Given the fact that, during the course of recent decades, the course of socio-political and scientific progress in Western countries had attained clearly defined exponential subtleties, it comes as no particular surprise that, as time goes by, the learning techniques, utilized in academic curricula, appear to place ever-heavier emphasis onto helping students to develop the skills of critical thinking.
According to Walters (1990): “The training of students in critical thinking, analytic skills, and problem solving has become a top educational priority in recent years.
Courses in critical thinking are now standard in institutions of higher learning” (p. 450). The reason for this is simple – it is namely those students that posses such skills, who would be more likely to succeed in attaining social prominence, as it would increase the extent of their professionally related adaptability.
Therefore, it represents the matter of foremost importance for educators to have a cohesive understanding as to what accounts for facilitation of critical thinking-related skills in the classroom.
In our paper, we will aim to substantiate the validity of this hypothesis at length, while referring to namely Experiential and Problem-Based (Independent) Learning Theories, as we believe that it is namely these two theories that provide teachers with most advanced theoretical framework for helping students to develop proficiency in critical thinking.
Nevertheless, before addressing the subject matter through the conceptual lenses of these two theories, we will need define the essence of critical thinking as ‘thing in itself’ and the role it plays within the discursive matrix of modern education. In the next part of this paper, we are going to do just that.
Despite the fact that, as we have mentioned earlier, the growing number of educators come to realize the indispensability of providing students with a stimulus to develop critical thinking, only few of them seem to understand the theoretical implications of such thinking.
The reason for this appears to be the fact that traditional concept of education implies the notions of ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ being essentially synonymous, even though the post-industrial realities of today’s living render such an implication largely outdated. Whereas; the concept of ‘knowledge’ connotes memorization, the concept of ‘understanding’ connotes interaction.
And, up until comparatively recent times, the whole system of Western education was based upon the assumption that it is perfectly appropriate to expect theoretical knowledge, obtained in class, to correlate with surrounding realities, as if something rather statically defined.
As it was rightly pointed out by Sommer (1974): “The school emphasizes memorization and formal exercises, it emphasizes general relationships and abstract principles… It is obliged to certify the amount of learning that has taken place and relies on formal examinations for this purpose” (p. 10).
Nevertheless, such approach to education cannot be considered suitable, simply because, even the most abstract knowledge that can be obtained in the place of learning derives out of currently predominant socio-political and scientific discourses.
For example, whereas, throughout the course of 20th century, students specializing in political sciences were taught to think of 1868 Peace of Westphalia as the foundation of international law, the NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1991 had rendered such theoretical approach utterly outdated.
Whereas, it has been traditionally assumed that it is namely governments that can indulge in unilateral spying on citizens, the most recent scandal with WikiLeaks had proven that private citizens are being just as capable of spying on the government.
Whereas, up until recently, the rate of people’s IQ was assumed to be environmentally predetermined, the most latest discoveries in the field of biology point out at the rate of people’s IQ as something rather genetically predetermined.
Therefore, it represents the matter of foremost importance for students to remain intellectually flexible (often by the mean of challenging the validity of conventional scientific theories), while pursuing with their studies, because it is only then that they will be able to take practical advantage of what it being learnt.
In her article, Tsui (2002) states: “By instilling critical thinking in students we groom individuals to become independent lifelong learners—thus fulfilling one of the long-term goals of the educational enterprise” (p. 740).
Apparently, one’s ability to indulge in critical thinking is the pathway towards such intellectual flexibility. And, one’s intellectual flexibility is the key to realization of his or her full existential potential, because only intellectually flexible individual would be able to adapt to highly dynamic realities of today’s living.
Nowadays, the origins of Experiential Learning Theory are being traced to the works of one of founders of American Pragmatism, John Dewey. In his now famous book Democracy and education, Dewey stated: “Knowledge is the tool for managing experience – no such thing as genuine knowledge and fruitful understanding except as the offspring of doing” (1924, p. 322).
According to Dewey, the validity of just about any abstract concept, learnt in schools, colleges or universities, is being reflected by the extent of this concept’s practical applicability.
The reason for this is simple – given the fact that, as representatives of Homo Sapiens specie, we are not mere spectators of a surrounding environment but its active agents, the possession of knowledge, on our part, does not only allow us to appear ‘sophisticate’, but it actually increases the degree of our existential competitiveness.
As Hytten (2000) had put it: “He (Dewey) argues that it (education) should help men and women deal with the problems of their day and create a more harmonious and fulfilling future.
For him, education provides the arena in which to test out the value of philosophical ideas” (p. 455). Therefore, students’ theoretical studies must always be followed by field exercises, during the course of which students will be able to test the strengths and weaknesses of what they had learnt in the classroom, on their own.
David Kolb utilized Dewey’s theoretical insights, in regards to education, while developing his model of Experiential Learning, which consists of four stages: Abstract Conceptualization, Active Experimentation, Concrete Experience, and Reflective Observation.
According to Kolb, it is namely while being taken through the last three stages of a learning process, that students attain critical thinking skills, as it is only then that they learn how to apply independent practice-related judgments to theoretical knowledge, obtained in the classroom. At the end of a learning process: “They (learners) must be able to reflect on and observe their experiences from many perspectives” (1984, p. 30).
In her article, where she discusses different aspects of an internship practice, Tovey (2001) points out to the fact that facilitation of students’ critical thinking should be considered as one of experiential learning’ most important benefits: “Being part of a workplace involves more than simply learning the job skills… it involves the enhancement of students’ analytical abilities” (p. 282).
By being prompted to learn from experience, students get to realize how their previously obtained theoretical knowledge applies in practice, which in its turn, helps them to adopt a critical perspective on professionally related tasks.
It is needless to mention, of course, that this would aid them rather substantially in attaining professional adequacy, because it is specifically those employees that do not address their professional duties strictly ‘by the book’ that are being valued the most.
Therefore, we can only agree with Maudsley and Strivens (2000), who provide us with a better understanding of how facilitation of critical thinking is being perceived through the lenses of Kolb’s Experiential Model: “The critical thinking process is person-specific, emotion-centered, and both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated, and often leads to critical insight unexpectedly” (p. 540).
Upon being prompted to reflect on how their theoretical knowledge correlates with their experiential knowledge, students get to be automatically presented with an opportunity to foster their critical thinking skills.
Another learning theory, the application of which is believed to result in enhancing students’ critical thinking skills, is being commonly referred to as Problem-Based or Independent.
The proponents of this theory suggest that, in order for students to be able to benefit from studying a particular theoretical discipline, they must be left on their own, while tackling learning-related challenges.
In their article, Belton and Scott (1998) provide us with the insight onto the conceptual premise of this theory: “Independent Learning (IL) is used here to emphasize independence in the processes of learning or attainment of knowledge; students taking responsibility for their own learning… The teacher’s role is more of a learning manager and resource person; a co-learner whose experience in acquiring appropriate knowledge is more important than their knowledge acquire” (p. 899).
The origins of this theory can be traced back to sixties, when medical students at McMaster University in Canada were provided with a number of educational liberties, such as showing up at certain lectures if they only considered it necessary.
Nevertheless, even though the emergence of this theory has never been associated with the individuals of a great social or scientific prominence, as opposed to what it is being the case with Experiential Theory, it continues to grow ever more popular with educators.
This can be explained by the fact that, as time goes by, the very notion of professional excellence is being increasingly perceived within essentially problem-solving context. For example, as of today, 65% of Microsoft’s software designers consist of naturalized citizens from Russia, India and China.
Even though that the bulk of these employees do not even hold a formal degree in IT-related fields and even though many of them have a criminal record, due to their hacking activities in the countries where they were born, it nevertheless did not prevent them from being hired.
The reason for this is simple – as time goes by, one’s formal possession of a university diploma becomes increasingly irrelevant, when it comes to defining his or her chances to get a job. This appears to be especially the case in Western countries where a so-called ‘affirmative action’ educational policy had attained an official status.
Nowadays, more and more corporate employers seek to hire those who, due to their possession of high IQ, are being able to adapt to the challenges of a highly dynamic professional environment.
And, it is specifically the application of Problem-Based (Independent) learning strategy in the classroom, which is expected to endow students with problem-solving skills, and consequently – to improve their critical thinking abilities.
In their article, Hmelo-Silver and Barrows (2006) state: “For experts, teaching is a problem-solving context in which they must come to understand the meaning of students’ ideas rather than just correct them.
This is especially true when teachers and students co-construct the instructional agenda in a student-centered environment such as problem-based learning (PBL)” (p. 21). When being exposed to Problem-Based (Independent) learning strategies, students learn how to utilize their own sense of rationale, while addressing a particular academic or practical challenge.
It is now became a commonplace practice for the teaching affiliates of this theory to provide students with a few possible clues as to how a particular academically-related challenge should be tackled, and then to simply leave students alone for a while, so that they would be able to choose in a favor of a proper solution on their own.
Such practice, of course, contributes rather substantially to the process of students acquiring essential skills in critical thinking, because, while being presented with a challenge to solve a particular problem, students get to realize that they have no option but to rely on their personal rationale-based judgments.
As it was rightly pointed out by Semerci (2006): “For a student who has assumed responsibility for his/her own learning, the necessity to display the behaviors of attaining knowledge and using it makes thinking and problem solving important skills… Problem-based learning (PBL) supports critical thinking and problem-solving skills” (p. 1127).
Thus, just as it being the case with Experiential Learning Theory, the utilization of Problem-Based (Independent) Learning Theory in the classroom creates the set of objective preconditions for students to indulge in critical thinking, as an integral part of the process of acquiring knowledge.
The earlier articulated ideas as to how Experiential Learning Theory and Problem-Based (Independent) Learning Theory address the issue of facilitating critical thinking, allow us to formulate the set of recommendations for fostering this type of thinking in the classroom:
1) Teachers should encourage students to come up with their own interpretation of the concepts and ideas that they are being taught about in the place of learning. This should especially be the case when the acquired knowledge is being concerned with liberal sciences.
According to Spinks (2001): “There is a widespread perception that Western society is undergoing a profound transformation in its relation to the political dimension of human experience” (23). Therefore, no topics should be made a ‘taboo’ to discuss, regardless of how controversial they might be.
For example, instead of making students to believe that the beneficence of ‘multiculturalism’ cannot even be doubted, as it is usually the case in today’s Western schools, colleges and universities, teachers should be providing them with an alternative perspective onto the subject matter – hence, prompting them to indulge in critical thinking.
2) Teachers should never skip an opportunity to allow students to validate the objectiveness of theoretical knowledge, they acquire in the class, independently.
And, the best way to assure that, is encouraging students to go on a field trips, during the course of which they would be able to test the strengths and weaknesses of a theory in practice, and to persuade them to enroll into externship and internship programs.
While referring to the specifics of how internship programs at Purdue University help students to improve their analytical abilities, Bay (2006) states: Students write a weekly internship log or journal of about two to three pages, in which they not only record their experiences but must also analyze them from a number of different perspectives” (p. 136).
It is specifically by interacting and by socializing in professionally related environment that students will be able to gain a better understanding of classroom-based knowledge’s practical relevance.
3) Teachers should consider making it possible for students to indulge in project-based learning activities, as one of the pathways towards facilitating their critical thinking skills. While being asked to work on completing a particular project, related to theoretical knowledge, students would be prompted to assess the extent of such knowledge’s practical applicability.
In its turn, this would enhance their skills of critical thinking rather extensively.
In their article, Lime et al. (2007) provide us with the insight onto project-based learning’ possible objectives: “Project-based learning can be aimed at applying knowledge and techniques that are already acquired (usually limited to one subject).
It can also include interdisciplinary projects that are related to existing professional issues” (p. 338). After having completed a particular field-project, students would be less likely to think of purely theoretical recommendations, as to such project’s completion, as representing an undeniable truth-value.
4) Teachers should create preconditions for students to choose in favor of participating in team-based brainwashing sessions as the ultimate tool of addressing educational tasks and challenges.
By taking part in these sessions, students will not only be able to improve their skills of critical thinking, but they will also learn how to defend their critical perspectives, in regards to a particular issue, against the critical perspectives of others. In their article, Kaplan and Kies (1995) state: “Critical thinking requires that students are taught the thinking skills process along with the content area.
The thinking skills process requires instruction and practice. The practice can be either deductive approach and/or by an inductive approach. Brainstorming is the part of deductive approach” (p. 186). While partaking in brainstorming sessions, students will also learn how to assess the objective value of their critical opinions. And, this will come as a great asset later in their lives.
We believe that the earlier provided line of argumentation, in regards to the significance of facilitation of critical thinking in the classroom, and also in regards to the implications of such facilitation, substantiate the validity of paper’s initial hypothesis.
By encouraging students to act as critical thinkers, while studying, teachers will help them greatly in the process of attaining self-actualization. As individuals capable of critically assessing the information that is being conveyed to them in classrooms, students will eventually cease to think of themselves as the mere recipients of knowledge.
Instead, they will grow to think of their role in the learning process as such knowledge’s co-creators. In its turn, this will result in endowing students with a completely new perspective on learning, which would be consistent with post-industrial realities of living in Globalized world.
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