ERG SES H 01, Psychology and Education
The development of critical thinking among students is one, if not, the core purpose of universities and can be considered to encapsulate the ‘higher’ in higher education (Danvers, 2016). Whilst a ubiquitous and widely applied term and concept, critical thinking’s definition and conceptualisation is often contested and inadequately articulated among staff and students in higher education (HE), as well as in the academic literature (Johnston et al., 2011). Taking the expert consensus statement from the American Psychological Association as a starting point, critical thinking can be defined as: “purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based” (Facione, 1990: 2). However, HE scholars argue that such psychological, and philosophical, definitions, focused on critical thinking as specific skills, do not reflect the breadth of critical thinking scholarship and its application within HE (Davies and Barnett, 2015). Barnett’s seminal 1997 text extended the notion of critical thinking to a more holistic concept embodying a social element which encourages individuals to act upon their critical deliberations enabling wider, collective change within a fluid, competitive and increasingly complex 21st Century society. ‘Criticality’, Barnett (1997) argues, is a broader concept than critical thinking, incorporating thinking, reflecting and acting critically. Davies and Barnett (2015: 14) state that criticality “is a term deliberately distinct from the traditional expression ‘critical thinking’, which was felt to be inadequate to convey the educational potential that lies to hand”. This view expands critical thinking from a focus on the individual and their skills and dispositions to think critically, to a state of being which considers individuals’ place in the world and their social relations, and their actions upon the world across various contexts (Davies, 2015). Similarly, Johnston et al. argue for a broad conception of criticality development in HE which encompasses the “social, moral and intellectual critical development within the modern world and education” (2011: 8). These authors assert that the development of criticality among students in higher education is largely under-researched and assumed, viewing Barnett’s (1997) concept of criticality as an “invaluable heuristic tool to distinguish the kind of criticality students develop” (Johnston et al., 2011: 68).
Criticality, as an attribute, skill and disposition in graduates, is particularly important now in a time of increasing complexity, uncertainty and societal change in order to effectively prepare individuals to critically engage with their world (Barnett, 1997; 2000; Dunne, 2015; World Economic Forum, 2016). A higher education for the common good predicated upon students’ development of criticality, which prepares individuals to effectually navigate and critically engage with the complex contemporary challenges society faces, is inarguably required. Moreover, with contemporary HE, specifically in the UK, now a mainstream enterprise with a focus on internationalisation, many students face a situated struggle relating to critical thinking related difficulties, often compounded among international students adapting to new academic environments (Johnston et al., 2011; Shaheen, 2016; Rear, 2017).
This research aims to provide insights into the potential realisation of such conflicting priorities for universities between education and commercialisation in focussing on a core aim of HE to foster criticality development among students whilst they compete within a crowded, international higher education marketplace driven by rankings, measures of employability and satisfaction – and the recruitment of fee-paying international students. Facilitating students’ development of criticality would, it is hypothesised, prepare students to apply criticality in effectively navigating and constructively engaging in the multiple contexts in which they will be required to in our contemporary world of complexity, risk and uncertainty.
TThe research follows a critical, interpretivist paradigm utilising a mixed methods approach to primary data collection in attempting to perceive the development of criticality amongst students during the course of their masters study. Following ethical approval, surveys and interviews were conducted with masters students at three Scottish universities as part of a doctoral research project. The survey was completed by 293 students from 14 different masters programmes across the three universities sampled, covering education, social sciences and healthcare. The paper survey, administered between September and November 2018, was iteratively developed and designed to be read via optical character recognition scanner using Remark software. The concept of ‘graduateness’ became a starting point for both the questionnaires and interviews, prompting students to recall their first degree and their development of graduate-level attributes, namely critical thinking. The survey asked students to offer their own conceptualisation of critical thinking prompting them to rate their own current development of critical thinking before moving to completion of two validated instruments utilising Likert scales. Sosu’s (2013) ‘Critical Thinking Disposition Scale’ which incorporates the two factors of reflective scepticism and critical openness to assess an individual’s critical thinking disposition was employed in the survey. In addition, the ‘Critical Thinking Toolkit’ developed by Stupple et al. (2017) was also utilised in the survey, its three factors aim to measure students’ confidence in critical thinking, the degree to which they value critical thinking and what misconceptions they may have. Given students’ likely familiarity with the term critical thinking, due to it being an established, though contested concept, - and which the utilised validated instruments have been developed to evaluate – the survey’s language focussed on critical thinking and not criticality, which may be unfamiliar to those expect students studying education. Rather, two self-rating Likert-scale questions addressing the actual (or perceived) importance of applying any critical thinking developed in HE in their professional, work life and personal, daily life, allowed for initial insights into students’ possible criticality development, and its application. Furthermore, in-depth, semi-structured interviews with students opting-in from the survey (and staff from sampled programmes), allowed for an expansion of the focus from critical thinking to criticality in the discussion exploring students’ conceptualisation, development and application of criticality. Thus, critical thinking, and this focus within the survey, provided an initial heuristic thinking model moving from this to discussing and evaluating students’ conception, development and application of criticality more broadly.
Initial findings suggest misconceptions exist in relation to students’ conception and comprehension of critical thinking and their likelihood to develop as the critical beings that may purposefully engage in the multiple domains of their experience - academically, socially and professionally. Whilst ubiquitously regarded as fundamental to university learning and graduate attributes in European and Western higher education, findings suggest lower confidence and perceived ability among international students than potentially expected by universities and policymakers (QAA, 2015) - specifically non-native English speakers and those from Asian contexts. However, interviews show this may not be due to inability, but rather lack of coherent understanding of the notion of critical thinking, lower confidence in English language ability and a lack of familiarity with Western academic literacies. Academic literacies (Lillis, 2007), or lack thereof, and some international students’ relative cultural distance academically from UK Higher Education context and practices, appear to play a large part in hindering student’s development and application of criticality within masters study. Issues relative to English language development can impede student’s reading, comprehension and knowledge construction, cumulatively impacting upon their confidence to express and dialogue with peers in seminars. Additional factors range from lack of subject knowledge in their chosen masters course due to a divergence with undergraduate subject or discipline, as well as an interruption of learning styles related to cultural differences in learning – from active engagement in class, lack of familiarity with assessment practices and expectations to a reticence to challenge authority. Such findings have implications for institutions and their graduates in an era of risk and uncertainty where criticality presents a means through which higher education can constructively contribute to society through the “formation of critical persons who are not subject to the world, but able to act autonomously and purposively within it” (Barnett, 1997: 4).
Barnett, R. (1997) Higher Education: A Critical Business, Buckingham; The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Barnett, R. (2000a) Supercomplexity and the Curriculum, Studies in Higher Education, 25:3, pp.255-265 [online]. Available: Taylor & Francis [Accessed: 29/05/2015]. Barnett, R. (2000b) University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity, Higher Education, 40, pp. 409-422 [online]. Available online at: www.link.springer.com [Accessed: 29/5/2015]. Davies, M. and Barnett, R. (2015) Introduction, in Davies, M. and Barnett, R. (2015) The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education, Hampshire; Palgrave Macmillian. Davies, M. (2015) A Model of Critical Thinking in Higher Education, in Paulsen, M.B. (ed.) Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research 30, Switzerland; Springer Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction (Research Report). Millbrae, CA: The California Academic Press. Available: http://assessment.aas.duke.edu/documents/Delphi_Report.pdf Johnston, B., Mitchell, R., Myles, F. and Ford, P. (2011) Developing Student Criticality in Higher Education, Continuum Studies in Educational Research, London; Continuum Books. Sosu, E. (2013) ‘The development and psychometric validation of a Critical Thinking Disposition Scale’, Thinking Skills and Creativity, Vol.9, pp. 107-119 [online]. Available: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2012.09.002 [Accessed: 6/08/17] Stupple, E.J.N., Maratos, F.A., Elander, J., Hunt, T.E., Cheung, K.Y.F. & Aubeeluck, A.V. (2017) ‘Development of the Critical Thinking Toolkit (CriTT): A measure of student attitudes and beliefs about critical thinking’, Thinking Skills and Creativity, Vol. 23, pp.91-100. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2016.11.007 [Accessed: 20/08/17] Quality Assurance Agency [QAA] (2015) Characteristics Statement: Masters degree. UK Quality Code for Higher Education Part A: Setting and maintaining academic standards. September 2015 [online]. Available: https://www.qaa.ac.uk/docs/qaa/quality-code/master's-degree-characteristics-statement.pdf?sfvrsn=6ca2f981_10 [Accessed: 16/6/2017]. World Economic Forum (2016) The Future of Jobs: Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Global Challenge Insight Report, January 2016 [online]. Available: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf [Accessed: 4/03/2016].
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