Child Myths

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Critical Thinking and Mastery of Child Development Concepts: Part 2

Part 2 of "Critical Thinking and Mastery of Chid Development Concepts".

This post is the second part of an essay entitled "Critical Thinking and Mastery of Child Development Concepts."

Why Do We Want Child Development Students to Develop Critical Thinking?
Why is critical thinking important for students of child development? Critical thinking skills help students avoid confusion between related or similar concepts; clarifying material through critical thinking helps students to understand and remember correctly what they have studied. Critical thinking skills help students understand how to apply what they have learned, an important aspect of child development courses, in which connections between theory and real-world problems are often emphasized. And, of course, application of critical thinking skills helps solve the old problem of "not knowing what's important," a common difficulty with respect to the mass of child development material students are asked to master. In addition, we want students to have critical thinking abilities that are of special importance to child development information, so that they will continue to use a critical approach to developmental issues long after they have forgotten exactly what a Fels multiplier is.
Why Don't Students Already Think Critically?
I will take it for granted that undergraduate students need to improve their critical thinking abilities. Although research in this area is complicated by the fact that few humans ever perfect this set of skills, so it is hard to choose a comparison group, recent work suggests that even professional psychologists with graduate training may be far less competent in critical thinking than we would like to see (Sharp, Herbert, & Redding, 2008). The remarkable difficulties shown by adults who need to ignore irrelevant information have been demonstrated for many years, beginning with the work of Tversky and Kahneman (1974). Superficial information included in a question confuses many adults (Waldrop, 1987).
What factors limit the critical thinking skills of professionals, those of other adults, and, we can assume, those of undergraduates? Some of these factors are developmental in nature, while others involve past and present instruction, intentional or otherwise.
Formal Operations and Horizontal Decalage
The study of formal operational thought by Piaget ( 1922) provided some important insights into critical thinking. Formal operational thinkers can create a variety of hypotheses as possible explanations for an event and can figure out experimental tests to support or reject a hypothesis. In addition, they are able to co-ordinate factors rather than having to consider each one separately, allowing them to deal with issues like rates or proportions. They can also collect data systematically and consider sources of error and the possibility that their conclusions are wrong. Without all these abilities, critical thinking would be much impeded.
Students in undergraduate child development courses are generally at least in the sophomore year of college, and the youngest are about 20 years old. The textbooks we assign them state that they have had the ability for formal operational thought for some years, and surely formal operational thought is the foundation of many critical thinking abilities. However, anyone who has attempted to teach undergraduates what formal operational thought is, must have become very aware that the students did not seem to bring formal operational abilities to the study of formal operations. Demonstrations or videos showing the use of ratios and isolation of variables are commonly met with anxious student faces, behind which are anxious minds questioning whether they themselves are able to do the tasks represented as possible for 12-year-olds.
Piaget's concept of horizontal decalage is an important part of the explanation of apparent delays in formal operational thought. This concept suggests that cognitive abilities can appear to be less uniform than we expect, depending in part on the familiarity of a problem for a student. Unfamiliar material is less easily treated with formal operational or other high-level cognitive abilities than is familiar material; for example, as Burbules and Linn (1988) demonstrated, reasoning ability can be improved simply by free exploration of a situation. Characteristics of infants and children are relatively unfamiliar for most undergraduates in the United States; small families and intense age-grading have prevented them from having much opportunity to observe younger children. It would be surprising if undergraduates were able to apply critical thinking skills to child development information as they can to, say, cooking, or repairing a car.
For developmental reasons, then, it is unlikely that students in undergraduate child development courses will be able to muster formal operational skills without help or effort, and thus unlikely that they will be able to use more complex critical thinking abilities effectively throughout the course.
The Perry Scheme
There have been relatively few discussions of cognitive changes that occur during the college years. One approach to this topic, based on a small number of students at Harvard, offers some ideas that are intriguing although somewhat speculative. The "Perry scheme" (Perry, 1970) proposed stages of undergraduate development with strong relevance to critical thinking. Perry proposed that entering freshmen tend to focus their thinking on the idea that there are right and wrong answers, known to authorities; this position is referred to as "Dualism/Received Knowledge." Perry suggested that the initial, basic attitude is that all problems are solvable, and the student's task is to learn the right solution. A second step in this dualistic position has to do with attitudes toward authorities. Some authorities (for example, literature professors) are seen to disagree, whereas others (like physicists) are believed by the student to agree. Those authorities who have agreement about right answers are the ones to pay attention to. (It seems doubtful that developmental scientists are considered to be among those who agree on right answers.) Critical thinking by the student is not an option.
A second position, taken by students who have passed the dualistic freshman stage, is one that acknowledges conflicting answers, but concludes that the existence of conflict means that only one's own intuitive response is correct, and external authorities are not correct. Perry referred to this position as "Multiplicity/ Subjective Knowledge." Students at the beginning of this position assume that there are problems whose solution is known, and others whose solution is not known; the student's job is to find the right solutions that are known. Later, a new assumption appears: most problems have no known solution, so either everyone has a right to their own opinion, or it doesn't matter which solution you choose, and the student's task is to amplify on these points rather than to try to solve the problems. Critical thinking would be a waste of time, and opinions are nothing more than unexamined prejudices, for individuals at this stage.
A third position described by Perry develops out of the first two. This position, called "Relativism/Procedural Knowledge", is a step that makes critical thinking possible. It includes the idea that there are reasoning methods favored by disciplines, and that study of a discipline requires mastering these as well as amassing a supply of facts. Subjective responses are considered, but separated from techniques of objective analysis. In the initial step for this position, "Contextual Relativism", the student acknowledges that there are reasons for all proposed solutions to problems, and that solutions need to be examined in context and relative to the type of support they have. Although solutions may be equally good, one may be better than others in a given context. The student's job is to learn to evaluate solutions-a matter requiring critical thinking skills. Contextual Relativism would seem essential to the serious study of developmental science, an area in which multiple causes are responsible for multiple outcomes, and dynamic systems theory suggests that nonlinear relationships are common. Value-laden aspects of developmental studies also make it important that students have the understanding of subjective responses characteristic of this period of development.
"Relativism/Procedural Knowledge" is not the last step in Perry' scheme, but it may be the lowest level that allows for mobilization of critical thinking skills, and thus the first level that permits good understanding of the complexities of developmental science. It is not clear how we can persuade or push students to arrive at this level, however, nor can we make it a prerequisite for enrollment in a child development course. Students in two-year colleges are probably not at this step when they take child development courses.
Students' Past Experience
College students who received their secondary education in the United States have generally received some encouragement to think critically and may believe that they are accomplished at critical thinking tasks. However, examination of secondary school experiences suggests that these may diminish rather than foster critical thinking abilities. The novelist Francine Prose examined efforts toward critical thinking used in high school English textbooks (Prose, 1999). In her article, aptly named "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read", she noted a failure to require close, line-by-line reading, and a tendency to questions about social or moral implications rather than about the actual content of the novel. Prose referred to one teacher's manual that asked students reading Huckleberry Finn to count the ways in which Mark Twain negated the humanity of the slave character Jim, rather than comparing the number of such incidents with the number in which his humanity was witnessed. Prose also noted the frequency of assignments in which questions asked were only peripherally relevant to the information available to the student. For example, students might be asked to answer questions whose answers they would be unlikely to know, such as a question about the mental health prognosis of the heroine of The Bell Jar. Assignments of these types discourage a focus on recognizing relevant, available information, and encourage the view that all possible answers (if long enough) are acceptable.
College students who have experienced high school assignments of the kind Prose described are likely to feel comfortable with irrelevancies, low levels of abstraction, and assignments which provide insufficient information, and even to believe that they are excellent critical thinkers because of their handling of such matters. Facing a child development course, with its demands for identification of relevant information and for evaluation of ideas and practices, such students may feel offended, even humiliated by their perceived failure to succeed with the methods they have been rewarded for.
Seductive Ideas
Kagan's fascinating book, Three seductive ideas (2000), discussed a number of common preconceptions that encourage uncritical thinking about psychology in general and the study of development in particular. Kagan proposed that one important "seductive idea" was abstractionism, the assumption that if two behavioral phenomena have some characteristics in common, these characteristics can be abstracted and used to reason from one phenomenon to the other. A second "seductive idea" is infant determinism. This is the assumption that in all aspects of development, early events influence outcomes more powerfully than later events. The assumption of infant determinism can cause confusion about the nature of plasticity by blurring the distinction between experience-expectant and experience-dependent plasticity, as well as by convincing students that a reliable principle makes it unnecessary for them to examine the evidence about the effects of experience. The third major "seductive idea" mentioned by Kagan is the pleasure principle. The belief that motivation is determined by the pursuit of gratification (and, perhaps, by avoidance of discomfort) is at odds with a number of important ideas about development. For example, difficulties in teaching of Piagetian concepts are confused by student application of the pleasure principle, as students search for ways in which infants "must" be positively reinforced for cognitive developments.
"Folk Psychology"
Not all "seductive ideas" are broad generalizations. Some are specific beliefs, common currency of thought about development and reinforced by repetition in the media and in casual conversation. There are probably hundreds of these claims that "everybody knows" and few approach critically. Here are some examples of folk or naïve developmental psychology (Mercer, 2009):
Sugar causes hyperactivity (which is, incidentally, the same thing as hypertension).
Toddlers drop food off their high chairs because they want to make their parents mad.
Teenagers learn to be antisocial under peer pressure from bad companions.
These common beliefs contradict and confuse understanding of evidence-based information about development.

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


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