Sunday, September 26, 2010

Critical Thinking requires foundation

In this article on the Dangerously Irrelevant blog, Richard Kassissieh writes of an interesting, high stakes test in Britain

A student gazes at a mystery solution. Its contents are unknown. The student reaches into her toolkit, a set of known solutions, and one by one, combines them with a small portion of the mystery solution. One test changes the color to bright yellow. Another produces a milky, solid substance. Gradually, the student pieces together the clues that allow her to identify the unknown solution.

This qualitative analysis laboratory required the student to recall properties of different solutions, understand reaction processes, and synthesize the results of different experimental tests while under pressure. To practice, the student had worked together with classmates to identify a series of mystery solutions and shared their findings with their classmates.
Too often US "reformers" believe that critical thinking like this can be taught, that repetition and practice is "Drill and Kill" and that foundation work can be ignored until the student "needs it", at which point the Omniscient Google can be used -- no need to memorize anything.

Critical thinking requires the foundation in order to be effective. That student needed to know how chemicals react, the contents of her "toolkit" and have a basic understanding of the processes.

Prior knowledge leads to further learning. Memorized knowledge is a prerequisite for critical thinking.


  1. Dear Curmudgeon,

    The IGCSE examination mostly tests foundational knowledge and basic skills. It also tests problem-solving and synthesis skills. It's not a good example for your argument that foundation work is often ignored by education reformers.


  2. It's a good example of how foundation knowledge is necessary for critical thinking which IS problem- solving and synthesis.

    I have written often of my distaste for reformers who claim it's possible to teach critical thinking without a foundation of facts and process, that memorization is inherently bad, that students should always be allowed to Google it instead of remembering it.

    I think tests similar to what I saw (admittedly only that small sample) are worthwhile as, I gather, do you.

    The clip is not proof of my assertion that reformers are wrong, but it is an example of what tests could be, but aren't, in US national testing at this time.

  3. We don't do authentic assessment because it's "too expensive." Of course we (as a nation) never seem to worry about the cost of ignorance.