Nathaniel Swain

We can teach it so much better once we know what it is

‘Critical’ and ‘creative’ are commonly used terms, but shared understandings of these terms are less frequent. Critical and creative thinking (CCT) refers to two broad types of thinking that manifest in different ways and draw upon different combinations of knowledge and skills depending on the context and purpose. This explains the many slightly differing definitions you will find attached to the terms if you go looking.  Boiled down, critical thinking means evaluating ideas (especially claims and arguments), tools, methods, or products in reasoned ways, while creative thinking means making mental connections between and generating new ideas, tools, methods, or products for an intended effect. They’re different types of thinking but go well together. We believe developing young people’s CCT is a key purpose of education – and that teachers should be taught to teach CCT in a ‘deliberately incidental’ way.

CCT is not just important for Australia to stay internationally competitive or because there is increasing demand for employees with CCT skills. Thinking creatively and critically makes our world, and the lives we live, better. CCT gives meaning to much of what students learn at school. The OECD attributes such importance to CCT that it is introducing a standardised assessment of CCT this year. And of course, ACARA sees its importance, too; CCT is one of the seven General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

So, it was with interest that we noted the findings of a recently published study by Carter and Buchanan. The 185 NSW primary teachers they surveyed agreed that the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum (Version 8.4) – which include CCT – were important, but the teachers were not confident in their knowledge of these capabilities. Almost half of the teachers reported that they did not understand the General Capabilities. Most reported teaching the General Capabilities only occasionally or not at all; and of the 37 teachers who were interviewed in the study, only 2 said they taught General Capabilities explicitly. 

Of all the reported excerpts about how Carter and Buchanan’s interviewees said they taught the General Capabilities, several of the General Capabilities were referenced but there was not a single mention of teaching CCT. The teachers cited – understandably – that a lack of professional development was the impediment to their understanding of the General Capabilities. It is not surprising that teachers would struggle with CCT particularly, given questions about the adequacy of teacher education in relation to teaching CCT.

A lack of clarity about CCT is pervasive. The more you read in this area, whether it is the scholarly literature or the grey literature, the more you can be forgiven for wondering if there is any kind of thinking that CCT does not include! We see the lack of definitional clarity around CCT as a significant barrier to confident and effective CCT teaching – but not an obstacle that quality teacher education and professional development cannot help teachers to overcome.

We argue that helping teachers to develop a deep understanding of CCT (much deeper than we can cover in this post) is important because of what well-established educational psychology principles – drawing on cognitive, social, and behavioural psychology – tell us. Only when teachers deeply understand the conceptual structures of CCT will they be able to teach CCT effectively.

Higher-order skills such as CCT are not the product of natural maturation and social interactions, and can therefore be thought of as biologically secondary skills. Cognitive psychology tells us that biologically secondary knowledge and skills should be taught explicitly, in order for the learning to be efficient and effective. This means that to most effectively develop students’ CCT, teachers need to teach CCT deliberately. This involves drawing attention to, explaining, and illustrating the concepts and skills involved (e.g., for critical thinking these might include evaluate, reason, argument, analyse, evidence, logic, conclusion, or the term critical itself; for creative thinking these might include imagination, brainstorm, open-minded, flexible, method, adapt, concept map, synthesise, or the term creative itself). The particular concepts, skills, explanations, and demonstrations will, of course, depend on the learners’ development, prior learning, and interests, and the learning area (or domain) knowledge being drawn on.

Cognitive psychology also tells us that CCT skills are not ‘generic strategies’, learnable in a content vacuum; they require content knowledge. To teach CCT in a knowledge-based way, teachers need to have a particularly deep understanding of CCT – so they can recognise and harness as many opportunities as possible to teach CCT skills utilising the domain knowledge they are teaching. Only by doing this as often as possible, in as many different learning areas as possible, can teachers encourage learners to engage in CCT habitually and ‘generally’. CCT skills taught in isolated CCT focused programs – if new skills are learned at all – do not generalise.

Social and behavioural psychology has much to contribute to teachers’ ability to establish CCT as socially normative thinking practices. To encourage children (and the adults they become) to engage in CCT in the various situations where it’s desirable to do so, teachers should frequently and explicitly model CCT skills, drawing attention to and labelling the specific skills they are using; provide plentiful and varied opportunities for learners to engage in the skills themselves, prompting and guiding where necessary; and try to ensure that the learners feel good (natural positive reinforcement) when they engage in those skills.

By taking a developmentally appropriate cognitive, social, and behavioural approach to teaching CCT – a ‘deliberately incidental’ approach – teachers can teach students not only what it means to think creatively and critically, but also that these are expected and valued ways of thinking. However, if teachers don’t have a deep understanding of what CCT is, they can’t fully harness the power of educational psychology principles to maximise the development of their students’ CCT. We believe that improved teacher education and professional development is needed to help many teachers feel confident enough to teach CCT in knowledge-based, explicit, and socially normalising ways.

We hope that any introduction of standardised testing of CCT skills encourages a more widespread focus on knowledge-based, explicit teaching of CCT. The OECD’s assertion that the “PISA assessment will examine students’ capacities to generate diverse and original ideas, and to evaluate and improve ideas, across a range of contexts” gives us some hope. Whether or not standardised testing of CCT is introduced in Australia, we hope all Australian teachers will get the support they need to develop a deep understanding of CCT and ‘deliberately incidental’ CCT pedagogies.

Overall, we hope that, in the future, all teachers will feel well prepared to teach CCT in a way that contributes to a society in which thinking creatively and critically in all domains of life is the wonderful norm.

From left to right: Kylie Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and Pedagogy at La Trobe University’s School of Education. Her background includes secondary teaching in science, psychology, and relationships education, and university teaching in research literacy, critical evidence-based practice, and pragmatic research methodology. Kylie is passionate about critically-informed teaching, including finding ways to support more inclusive and effective teaching of CCT. Follow her on Twitter @KylieMurphyEd or on LinkedIn. Steve Murphy is the Director of Professional Practice & School Partnerships at La Trobe University’s School of Education. He has extensive experience as a STEM educator and educational leader in schools. He researches rural education, with a particular focus on STEM education in rural schools and preparing teachers to work in rural communities. Follow Steve on LinkedIn or on Twitter @MurphyRuralEd. Nathaniel Swain is a teacher, instructional coach, and researcher with expertise in language, literacy, instructional practices, and cognitive science. He founded the national community of teachers and registered charity called Think Forward Educators, and produces a regular blog for teachers known as the Cognitorium. Nathaniel currently teaches Foundation at Brandon Park Primary, where he is also a Science of Learning Specialist. He is excited to be joining La Trobe University’s School of Education as a Senior Lecturer in January 2023. Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter@NathanielRSwain.