Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Critical Thinking and Mastery of Child Development Concepts: Part 3

The third part of "Critical Thinking and Mastery of Child Development Concepts".

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

Problems in the Classroom: Critical or Uncritical Thinking?
We have considered what developmental issues and what experiences may make it difficult for undergraduate students of child development to think critically. It is unpleasant but important to ask whether there are also factors in coursework that encourage uncritical thinking about development and discourage critical thinking.
Coursework and Assessment
One possible factor has to do with the types of assignments and particularly of assessment approaches used by instructors. Unless they are carefully discussed and analyzed at some later time, multiple-choice tests do little to encourage critical thinking; even though very good multiple-choice examinations may require the instructor to think analytically, they do not necessarily have the same effect on students. Essay assignments and examinations have a far greater potential for revealing student thinking patterns and providing opportunities for encouraging critical thinking, but this potential is realized only if instructors devote themselves to providing feedback-and, of course, if students pay attention to it. Small classes may offer opportunities for oral discussion with critical thought about evidence and reasoning, but instructors may find appropriate responses difficult, and students may resent having their thinking dissected in public. Instructors can model critical thinking by commenting at length on issues, but of course this takes away time from "covering" other points. All the solutions available to instructors involve trade-offs between encouragement of critical thinking and the achievement of other goals for the class.
Trouble with Textbooks
In addition to choice of teaching methods, faculty members have some choice of textbooks for developmental science courses, but there are some serious difficulties involving these books. Almost all of them are beautifully produced, colorful and interesting to look at, and engagingly written, with many vignettes about specific children and rich description of some events in development. They are loaded with "features", boxes discussing research issues, thought questions of various kinds, and attempts to engage the student by raising questions about real-world applications. Regrettably, however, many of them provide no more impetus for critical thinking than did the high-school assignments discussed by Francine Prose.
I have chosen some quotations from a very popular textbook which had best be nameless, especially because it is really no worse than its competitors. As the reader will see, neither statements nor questions use or trigger critical thinking skills.
"Find out if your parents read Gesell, Spock, or other parenting advice books when you were growing up. What questions... most concerned them? Do you think that today's parents have concerns that differ from those of your parents? Explain." [Whether the parents read advice books is irrelevant to the questions that concerned them, so this aspect distracts from a critical approach ; the question does not guide the student to ways to find what concerns today's parents have, so he or she is asked to respond without sufficient supportive information; the student is unlikely to have an informed opinion on this point unless he or she is a parent, so the question further encourages uncritical thinking without sufficient information.]
"What aspect of behaviorism made it attractive to critics of psychoanalytic theory? How did Piaget's theory respond to a major limitation of behaviorism?" [The student is asked to work with insufficient information. The text does not state that either assumption is true. In addition, to ask how Piaget's theory "responded" to an aspect of behaviorism suggests that the theory was shaped by shortcomings of behaviorism, which is not correct and tends to confuse the student's attempt to compare behaviorism and other theories. This language may simply be an ill-advised attempt to avoid saying "Compare and contrast".]
"Return to [the] table... which lists advantages and disadvantages of parenthood. Which are most important and which least important to you? What is your ideal family size?" [Other than the use of the table, this question appeals only to the student's personal views and does not involve the weighing of evidence or other critical thinking skills. There is little connection between the question and information about development. In addition, neither the student nor the instructor can use a response to this question to determine whether the student understands relevant information or has given a considered answer.]
"Which explanation of infants' cognitive competencies do you prefer, and why?" [This question is couched in terms of personal preferences, not of evaluation of evidence or logic. A student who reads closely may be tempted to say "I like this one because the words are easier to spell", but most will simply search the text for the right answer.]
Finally, the frequency of emotional language in this book should be noted, as it encourages an uncritical approach by providing irrelevant details and distracting the student from the task at hand. The table of contents contains the following words: amazing, tragedy, mysterious tragedy, and powerful, none of which are necessary descriptions of the contents.
Trouble with Instructors
Regrettably, it is all too easy for instructors to contribute to critical thinking problems by responses in the classroom or by assessment of essay assignments. For example, most instructors attempt to make their remarks vivid, memorable, and student-friendly by including dramatic events and descriptions of interesting but extraneous factors. Students do remember such information, and many instructors have found that answers to essay questions sometimes refer to "what you said about what your little boy did" or other personal details. However, it has been demonstrated clearly that extraneous information, however attention-getting it may be, confuses critical thinking about the real issues ( Tversky & Kahneman, 1974; Waldrop, 1987). To omit those interesting details seems undesirable, as they do help establish memory for concepts; however, it may be a good idea to follow such examples by reminding students about individual differences.
Instructors often permit or provide plausible, unsupported explanations of developmental events, as indeed do developmental theorists. Discriminating between the plausible explanation and the explanation that is both plausible and supported by evidence is one of the steps in developing reasoning capacities (Kuhn, 1993).
Instructors may find it quite difficult to avoid emphasizing confirmatory data over non-confirmatory, or permitting students to stress confirmatory data (Klaczynski & Narasimham, 1998). Having asked students to participate by offering examples of the developmental phenomenon under discussion, and having received one or two appropriate examples, how many of us inquire, "how many people have had completely different experiences? " rather than simply thanking the students who have commented? Generally, instructors are happy if examples are relevant to the issue, and fail to concern themselves with the importance of counter-examples.
Instructors generally fail to give adequate attention to the examination of false statements. If a student has made the statement, the instructor politely turns to someone else for the answer, knowing that students are offended by any clear statement that they are wrong, or by any attempt to examine the reasoning behind the statement. If a false statement has appeared in the textbook or come up in media presentations, instructors often ignore, ridicule, or dismiss it, rather than modeling for students the process of examining it thoroughly. These practices play into the problematic tendency to stress what is true rather than what is false, thus creating problems in examining the consistency of a set of statements ( Johnson-Laird, Legrenzi, Girotto, & Legrenzi, 2000).

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

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