STEM Education Summit
Dr Peter Ellerton: Critical thinking in STEM
In this talk, Dr Peter Ellerton will outline how to maximise learning outcomes through attention to critical thinking in the process of learning and in the application of learned knowledge.
It’s often thought that STEM subjects provide many opportunities to teach and engage in critical thinking. While this is true, it is very easy in STEM to be overwhelmed by content and leave the development of critical thinking skills unaddressed. We should be clear, however, that this is not an “either/or” proposition—learning and thinking are tightly bound. In this talk, Dr Peter Ellerton will outline how to maximise learning outcomes through attention to critical thinking in the process of learning and in the application of learned knowledge.
About the Speaker
PhD Lecture in Critical Thinking
Curriculum Director, University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project
Watch full video below
Peter Dalmaris: Hi, everyone. And welcome to Dr. Peter Ellerton. Peter's talk is part of the STEM Education Summit, a unique, one of a kind event where educators from around the world come together to share the best insights on the technologies, methodologies, and philosophies they use to teach and inspire the next generation of amazing humans.
Peter Dalmaris: I'm Peter Dalmaris, an online educator, author of Maker Education Revolution, and co-founder of Tech Explorations.
Peter Dalmaris: Peter Ellerton lectures at the University of Queensland in Critical Thinking and is the Founding Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project. He is Former Head of Experimental Sciences at the Queensland Academy of Science, Mathematics, and Technology, a state high school catering for gifted students and offering the international baccalaureate program. He's an advisor to the International Baccalaureate Organization.
Peter Dalmaris: Peter has appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio Nation's program on the Philosopher's Zone and on Ockham's Razor, a very well known podcast in the skeptics community, speaking about teaching philosophy and critical thinking. He won the Australian Skeptics prize for Critical Thinking in 2008 for his work on developing educational resources in critical thinking, which is how I came across his work.
Peter Dalmaris: In his talk, Peter will argue that while we may assume that STEM education provides many opportunities to develop critical thinking skills in young people, what often happens is that teachers and students are simply overwhelmed by content. As a result, the development of critical thinking skills is unaddressed.
Peter Dalmaris: Peter will outline how to maximize learning outcomes through attention to critical thinking in the process of learning and in the application of learned knowledge. So, Peter, thank you for joining me. How are you today?
Peter Ellerton: I'm very well. Thanks, Peter. Good to be here.
Peter Dalmaris: So, as I said, I've read a lot of your work. I think it makes perfect sense to have something about critical thinking in school's curricula around the world, not just in Australia. I think this is a problem that is across borders. So, I'd like to kickstart your presentation with an observation which eventually leads to a question.
Peter Dalmaris: So, in societies around the world, including those that used to be proud of the modernity through technology and science - unfortunately, used to be proud - I see an increasing mistrust of science as a tool for problem solving. And at the same time, I see the rise of using social media and communications technologies to spread all sorts of misinformation without any filtering.
Peter Dalmaris: So, for example, as individuals, people seem to be far more likely to propagate incorrect Facebook posts about vaccines than expertly cross-checked high quality peer reviewed publications, at least, you know, the headlines of the publications. Do you think that this is an education problem? And where do you think that it's leading our society? It's not just now, but into the future, into the next few decades. How can we, as educators, help?
Peter Ellerton: Well, that's a big question.
Peter Dalmaris: [Inaudible].
Peter Ellerton: We'll try and issue a manageable answer in that time. It is an education question, and the core of it, I think, is understanding, as we would expect, the credibility of sources. There's nothing surprising about that. But what we have to understand is how people arrive at their judgments about credibility of sources, because nobody thinks their sources aren't credible.
Peter Ellerton: The call to check your sources doesn't really have a lot of traction if people are already thinking, "Well, I know what my sources are and I trust it." What we have to appreciate is that in coming to make these decisions about what we are going to believe or not believe, most people value two things above all else in coming to these judgments.
Peter Ellerton: And the first is, who they trust. So, it's a matter of simple trust. Now, trust is not something that just appears as a consequence of the correct number of references or sightings or credibility. Trust is obviously a very complex thing.
Peter Ellerton: But the second thing, which in part explains some of the first, is that we value coherence. We want our world to seem coherent to us. So, we tell ourselves stories. We construct narratives that give us all purpose and function and meaning.
Peter Ellerton: And they are sort of the working day for us, you know, it's set within these narratives. How we see the world, and how we see ourselves, and what we do both construct these narratives and reinforce these narratives by tuning into sources that will confirm them and help us to affirm our own views. And we all understand these kind of things. We'll do these kind of things. In the extreme, you get the concept of the echo chambers.
Peter Ellerton: But, generally speaking, most of us are very happy with our worldviews, it makes sense to us and it works for us. But they're quite incommensurate our worldviews. They just don't get on. They can't all be true. So, understanding that background context is a very important idea. Particularly in the STEM communities, it's a very naïve move to imagine that all we need to do is get the facts out there and then they'll speak for themselves.
Peter Ellerton: Because, you know, the word fact has the same meaning in all communities as the word credibility in the sense that we all know what our facts are. Even if we disagree about what they are, we, for ourselves, know that these things are facts just as we all know that our sources are credible. And we can explain why it is that we have those things according to that narrative of worldview.
Peter Ellerton: So, as educators, our job is to, not construct those views for students, but to give them the necessary thinking skills to be able to build those views according to what we understand as the norms of good thinking and good inquiry. This is a very big part of the concept of creating lifelong learners. It's not about just making them curious and giving them all the facts. It's about building a kind of intellectual infrastructure for learning that we can carry with us for the rest of our lives.
Peter Ellerton: It's one that's self-critical and critical of others and have, hence, reflective and metacognitive. But, also, very importantly, it's evaluative. We understand what the norms of good thinking are, and we can apply them to our own thinking as much as we can to the thinking of others. And it's in that community of inquiry that we can perpetuate those norms and, hopefully, therefore, mitigate some of the problems of these individualistic approaches to problems in the world where we get this sort of ossification of views and clashing of ideologies.
Peter Dalmaris: Wow. Okay. So, what I take from your answer is that, once someone has constructed their worldview, whatever it might be, flat Earth, other Earth, vaccines, whatever, we can't really just speak to them based on the facts anymore, because those facts probably mean nothing in that worldview that has already been acquired and solidified in the mind of the person.
Peter Dalmaris: So, say, scientists, educators, yelling out the facts is probably the wrong approach because it just falls on deaf ears in a way. So, the time to, I guess, teach those thinking skills is early in a person's life before that worldview is solidified. It's not that it's impossible once it happens, but it is very, very hard.
Peter Dalmaris: And just bring this analogy with kids and health that says that it's important to have to teach young kids healthy habits because then they're going to carry those healthy habits across their lives, nutrition, exercise, et cetera, a healthy lifestyle. But the same with the mind, you need to teach those skills early in life as they are part of a healthy development of a person.
Peter Ellerton: Absolutely, yes. And I don't think it's a bad analogy because, you know, we are talking about mental health here as well, mental wellbeing. And I think a key characteristic of resilience is having the intellectual tools to navigate through an unchanging and uncertain world is the mark of intelligence to progress in an uncertain world. In a certain world, anybody could do that.
Peter Ellerton: So, our question is how our students are going to be comfortable in uncertainty and have a tolerance of ambiguity that allows them, not just to cling to the first view that makes coherent sense to them, but to suspend that belief for a while, and entertain a few ideas, and be comfortable in that space even before they see themselves as inquirers.
Peter Ellerton: And this is a great challenge for us as teachers, because, far too often, we present ourselves as the keepers of all the knowledge. And what we really need to be to students are model inquirers. So, they need to see us inquiring. That need to see us comfortable in uncertainty as well. And we need to be constructing classroom experiences that give students that comfort, and familiarity, and that ability to move forward when they don't know exactly how they ought to.
Peter Ellerton: There's a bit of a kitschy kind of metaphor quite like, but it says that when a bird lands on a branch, it's not scared that it's going to fall. And that's not because it trusts the branch. It's because it trusts its own wings. And we want students like that. We want students who are pretty okay wherever they land because they've got the tools to see their way through.
Peter Ellerton: But, again, you can't create that in students unless you are that yourself as a teacher where students can see that in you. So, that's a real challenge for us. And particularly in science students, where science curricula are so strongly defined by the content of the curriculum. And there is so much time spent just getting content across.
Peter Ellerton: What we're saying to students is that, "Here's the knowledge. We know it. Now, you need to get it." It's the old banking model of education. You have this deficit. I have this surplus. I'll stick it over here. Now, you know it.
Peter Ellerton: And the notion of inquiry, by the way, we should be very careful, particularly in STEM subjects, to not imagine that we are doing inquiry simply because we're doing an experiment of some sort. Just because we're physically poking something doesn't mean that's necessarily good inquiry, particularly if it's so structured that students aren't really getting a lot of cognitive gain out of it.
Peter Dalmaris: I love your analogy with the bird. I think that it just makes so much sense. I mean, using analogies like that, you can see the impact. It now makes sense.
Peter Dalmaris: I might take another minute here, maybe two, let's see how we go, before you start with the presentation, because I just want to acknowledge that we are right now going through a pandemic, the coronavirus pandemic, which is causing mayhem in every aspect of our societies across the world. I find that a particular area of stress to a lot of people is the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what is happening.
Peter Dalmaris: This is my interpretation now, I'm speaking for myself. I see a lot of people unable to reconcile what is happening with their worldviews. So, that's where conspiracy theories come in. Conspiracy theories, I believe, come in because people are trying to do this reconciliation. So, putting aside the biological source of the current threat - it could be something else in the future - but right now it's biology and replacing that with something that they understand, perhaps, better, politics maybe or warfare, who knows?
Peter Dalmaris: But I think this is an example of where this deficit of critical thinking in most of us, at least, in the middle class in the western world where these things actually do come out that shows the impact of what is deficit in critical thinking can be like. So, again, that is totally my observation and how I make sense of what is happening. Do you have a comment on this?
Peter Ellerton: Oh, yeah. I think many of these things are nice examples of how I think people are, in a sense, alienated by knowledge and by science, in particular. Because as it turns out, science is hard. You know, they saw it. And it takes a long time to learn enough science to sort of get your head around how the modern world works.
Peter Ellerton: But if you've got a worldview that allows you to dismiss that, it's importance at least, and replace it with secret truths that you are one of the few people who know, then that's a very empowering thing. I mean, in a world in which so much is known and so little of it by any one of us, it can be very daunting and it can be very reassuring to be told, "Actually, it's all wrong." If you just have these two simple truths, now you understand it properly, and you're one of the chosen few that do. I mean, that's got to feel good.
Peter Ellerton: And this is where it gets really interesting, because what we have is there are just coherence machines in the world which will just make sure that your worldview is coherent. And it does that by twisting and distorting information so that it fits with you. And there are industries that will give you reasons why you don't have to accept particular information about the world.
Peter Ellerton: So, I know very few people, for example, who deny the science of climate change, who have any interesting or phrasings of their belief system that aren't copied totally from those who produce them with the intent of distributing them. And so, it's so easy to get your rebuttals and your arguments off the shelf like you buy a suit. You know, "I like the looks of this one, I'll just take this."
Peter Ellerton: And so, these industries are there to make sure that you don't have to accept information which is unpalatable for your worldview because it's in their benefit to do that.
Peter Ellerton: The ironic thing is, we all appreciate, of course, is that one of the tropes in that industry is that people who do interrogate the credibility of the claims properly known as sheep or sheeple, and the people who don't, the individuals who are the rugged individualists and the critical thinkers who are supposedly denial or commonly accept that mainstream knowledge.
Peter Ellerton: And, you know, it sounds like they're being a skeptic. But skepticism requires two things. The first is you have to question, and this is a good thing. The second thing is you have to listen to the answer. And if you're not prepared to do that and act on that information, do the hard intellectual yards, but you don't get to wear the badge of a skeptic. That is what denial is about.
Peter Ellerton: So, I think there's no surprise that people are going around saying that 5G causes coronavirus. It's not surprising. I mean, it's kind of novel that they'd land on that particular point. But it's not surprising that a point like that is being propagated by people, because that's how people think, and they have always thought that way, and they always will.
Peter Ellerton: But at least what we can do is take these wonderful opportunities to give counter examples to the norms of good thinking. And it gives us an opportunity to talk about what they are. And it inspires and motivates us to talk about why we ought not to accept certain claims. So, you know, it has its place in the educational landscape, if you like, as sadly but as counterexamples.
Peter Dalmaris: Great. Okay. So, what I understand is that, yes, we've got to start early. As educators, we do have a responsibility to, not just teach mathematics and grammar and spending all that geography, but how to use your brain throughout your life to figure out what's real and what's not real. And that helps, not just you as an individual, but collectively the whole society is going to be better for it.
Peter Dalmaris: So, Peter, I invite you to begin with your presentation and see how we can actually get that done.
Peter Ellerton: Yeah. Okay. Well, I'm not sure I can give you the exact blueprint, but we can talk about some general principles about what's important. And I think the first of them is to appreciate that or take this as axiomatic as an educator, I'm suggesting.
Peter Ellerton: But the most important thing that's happening in the classroom at any given moment is what's going on in a student's mind, not where you are on the lesson plan and not even what information you're covering, but what's going on in the student's mind.
Peter Ellerton: Now, if we take that as axiomatic, then the imperative that comes out of that is how do we engage with those minds so that we can understand what's happening and so that we can begin the process of guiding the development of those norms of thinking. And, you know, there has to be an engagement.
Peter Ellerton: One of the analogies I like to use is learning to think well is, in many ways, quite like learning a language. And one of the things that we know about learning a language is that you can't learn it from a textbook. It's not that the textbook can't be useful in many ways, of course it can be.
Peter Ellerton: But you can't learn to speak just from a textbook. It's not going to happen. You have to speak with people and with the variety of people in a variety of contexts so that you can develop what the norms of that language are. And that when you say something that is not right according to those norms and you look at the confusion on people's faces, that's your feedback to say, "Just a second. This is not working. I need to figure out why this is not working."
Peter Ellerton: And exactly the same is true of how we learn to think with each other. Learning to think well or reason itself, in fact, is better understood, as Dan Sperber would have it as a social competence, rather than an individual faculty. Learning to reason well is a social skill, because we reason with each other. That's the critical aspect.
Peter Ellerton: So, if we don't engage with each other's minds and go through that process of argumentation, and forming, and shaping, and testing of our ideas together, then we're not doing it properly. If you imagine, this has been indicative of a lot of education that thinking is seen as a byproduct of education and it needs to be core business. But what we miss is the schematic understanding, the pedagogical expertise, and the language of teaching for thinking. That's where I spend most of my time in this world of student cognition, primarily.
Peter Ellerton: So, that sort of sets up how it is. But that doesn't mean that we're diminishing content knowledge. There is this idea that, you know, "Look, I've got all this content to get through, so I'll try and do it. If I have any space at the end, we'll do some thinking stuff at the end of it all." And that is just a deep misunderstanding of both thinking and learning, in fact.
Peter Ellerton: So, as teachers, if our goal is to engage with student's minds, we don't just do it for the sake of the warm and fuzzies. We do it because we want to make sure we understand how they're thinking about the topic at hand, and that can be anything at all. It could be the analysis of a piece of music. It can be the evaluation of a claim in history. It can be experimental design and science. It could be anything at all.
Peter Ellerton: But we have to engage with those minds to understand how they're thinking to present them simply with the kinds of inquiry we're used to or the methodologies, and imagine that those methodologies are self-explanatory, is a dangerous assumption. So, we need to explain why we have designed things this way.
Peter Dalmaris: Can I ask you on this topic? So, of course, content is important, like we do need some commonly agreed factual knowledge about the world. Mathematics, for example, one plus one equals two. There's not much discussion about that fact. So, things like axioms, they need to be presented and learned.
Peter Dalmaris: But then, what you're saying, if I understand correctly, is that the brain has to engage a lot more around and on the content, not just as a sponge that is absorbing it, but as a brain that can understand it and discuss it and analyze it.
Peter Dalmaris: Could you give us an example in the classroom, let's say, that today's topic is Australia's founding colonial era, for example, a lesson in history. Typically, we learn it in a factual way. So, Captain Cook came with such and such date, this, and this, and the other. How can that kind of lesson be transformed into something that gets the brain going, gets the students to ask questions, gets our critical thinking faculty's training?
Peter Ellerton: Well, there's at least two really clear things to do in circumstances like that. One, of course, is to interrogate the knowledge claims as they come in, so to speak. So, what we're doing there is using our method of evaluation and - what I'd like to call -critical questions that we can ask about, information that comes in, to test its interpretation, and its sources, and its credibility, its comprehensiveness, what's been missed out, its significance, its relevance, its clarity, its accuracy, its precision, its coherence, all of those things. So, there's a skillset there.
Peter Ellerton: But it's not really an endpoint, but it's something that's quite sophisticated to do. So, that's the kind of stuff that you'd want students to be doing while they were receiving information.
Peter Dalmaris: You would ask how do we know what we know? How do we know what happened when Captain Cook landed? Who wrote about this? When? Was it immediately? It was someone in his crew that was taking notes? Or was it done when you're 30 years later? Does it match [inaudible] reported many years later?
Peter Dalmaris: So, that's just one possible avenue for the teacher to get the students to stop thinking about what they're just learning, not just look at the facts, but I guess the source, the efficacy of the facts, maybe even alternate sources, right?
Peter Dalmaris: Let's talk about indigenous Australians and what do they have to offer from the oral or written histories, perhaps, about the same event and then try to make a composition here our interpretation.
Peter Ellerton: Well, I'll share something with you now on screen, which is one way to appreciate how you can drill students in this. These are what I call the values of inquiry. And they are ways in which we can test the quality of thinking or give feedback on the quality of student's thinking in real time.
Peter Ellerton: So, there are words like clarity, and accuracy, and precision, and relevance, and significance, and depth, and breadth, and coherence, some of the ones I've said before. These are just some of the words, there are many others.
Peter Ellerton: Now, what you'll see here is that I've written some questions next to these words to help us understand. And I do this for my postgraduate in critical reasoning at the university. And, also, the teachers I work with, they'll write their own questions or use some of these for their own context to help students understand what we mean by clarity. So, are your examples useful? Is your argument structure clear? Are your diagrams easy to understand? Is your paragraph structure well-developed?
Peter Ellerton: All of those reflect student thinking that went into those things. And then, you have issues of accuracy, and precision, of relevance. Have you focused on the point at issue? Have you selected information supporting the topic? Have you minimized distracting or unhelpful? Have you justified why your selection of material is relevant? And then, you look at issues of significance. Have you identified significant areas? Substantive aspects?
Peter Ellerton: Depth, of course, is about complexity. Have you been thorough in your treatment? Are your analogies effective as we do some analogies today? Do your arguments consider premises that are themselves conclusions? So, how much are we accepting that actually requires a whole other argument to accept that?
Peter Ellerton: But then, we have issues of breadth, as you said before. Have you considered alternative perspectives? Have you represented a broad range of alternative views? Why have you preferred one view over another? Can you justify why you're taking that position rather than this vision? Have you sought out other people for the purposes of testing these ideas? And so, these are the kinds of questions. They're not the questions, but they're just useful questions to help us to understand why these things matter in education.
Peter Dalmaris: Sorry to interrupt you. But the key is to ask appropriate questions. And these are examples that you provide here that anyone can use as part of pretty much any classroom. But you can also ask your own questions that are perhaps more relevant to what is it that you're teaching.
Peter Ellerton: Yes. I encourage teachers always to rethink these and have conversations with their students to put them in the right context for new level and for whatever other context it might be or subject area. But these values, the things that we value in the act of inquiry - why they're called values - because at the root of this, we see how we can structure criteria to evaluate because they'll use the word evaluate.
Peter Ellerton: So, you need to know what you value so that you can evaluate thinking that these are some of the things that we do value. And we want to allow students to give them opportunities to apply these values. Because like all values, they have to be applied. They just can't be learned.
Peter Ellerton: They can be. You know, you can learn that they are the values and that's fine. And you can even learn why it matters. You can say, "Well, clarity is important because in your paragraph, you seem to have two ideas and I can't tell whether the first one ends and the second one begins. And I don't think you can either." Or, "Clarity matters because you haven't laid your diagram properly, so I can't interpret meaning from it properly."
Peter Ellerton: So, clarity matters. So, we know that they are the values. We know why they matter. But how to apply them to novel and new situations and to your own thinking as much as the thinking of others, that's something that we have to move very strongly into in the classroom, I feel. It give students lots of opportunities for that.
Peter Ellerton: And so, to take your opportunity of Captain Cook landing, there you are, there's all of those kinds of questions. Not these questions necessarily, but these kinds of questions that we can generate to ask about the circumstance. So, that's one way to go back to the original question. One way that a teacher can take any learning experience and change it to be better inquiry.
Peter Ellerton: And that's a very usable kind of thing to do because we know those words already and we use them in the classroom already. I mean, many people have said, "Look, your analysis was quite broad, but it wasn't very deep." Or, "It wasn't, but not an area that was significant."
Peter Dalmaris: Before you go to the next one, I just wanted to drill a little bit more here since we're talking about questions and ask you this question. It's the beginning of critical thinking a question? Should we train students to ask questions eventually, perhaps important questions, but as long as it's a question? Does it put you into the right frame of mind to explore further?
Peter Dalmaris: So, I remember a presentation by Ricardo Semler, a businessman in Brazil. You may have heard of him. I believe he said something about three questions. Once you ask the third question on a particular topic, it seems like the thing that you're examining is not important anymore, but people start to have problems when they ask the third question onwards.
Peter Ellerton: So, questions seem to be able to demolish at least ideas and beliefs that are not well-founded. So, asking questions, at least one or two questions, seem to be helping integrate yourself into the right frame of mind to explore something. So, what do you think about that?
Peter Ellerton: Well, questions are very important. But it pays to be very precise when we're talking about questions, because we question for a whole range of reasons. And if we're just sort of throwing questions out there, then we don't get, necessarily, any good pedagogical direction, or depth, or sustained inquiry. So, it's a very sophisticated skill to know where the questions begin and end.
Peter Ellerton: Let me give you a very simple example of how to categorize questions. There are many other ways and complexities around this, but there are questions that are designed simply for the test recall. So, you say stuff and you question them.
Peter Ellerton: "Did you remember it?" That's pretty basic and forms the basis of a lot of tests. Or, "Do you recall how to do this kind of thing? What's the procedure here?" That's all recall. The math question, you learn to do the problem this way. Here's the problem, can you recall how it's done, that kind of thing.
Peter Ellerton: Then, there are questions of what you might think as interpretation, in so much as - and I'm taking questions now from a teacher's point of view. A teacher asking questions. I'll talk about student questions in a second - teacher questions.
Peter Ellerton: So, you have a teacher who's saying something to the class and you're building some kind of understanding, perhaps a scientific understanding, or other understanding. You're constructing some mental model for the class. What you need to do is to be able to ask questions to find out how that mental model is being built in the minds of your students.
Peter Ellerton: They're not just questions of recall, because now you're testing relational knowledge. So, you've clicked these two things together. Let me ask you a question that tests how well you've clicked them, or in what way you've clicked them together, and what connections you have made. These are questions of ongoing interpretation of students so that we can check how their understanding is growing.
Peter Ellerton: And then, you have questions which are geared towards building cognition and engaging in cognition. This might be of the sort that you were initially thinking of, because this is the area in which these kinds of questions serve to open up lines of inquiry. And lines of inquiry means opportunities to think.
Peter Ellerton: So, opening up lines of inquiry, so you might ask questions such as, say, "Do you think the great apes should have rights?" Now that's a question that's geared towards opening up a line of inquiry. It's a cognitive question. It's not one of developing interpretation, not one of recall. It's of opening up a line of inquiry, looking now for opportunities for students to do analysis, and evaluation, and explanation, and synthesis, and all of these things that we associate with good thinking.
Peter Ellerton: And, finally - not necessarily finally, but another category of questions - are those questions associated with the values of inquiry that we just talked about. Could you be more specific? Can you give me an example? Can you explain why that's relevant? Those are questions of inquiry and ways in which we're testing the quality of that thinking.
Peter Ellerton: So, it's easy to talk very simplistically about questions, but it's a very complex skill to be able to manage that and navigate that landscape. You don't do them in series. You're doing bits of them all the time. But to know why you're asking that question in that context is a very sophisticated skill. So, questioning is incredibly important for real time pedagogical interaction. But it takes some sophisticated approaches to do it.
Peter Dalmaris: It's almost like the Socratic method, which is based on questioning. But the questions are deep questions that don't have a simple answer, like you can't just say yes or no. Those are not yes or no types of questions or questions that actually trigger complicated thinking process.
Peter Ellerton: Yes, indeed. Indeed. So, as we're saying that's kind of one approach to what you do to get the thinking in the classroom. But another one is a kind of perceptual shift or a bit of a paradigm shift yourself to understand what we mean by thinking. And should we describe thinking by the words and the language we used so far, you know, analysis, and explanation, and justification, and evaluation. And then, the values of inquiry to feedback on how well you're doing those things. So, these values act as feedback.
Peter Ellerton: So, all these words are there to talk about thinking the language we use. But how we think about knowledge in thinking is very important, too. And one way to appreciate that is to say that this is a knowledge economy where you had this word for about 15 or 16 years now, this notion of the knowledge economy.
Peter Ellerton: But remember that an economy is not defined by what it consumes or distributes. It's defined by what it produces. So, a knowledge economy produces new knowledge. But we have a word for the production of knowledge, and that's thinking. That's what we mean. Now, the production of knowledge is what we want. And the students are going to produce knowledge, maybe not new to the world, but certainly new to themselves. So, that's how they do it, it's through the process of thinking.
Peter Ellerton: That's different to just basic knowledge acquisition, to say, "The atomic number of this element is X." There you go. That's just acquisition. So, that's just, "Okay. I'll trust you on that one." Not a lot of thinking necessary to accept that. But to construct more complicated understanding and knowledge requires thinking.
Peter Ellerton: So, thinking is about building new knowledge, but it's also a word we use to describe what we do with knowledge. That's thinking too. And sometimes it's things that we do with knowledge is build new knowledge.
Peter Ellerton: So, that's what we want to say to teachers, "This is knowledge you're giving them, but what do you want them to do with that knowledge?" That's where the thinking comes in. Now, sometimes, as I said, it's to create new knowledge or build more complex understanding, and that's fine. I don't mean what problems in the real world are you going to solve? That's one aspect, but there are other ways to consider what doing things with knowledge means.
Peter Ellerton: And so, once we've given students information, the kind of questions we ask and the task we set of them are geared towards doing things with that knowledge. And that's where the thinking happens. And so, that's when we need to have a very precise understanding of what kind of thinking we're talking about.
Peter Dalmaris: So, I want to now just to bring this home for teachers that are listening. So, in the classroom, whether it's an online classroom these days or traditional classroom, bricks and mortars, most teachers have to achieve certain objectives which are typically handed over from an education department.
Peter Dalmaris: So, I guess, can we connect these two together, the knowledge economy, building knowledge from knowledge, and then achieving those objectives, could teachers use those prescribed objectives, like literacy and numeracy, for example, ability to program a computer, from base knowledge that they help students acquire? But then, students achieve these objectives, essentially, on their own without much spoon feeding from teachers.
Peter Ellerton: So, I mean, that is a sort of graduation, isn't it? But this is about, in a sense, this concept of building resilience and being familiar with not knowing which way to go, but being okay with that because you have the tools to get through there.
Peter Ellerton: Now, some people interpret that as meaning, just teach them all the things and then we can do some thinking. But that doesn't have to happen at the end of everything. It can happen at the beginning of everything.
Peter Ellerton: There's a great teacher I know, she's been around for a while now. She used to teach with an overhead transparencies, the boxes in history, and used the Aztecs. Put the first one on and all the students would be writing, and then the next one, and it was the end of it.
Peter Ellerton: But, nowadays, what she's doing as we've spent a lot of time together that, school and I, she will show a painting, an image of Aztec civilization. It's not labeled as Aztec, it's just an image of the civilization with some architecture in the background and some religious proceedings and so on.
Peter Ellerton: And without mentioning any of this, she will say, "Before we move into this, what do you think you could infer about the civilization from what you see there?" Now, that's just a beautiful example of at the beginning, not after we've learned all the content, but at the beginning where we're developing students skills in analysis, inferring with deducing and inducing, with explanation, with justification, and then with evaluation as we analyze everybody else's claims as well. And all of these things are happening all at the same time.
Peter Ellerton: But it's a wonderful example. People say, "Oh, I think, it's a paternalistic society." "Why do you say that?" "Because this, this, this, would suggest that." "Why do you think it suggests that rather than this? Because over here we see something else which says -" and the students are just brilliant at this sort of thing, but we don't give them enough opportunity to do it.
Peter Ellerton: So, we don't have to imagine that we have to just teach them all the stuff and then give them some opportunities to think or that thinking will magically emerge as some property, necessarily, from the complexity of their discipline knowledge. We can start that right at the beginning.
Peter Ellerton: And that's an incredibly inclusive thing to do, by the way, because anybody can come in and infer and speculate, even if you haven't learned or don't know the content knowledge. So, people can come in and enjoy this process for 15 minutes.
Peter Ellerton: And then, the teacher I spoke about would start the lesson, "Let's take what Jill's observation about the climate. Yes, it is a dry area, and it's in fact here." And that's how she was going to start it anyway, but at least, now, she's got all the students in and it comes from their inquiry.
Peter Ellerton: So, these are very simple sort of things to do, but it just requires us to spend a few minutes doing something else to get their thinking right, so that they can now engage with the content and do some more things. And even as we go along, as we learn things, we can go back to that first lesson. "So, you remember when you said that about that religious system? That's exactly right, and this is what they did." [Inaudible].
Peter Dalmaris: So, the teacher in this example starts with a trigger, and the trigger is the image, because she happens to be teaching history or anthropology or something like that. So, it starts with an image. Hence, the kickstarting question, What do you think you're seeing here? Perhaps she has some experience, but not really knowing what the students are going to respond to her first question.
Peter Dalmaris: There's a bit of pull and push there, but the whole process is based on questions that come from the teacher. The teacher being experienced in this, asks the right questions, because not just any question will do, it's going to be the right question. Students are now engaged because they're curious. You're taking advantage of the natural curiosity.
Peter Dalmaris: A student is curious. They will try to interpret what they're looking at. They will offer the suggestions. The teacher will ask why that will challenge the critical thinking of the student. The student will try to figure out, "Why did I say that?" Perhaps they're correct. Perhaps explain. And 15 minutes later, the class has got a framework that the teacher can use to continue with the lesson and achieve those learning objectives, whatever they might be.
Peter Ellerton: Yeah. Whatever that might be. But students are thinking about the material as it comes in. Now, they're clicking it together and they're building a coherent picture.
Peter Dalmaris: And they're engaged.
Peter Ellerton: And that image at the beginning helps them to build a schematic understanding rather than just a series of facts about that colonization.
Peter Dalmaris: So, you can think how that would work in pretty much anything. Like, you start your class with a mathematical equation and ask kids to talk about it. Or with the image of Saturn, let's talk about that. Or the image of the coronavirus, what do you think that those spikes are? And just drill into the picture.
Peter Ellerton: Well, I used to begin my lessons in Newton's three laws of motion as a physics teacher of the past. We'd talk about what the laws are broadly. We show usually Road Runner and Coyote cartoons because you don't see the laws flattered in there. But then, I would say the students, "Tell me, why do you think there's three laws, and not 17, or one, or 3,004? Why would there be three?"
Peter Ellerton: Now, that really makes them pause and think about what we mean by a law of nature. And, you know, it unpacks this notion of laws as perceived regularities. But it's not as if these are three distinct things in the universe. They're all happening at the same time. But why are we perceiving them as three distinct things? And it's because of the kind of regularities that we see through our own interpretation. Just as real but there's just our phrasing of them is the issue.
Peter Ellerton: So, understanding what's meant by law, now that could take 15 minutes in a classroom. But then, we go and talk about them. And then, when I mention the law of something else later on in physics, we go back and we think about what that might be. It doesn't mean to say you do it for necessarily every single lesson, but there's such opportunities.
Peter Ellerton: You know, when you tell the students - I said this once to a year eight class - "Do you know the universe is 14.7 billion years old?" And one kid said, "What? Today is its birthday?" That was a good one. But the most interesting question after that is surely, "How could we possibly know that?" And then, spend some time thinking about that.
Peter Ellerton: Now, when I was teaching as head of science in one school, I used to give myself the year eights as the first year of school as it was then. And for the first term, we would do something and I'd tell them this, "We're going to do something that neither you nor I know anything about," and that's going to be our investigation. Because that allows me to break down this notion of me as the Noah - just transmitting Noah - but to say, let's inquire. And I can model that inquiry.
Peter Ellerton: Varying levels of success because I was quite a young teacher, a lot to learn. But it was at least getting across that idea. And it did me the service of stripping away from me this idea, which I had of, you know, I had to be seen as infallible to some degree in the classroom,
Peter Dalmaris: That's a really good point. I was talking to another speaker, Jorge DeSousa Pires, and from his experience, he has realized that if you want to teach a student anything, you need to actually go down to the level of the student and then pull them up. Do not expect the opposite. You're going to get a lot more success by you going down to where the student is at that point in time.
Peter Ellerton: Yeah. We say that. I'm not sure I like the going down metaphor because I don't think we're necessarily going to get to that level, because some of them have incredibly sophisticated ideas. Because I think we've all been there as teachers.
Peter Ellerton: A student can say something and we can go, "No, that's not correct." But what we really want to say is, "Can you explain why you think that's the issue? Because I want to hear how you got to that point." And then, they say it and you go, "Oh, that's really clever. I had never thought that was the case."
Peter Ellerton: I mean, let me give you an example of being surprised by a student, and we can all say these things. Nothing special here. This is something called the Philosofun on philosophy competition - would you believe? - at the University of Queensland. And we had about a dozen students from different schools, and they were all involved in interrogating a statement. And the claim was, the rights are for rich people.
Peter Ellerton: And so, they unpacked it. We just said that's the idea. We gave them a couple of weeks beforehand to sort of digest that and read some stimulus material. And then, when they came together, we thought, "Can you now unpack that idea?" And for 45 minutes, they do it themselves. We don't get involved. And they're just spectacular. They're incredibly good thinkers.
Peter Ellerton: But there was this one girl and this was in senior school. She didn't say anything for 44 minutes. And you might think there wasn't much going on there cognitively. But at the last minute, she was obviously listening and processing everything everyone had said and then, she said, "Do you think that rights are like money that the more you have, the more you want?" And I thought, "Oh, that's just a really insightful comment."
Peter Ellerton: I understand the notion that we want to go to where the students are thinking and building up some complex structure where we know the result. And this is what is very common in science. We know what this understanding is to look like so we're building it up for you. But in so many cognitive aspects of the classrooms, the students are just as smart as us, and a lot of them are a lot smarter. And I mean, even in primary school and young primary school, they're just whip smart and they have these these cognitive abilities, which are just swamped by the way in which we teach, disturbingly.
Peter Ellerton: I think most of our education system is designed to cut students off from the means of production of knowledge by not focusing on inquiry and thinking. And I think that's just a damning comment about our education system, but I think it's true. The way we build curriculum documents is not geared towards student cognition.
Peter Ellerton: And, in fact, I would go as far as to say that teaching people to think well is not a curriculum project. There is no piece of paper you can write that will get everybody thinking. Well, it is a pedagogical project, first and foremost. And it is the teacher's real time coaching, and nurturing, and guiding through inquiry processes, using all the things that we've talked about, that develop that skill just like a language. Working with them to develop those skills.
Peter Ellerton: There is no curriculum document that will produce a good thinker, but there are teachers who can produce good thinkers with any curriculum document. And I think that's a really powerful lesson.
Peter Dalmaris: So, this is a STEM Summit. We are focusing on STEM, meaning a cross curricular type of education with strong, practical, and project-based learning aspects in it. But I think what you are talking about in critical thinking is not really confined in anything. It's supposed to be everywhere, throughout education and throughout adult life.
Peter Dalmaris: So, I guess my question here is, from a practical point of view, as a teacher listening to this presentation, what advice would you have in order to help them include critical thinking training in the classes? Would you recommend, for example, formal critical thinking training for them? Or is it a matter of asking the right questions, which comes after a bit of experience and a bit of doing it on the job? So, my question is, how do we get started?
Peter Ellerton: Well, you can get started in any kinds of ways. We've talked about some of them. The values are very useful. There are a number of schools we work with that have those values on their walls in their classroom. Now, not the posters, but the words.
Peter Ellerton: And that a teacher might say in discussion with the students, "Okay. As a matter of clarity and a point to clarity, can you tell me what you meant by that word?" Or, "As a matter of precision, can you tell me how many? "As a matter of significance, can you explain why that's important?"
Peter Ellerton: And every teacher in every subject can have those words and do exactly the same thing. So, it's a really easy way to get students used to how these values work. So, that's a really easy input. And the teachers can use that in their own classrooms very, very well.
Peter Ellerton: Students also need to be very comfortable, as do teachers, with the notion of reason giving and reason taking. So, this is what's important, not just to transfer information. "This is the case, this is the case, this is the case." And then, say, "Okay. So, I've said these two things of the case. What was the third thing I said? And here's the problem and how we solve it." That's all necessary stuff. It's all okay. But we have to do more in developing that thinking.
Peter Ellerton: And what we know is the more we focus on how students think with that knowledge, the better their understanding of the knowledge is. That's why thinking matters.
Peter Ellerton: Dewey said it beautifully - John Dewey - "Thinking is the method of intelligent learning." And that's how we've got to see this. To get the learning done properly, we need to focus on student thinking. The thinking itself needs to be an object of study as much as the content does and the quality of that thinking.
Peter Ellerton: So, I have to ask you a question of how to get started. I have three questions that I ask people to think about when they begin this project. The first question is this, How do you know students are thinking in your classroom? What are the indicators?
Peter Dalmaris: Lights are lighting up, perhaps.
Peter Ellerton: The light bulbs, all those sorts of things, yes. So, how do you know they're thinking? How do you know? What are they doing? And if you get a group of teachers, that can take an hour to talk about what's happening because you can also start to match those indicators of thinking with certain kinds of thinking.
Peter Ellerton: So, when are they analyzing? When are they evaluating and justifying? When do you think they're interpreting? What are the cues and keys for all of those things? So, it's quite interesting. But just broadly speaking, How do you know students are thinking in the classroom?
Peter Ellerton: The second question I have is, How do you plan for that thinking to occur? We all have no problems with planning for content or even activities, which we know are good ones. But can you audit those activities for the cognition that you intend to occur? How do you plan for thinking to happen as much as you plan for? Is it just throw them the content? And because thinking of things we do with knowledge that will just magically happen?
Peter Ellerton: But we can do better than that. We can say no. This is a lesson in which I'm really focusing on my students making the connection between justification and analysis to appreciate that the strength of a justification is often a function of the quality of the analysis of something, you know, that kind of thing. I could explain that.
Peter Dalmaris: That triggers for thinking that you talked about.
Peter Ellerton: We're planning for that to happen. And the third question is, Once you get the thinking happening, how do you give feedback on the quality of that thinking? Because it's not enough to do something to get better at it. You have to be getting feedback of some sort. So, how do you feedback on the quality of student thinking? And this is the purpose of those values of inquiry that I was talking about, and I can provide links to all of that document and others that do that.
Peter Ellerton: So, those three questions, that's a great thing for teachers professionally to talk to each other about and try and come up with answers for them. Because we have to start from everybody's position, where they are now in their professional development and their own expertise. And to say, "Okay. So, what does that look like for you and you?"
Peter Ellerton: And we have to share those discussions because the kinds of collaborative inquiry we want for our students, they have to be those that mirror the collaborative inquiry we do as teachers into our own practice.
Peter Ellerton: As a colleague of mine rather beautifully says, "You can't have a thinking classroom if you don't have a thinking staff room." So, it requires that. So, they're just some of the things that I would say are important in beginning. There are many other ways we can talk about, but these are some of the things that are important here.
Peter Dalmaris: The beginning is so important. What I take from your answer and the three questions that you ask is that, teachers are already able to work in this way within the context of the everyday classroom responsibilities. Asking questions really is the job of the teacher. It's not to transmit knowledge, like in the 17th, 18th century where the concept of the lecturer came across transmitting knowledge because there was no internet, there were no books, et cetera. So, questioning is how you help your students to construct knowledge, not by putting their knowledge in their brains.
Peter Ellerton: And that's just teacher questioning. There's a whole number of things we could talk about in terms of student generated questions as well and how we manage that process, both encourage them and encouraging them to consider the quality of their own questioning. So, that's a whole another thing.
Peter Ellerton: There is lots to this business of teaching for thinking, which all is all entwined in the context that we're delivering. In other words, in what content we're doing it, whether you're a year four teacher or a middle school history teacher or a year 12 physics teacher, there are principles that can apply across all of these areas.
Peter Ellerton: You know, in our teaching networks up here, we will have year four teachers of science, say, doing a presentation to your 12 teachers of science. And you might think, "Why shouldn't that be the other way around?" Absolutely not, because these guys have got some incredible insight into how people can think as you do the material. They audit the cognition that's going on with them.
Peter Ellerton: And that's because the conversations are around the pedagogy of teaching for thinking, not the curriculum matter. And they show people opportunities for thinking and for where it's happening. I've had prep students using the hypothetical deductive method themselves without prompting. But you have to be able to spot that and plan for that.
Peter Dalmaris: Experience is necessary here. It's a skill that you have to build.
Peter Ellerton: It's a skill to learn. It's recognizable, but it does take a bit of time to learn that skills.
Peter Dalmaris: So, Peter, that's great what you have provided us in this presentation. Clarification of what is critical thinking and thinking skills that are important for our children to start training early in their lives. Because, as we said in the very beginning of the presentation, it gets harder to get out of your thinking mold once you're older. And that causes so many problems, personal and society level problems.
Peter Dalmaris: So, it's important to get this right in the beginning. And you also helped us with some guidelines of how to begin such process and such kind of work in the classroom.
Peter Dalmaris: So, I'd like to ask you for any closing thoughts or advice for teachers that are listening to this before we finish with your presentation.
Peter Ellerton: Well, I suppose the thing I'd like to say more than anything else is that, I would wish for teachers that they are able to have a better way to articulate their own expertise in inquiry, and teaching inquiry, and teaching for thinking which I see as synonymous with teaching inquiry.
Peter Ellerton: Because if we can't say what the nature of our expertise is, if we can't explain why we do what we do in the classroom in terms of student cognition, then it's very hard for people outside the profession to look in and see that expertise. We need to be able to articulate it very well ourselves first. And I think we need to spend a lot of time.
Peter Ellerton: So, I encourage teachers to really not seek expertise development as a function of what resources they can get or what ideas they can get to use in the classroom. That's all important. I encourage them to seek expertise through their own integration of what they use in the classroom and to understand why they're doing it in terms of student cognition.
Peter Ellerton: Because if you don't have a kind of theoretic understanding of why you're doing what you're doing in the classroom in terms of student cognition - I just keep saying that phrase - if you don't have that, you don't have a theory, you can't hypothesize.
Peter Ellerton: And what you want to be able to do in the classroom is hypothesize about what you want to do and what effect do you think that will have. And then, test that effect in the classroom and then see what happens. You either falsify that or confirm it, and then your knowledge grows that way, your expertise grows that way.
Peter Ellerton: So, treat your classroom, in a sense, an experimental laboratory, pedagogical laboratory. But to do so, you have to have a theoretic understanding. You can't just do trial and error if you want, "That worked. That didn't work." But if you've got no understanding of why, that's not expertise development, that's just trial and error.
Peter Ellerton: And so, I encourage teachers to really build a theory of why they're doing what they're doing based on student cognition. What is happening here? How am I feeding back? This is the work that we do in all our teacher networks that are centered around teacher expertise, because we think that's the most critical aspect of a school.
Peter Ellerton: So, I encourage teachers to develop their own expertise via their own understanding of why they're doing what they do, not just it seems to engage students, which is, I think, a bit of a shallow metric.
Peter Dalmaris: Peter, just to clarify here - I'm using one of your words. I should post that here in my room - that why question is a high level question that encompasses all of a certain teachers classes. It's not a content related question.
Peter Ellerton: Like, my why for this particular class is I want my students to understand the main topics of the Inca civilization, for example. But it's a high level why you want to train your students to use the brain to ask the right questions and reach certain, I guess, falsifiable and confirmable conclusions. Is that what you mean by why?
Peter Ellerton: The why, generally, is, as I say, something that's associated with student cognition. What do you want to happen cognitively when you do this? Why am I doing it? What cognitive effect am I looking for in my students? That's the kind of question in the pedagogy of teaching for thinking.
Peter Ellerton: There are different questions for different contexts in the pedagogy of teaching for thinking, which I think is all encompassing and also at the core of what we have to do. So, it really is the most important aspect of it in some ways because it makes the learning most effective. So, it's in that context. In that sense, it's a high level kind of question.
Peter Dalmaris: Great. Well, thank you very much, Peter. It was awesome.
Peter Ellerton: Thank you. Thank you. It's great to do it.
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1. Silke Bethke, John Nyagah And Catherine Squire Blatti: Supporting Families Of Young Children Through STEM Education
2. Dr Peter Ellerton: Critical Thinking In STEM
3. Celinda Corsini: Am I Teaching Robots Or Humans?
4. Prof John Fischetti: Co-Constructing The Learning Journey With Our Children
5. Dr Ken Dovey: Leadership In Education, A Collective Achievement
6. Seven Vinton: Strategies For Extending Student Logical Reasoning
7. Alain Pannetrat – Building A Wired IoT Platform For Makers
8. Karsten Schulz – Making A Computer Processor With The B4 Kit
9. John Teel – 15 Steps To Develop Your New Electronic Hardware Product
10. Jordan Christman – Getting Started With FPGAs
11. Nicola O’Brien: Remote learning now and in the future