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Teaching Thinking

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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If thinking is seen as a complex skill or set of skills, it is reasonable to assume that "thinking is something that may be done well or poorly, efficiently or inefficiently, and also to assume that how to do it better is something that one can learn.


The excerpt below looks how to teach better thinking skills to

students and the different strategies used by expert and novice

thinkers. It is from "BETTER TEACHING, MORE LEARNING: Strategies for

Success in Postsecondary Settings," by

James R. Davies. Copyright ? 1993 by American Council on Education,

Series on Higher Education Published by ORYX Press, 4041 North

Central at Indian School Road, Phoenix, AZ 85012-3397. All rights reserved. Reprinted with



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Planning the Successful Federal Proposal

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


----------------------- 777 words ---------------------


pp 182-184


If there are many types of thinking and many reasons for engaging in

thinking, it is not surprising that people ask if such an important

activity can be taught. The prospects for teaching thinking depend,

once again, on what is meant by "thinking," and how thinking is

related to intelligence.

As Raymond Nickerson points out, "intelligence" and "thinking

ability" are not necessarily synonymous. "Intelligence relates more

to the 'raw power' of one's mental equipment. Raw power is one thing,

and skilled use of it something else."1. Thinking involves not only

the raw power of intelligence, but tactics and knowledge of content

(the subject one is thinking about) as well.2. Or put still another

way, thinking involves operations, knowledge, and dispositions.3. If

a distinction can be made among the various elements of thinking, it

would appear that even if nothing (or very little) can be done to

improve the raw power of intelligence, perhaps something (or very

much) can be done to improve operations, use of relevant knowledge,

and dispositions. If thinking is seen as a complex skill or set of

skills, it is reasonable to assume that "thinking is something that

may be done well or poorly, efficiently or inefficiently, and also to

assume that how to do it better is something that one can learn."4.

Nickerson compares learning to think, to learning a complex athletic

skill, i.e., enlarging "the number of pre-coded motor programs that

the player can call upon to meet the demands of the moment...If

thinking skills are really learned behavior patterns, we might expect

an analogous effect of training, namely an enlarging of one's

repertoire of pre-coded intellectual performance patterns that

function relatively automatically in appropriate contexts."5. Seen

this way, thinking skills appear to be something that can be learned

and, therefore, taught.

If thinking skills can be learned, it may be instructive to examine

what differentiates skilled thinkers from novice thinkers. What do

good thinkers do? A significant amount of research compares what

novice and expert thinkers do. Citing many of these studies as

evidence, Joanne Kurfiss summarizes the findings as follows:

Novice-expert studies reveal striking differences between the

two groups

and striking similarities within groups, regardless of discipline. For

example, experts work at the level of principles and plans before

plunging into the intricate details of a solution. They may explore a

number of possible representations of a problem before they commit to a

particular solution....Experts treat a solution plan as a hypothesis,

checking their progress frequently to avoid a "wild goose chase."

Experts also use heuristics to advance understanding of the problem.

Successful problem solvers aggressively seek connections between the

present problem and what they already know. Novices, in contrast,

exhibit tendencies that preclude success, such as categorizing the

problem on the basis of superficial features, failing to include all

elements of the problem in their representation, using trial and error

instead of analysis and quitting.6.

Two concepts embedded in this summary of findings deserve further

elaboration-"heuristics" and (though not mentioned specifically)

"meta-cognition." Heuristics are general "rules of thumb" that can be

used for guiding the thinking process.7. For example, "try to find

out first what kind of problem this is, before seeking a solution,"

may be regarded as a heuristic, a rule of thumb that usually works.

Expert thinkers use heuristics. Furthermore, expert thinkers become

aware of their own thinking through an overall monitoring process

known as meta-cognition, which has been defined as "the use of

strategies to monitor and control attention and memory, and to make

decisions about how to proceed on a task.8. Stated more simply,

meta-cognition is "being aware of our thinking as we perform specific

tasks and then using this awareness to control what we are doing.9.

Examples of meta-cognition include "planning, predicting, checking,

reality testing, and monitoring and control of one's own deliberate

attempts to perform intellectually demanding tasks."10. Expert

thinkers, as opposed to novices, have learned to be effective in

using heuristics and in employing meta-cognitive skills.

In recent years, a number of formal "thinking skills programs" have

been developed and deployed, mostly in school settings, but also in

postsecondary settings.11. Some of these programs emphasize thinking

skills in general (such as employing heuristics or using

meta-cognition skills), whereas others emphasize thinking within a

particular discipline or field of study. Can thinking skills be

taught without using a formal program? Although formal programs

provide a specific, well-thought-out structure and often include

carefully developed and well-tested materials, surely any teacher who

is determined to teach thinking skills can begin to do so by using

inquiry and discovery strategies. To do so, however, one must begin

by arranging classroom settings so that thinking can occur.


1) Nickerson, Perkins, and Smith, Teaching of Thinking, p. 44.

2) D.N. Perkins, "thinking Frames: An Integrative Perspective on

Teaching Cognitive Skills" in Baron and Sternberg, Teaching Thinking

Skills, p. 57.

3) Barry Beyer, Practical Strategies, p. 20, 25.

4) Nickerson, Perkins, and Smith, Teaching of Thinking, p. 45.

5) Ibid., p. 46.

6) For a detailed listing of the studies from which this summary

of findings is drawn, see Kurfiss, Critical Thinking, pp. 30-31.

7) Beyer, Practical Strategies, p. 19.

8) Kurfuss, Critical Thinking, p. 42.

9) Marzano, et al., Dimensions of Thinking, p. 9.

10) Nickerson, Perkins, and Smith, Teaching of Thinking, p. 103.

11) Some of these thinking skills programs include Feuerstein's

"Instrumental Enrichment" Program, the "Structure of Intellect"

Program based on the work of Guilford, Science...A Process Approach,"

"BASICS," "LOGO," "Philosophy for Children," and many others. Among

those programs specifically designed for higher education settings

are "project Intelligence," a collaborative project involving a

company, Harvard University, and the Venezuelan Ministry of

Education; "Patterns of Problem Solving," developed by the Psychology

Department at the University of Cincinnati; the "Cognitive Studies

Project" at Manhattan Community College; the "Portable Patient

Problem Pack" (P4), developed by Burrows and Tamblyn for medical

students; ADAPT," developed by a group of professors at the

University of Nebraska, Lincoln; "DOORS," patterned after ADAPT;

"COMPAS," a cooperative project of a consortium of seven community

colleges; "SOAR," developed for the sciences at Xavier University;

"DORIS," used with freshman at California State University,

Fullerton; and a number of programs that deal with written and spoken

language. For a useful brief description of these and other thinking

skills programs, see Nickerson, Perkins and Smith, Teaching of

Thinking, Part II, Chapters 6-10. See also Paul Chance, Thinking in

the classroom: A Survey of Programs (New York Teachers College Press