22 SES 13 D, Critical Thinking in Higher Education
There is currently considerable interest in developing a range of graduate attributes as a core outcome of university education (Jones 2009). The need to develop critical thinking among students is embedded in these discourses and in this context there has been considerable discussion about the precise meaning of the term and the characteristics and competencies it describes (Barrie 2006, Jones 2007). Scott (2000) points to problems for academics in conceptualizing the notion of CT and defining what it encapsulates. The fact that as a construct it carries a number of different meanings and a range of synonymous terms which cluster around it serve often to encode a particular mode of enquiry which academics struggle to explicate and students sometimes fail to decode. The recent emphasis on explicitness with regard to learning outcomes has resulted in a number of descriptions of the characteristics of student competencies or student work which demonstrate CT but these do not capture the complexity of the issues at the core of CT.
As a graduate attribute it has a high level of traction among academics with respect to its desirability as an outcome of student learning and is variously claimed to be a defining characteristic of university education (Phillips & Bond 2004) and one of the most highly esteemed goals in all sectors of education (Candy 1991:328). In some cases it is understood as a defining concept of a western university education (Phillips & Bond, 2004 p. 277), the one intellectual superskill and a core aim of higher education (Barnett, 1994). In addition to this, in terms of the economic imperatives currently framing higher education, CT is also high on employability agenda as (James, Hughes, & Cappa, 2010). Notwithstanding these positive views delimiting the concept in the discourse there are a number of aspects of the contested field associated with graduate attributes that also apply to CT. These include issues relating to clarity around defining CT, the lack of operational definitions within different disciplines (James, Hughes, & Cappa, 2010), the acquisition of CT in generic or specific contexts, single measure assessment models and the prevalence of traditional forms of assessment and how inappropriate these are to the assessment of transformational learning outcomes, the explicitness of CT in curriculum and in staff expectations are all identified in the literature as issues to requiring much more clarity and consideration. There are also several disconnects between the rhetoric surrounding CT desirability as an outcome and the reality of student experience – i.e. the extent to which learning is experienced by students in a way that contributes to the development of CT (Phillips & Bond, 2004)
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