development which
students bring into the class. One problematic expectation is that everyone's personal
experiences are a good background for study of child development-- that in fact everyone,
having been a child, already knows a good deal about developmental change in childhood.
However, although students think they have a lot of knowledge about development, the evidence
seems to be that adults actually have a rather poor understanding of development, especially of
its social and emotional aspects (Daniel Yankelovitch Group, 2000).
Complex material like developmental science requires a high level of critical thinking for
mastery. In this paper, I will discuss some important critical thinking issues relevant to the
teaching of child development courses, and will propose some practices that may help harness
critical thinking skills and improve student understanding.
What is Critical Thinking? And Why Do We Care?
Critical thinking is thought that uses a set of skills specialized for evaluation of evidence and of logical processes that support or fail to support conclusions. The alternative approach, uncritical thinking, accepts evidence and logic that would be rejected if critical thinking skills were applied to the information. In academic circles, critical thinking skills are considered to be highly desirable, but it is unlikely that any human being manages to use such skills on every occasion when they are called for.
In fact, avoidance of critical thinking seems more characteristic of human beings - and more comfortable for them-than its use. As J.A.C. Brown (1963), a student of techniques of persuasion that oppose critical thinking, commented, most people want to feel that issues are simple rather than complex, to have their prejudices confirmed, and to find an enemy to blame for their frustrations. To satisfy those common desires usually requires uncritical thinking. Fostering critical thinking can move students toward an acceptance of complexity, questioning of their own prejudices, and the realization that enemies are only one part of any problem.
As teachers of developmental science, we would like to move our students away from the characteristics Brown noted. In the hope of encouraging students to use critical thinking, we may join natural scientists in setting goals such as knowing facts, generating and evaluating evidence and explanations, understanding the nature and development of scientific knowledge, and participating in scientific practices and discourse (Alberts, 2009; Moore, 1999). Except for the simple knowledge of facts, these goals also require critical thinking; even knowledge of facts may increase when understanding is facilitated by critical approaches. .
We cannot devote a semester of a child development course to instruction in critical thinking, but if we give some consideration to reasons for uncritical thought, and to the ways that improvements in critical thinking can improve student understanding and retention of the material they study, we may be able to work indirectly to improve students' critical abilities..
General Critical Thinking Skills
A set of critical thinking skills can be considered as generally applicable to assessment of information, including information about developmental science. Some are more likely than others to be demanded in a first undergraduate course in child development.
Inference. Inference is the skill of discriminating among degrees of truth or falsity of conclusions drawn from given data. While this is a particularly important skill for developmentalists at more advanced levels, few students in the first undergraduate course are called upon to make inferences. Such courses rarely involve examination of data or reading of research articles in professional journals. In addition, inference as carried out in developmental science generally involves statistical analysis, and statistics or research methods courses are usually not prerequisites for the first child development course.
Recognition of assumptions. This critical thinking skill involves the detection of unstated assumptions or presuppositions in given statements or assertions, including, of course, those the person makes himself or herself. Recognition of assumptions is an important skill for students of developmental science, as common beliefs frequently contradict empirical research about development; students who cannot recognize their own a priori beliefs may become confused by what they see as the unlikely results of systematic investigation.
Deduction. The critical thinking skill of deduction involves determining whether certain conclusions necessarily follow from given information. Deduction is an essential aspect of developmental science, and is especially relevant to questions about correlation and causality. As most students do not enter the first course with a background in statistics and research design, coursework may need to emphasize ways in which developmentalists examine conclusions.
Interpretation. The critical thinking skill of interpretation stresses the weighing of evidence and determining whether generalizations or conclusions based on the evidence are warranted. This skill, so important for more advanced developmentalists, is only at its beginning in younger students. Textbooks offer little specific evidence and less evaluation of the source of the evidence, and research reports are generally too complex and difficult for undergraduates to read. Study of research design is needed before most students can evaluate evidence effectively. However, instructors can model evaluation of evidence by discussing research designs as they have been used in the study of child development. Thoughtful Internet assignments may also be valuable in development of this skill.
Evaluation of arguments. This aspect of critical thinking involves distinguishing between arguments that are strong and relevant and those that are weak or irrelevant to a question. Before students can evaluate arguments, they must abandon the position that all evidence is equal, and the belief that it is inappropriate and intolerant to reject someone's argument. Practice and feedback from the instructor or classmates are helpful supports for development of this skill, but these are rarely provided in child development courses. When students' performance is evaluated through multiple choice examinations, feedback about irrelevant arguments is quite infrequent. Instructors who want to encourage the development of evaluative ability must commit themselves to dealing with extensive written assignments. Attention to detail is a necessity for critical thinking, and assignments cannot reveal the presence or absence of critical thinking unless they themselves display reasoning in detail.
Attempts have been made to design courses that will improve critical thinking with respect to the study of psychology. Lawson (1999) designed a course that guided study of experimenter bias, single versus multiple causation, correlation as opposed to causation, the use of comparison groups or measures, and the problem of confounding variables. Penningroth and her colleagues (Penningroth, Despain, & Gray, 2007) put together a one-credit course intended to improve psychological critical thinking. These efforts are obviously relevant to the enhancement of critical thinking about developmental science, but the latter topic requires emphasis on additional specific issues that are not necessarily important to the general field of psychology.