Critical thinking in adult learners

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Abstract The need to identify the role of critical Thinking within teaching and learning is important in order to develop and improve the quality of education at all levels and for all learners. The literature has been divided over the different definitions of what is meant by critical Thinking let alone approaches to develop it within education programmes. The focus of this article is to suggest that there may need to be further consideration of critical Thinking in terms of adult learners and the learning environments, in which they are involved. It suggests that mature learners may have developed critical Thinking skills through experience in addition to the learning opportunities and that these additional experiential skills have yet to be properly accepted or indeed explored. Key words Critical Thinking: Further Education: Life chances: GTS
ARECLS, 2013, Vol.10, 147-176.
The need to identify the role of critical Thinking within teaching and learning is
important in order to develop and improve the quality of education at all levels and
for all learners. The literature has been divided over the different definitions of what
is meant by critical Thinking let alone approaches to develop it within education
programmes. The focus of this article is to suggest that there may need to be further
consideration of critical Thinking in terms of adult learners and the learning
environments, in which they are involved. It suggests that mature learners may have
developed critical Thinking skills through experience in addition to the learning
opportunities and that these additional experiential skills have yet to be properly
accepted or indeed explored.
Key words Critical Thinking: Further Education: Life chances: GTS
The drive for enhancing the quality of education for all has included improving
buildings, facilities but most of all developing how and what we teach. A key
component of developing teaching and learning has been the realisation that ensuring
learners know how to think is pivotal to success not just in terms of education but in
the wider context of society Dewey (1933). I intend to focus on the broad issues,
which relate Thinking skills, but to look at the way in which Further education has
addressed the delivery of Thinking skills.
In order to address the issues raised in improving and developing qualities of Further
Education it is important to consider what is understood as Thinking skills. In seeking
a definition, it is necessary to look at different perspectives, philosophical and
psychological approaches to developing which allow the learner to accept new ideas.
Having considered the meaning of Thinking skills, it is then necessary to look at
different pedagogic approaches used to provide them for adult learners, including
those who come from different educational experiences, considering different
strategies, which will allow the learner to meet the growing challenges of education in
the 21st Century.
So what are Thinking skills or should I say what is critical Thinking?
It is evident that for most of us Thinking is something we do, they key is to identify
what type of Thinking is required in which given situation, Glevey (2006). In
academic terms what is required might be, according to Smith (2002), effective
Thinking, linked to some form of measurable outcome such as a good essay, well
written work, presentation or the ability to conduct reasoned argument Kuhn (1991)
Bailin (1997). We measure this in a critical fashion primarily. It is this debate on
definition and measurement, which has been continuing for some time, and I shall
seek to reflect on the key terms and the issues, which arise from it.
There are contrasting ways of identifying the ability to think in a critical way. Lewis
and Smith (2003) explored two: firstly the philosophical approach- looking at
developing critical Thinking, as evidenced by McPeck (1990), Ennis (1990) amongst
others, which seeks to identify an end product, focusing on the analysis of argument,
driven by theory, Paul (1995) suggested that it was Thinking about your Thinking
while you’re Thinking to make your Thinking better” (p. 91). Secondly the
Psychological approach the Thinking skills process which has a greater preference
to process as Siegel (1995) suggests that it is “… an active process involving a
number of denotable mental operations such as induction, deduction, reasoning,
sequencing, classification and definition of relationships” (p.18).
These conflicts reflect that there are challenges not just to definition but also to what
is expected from the tutor and the learner when seeking to balance their teaching and
learning processes. What does however appear to be clear is that there is a need to
develop these skills or attributes in order to be able to compete not just in terms of
formal education environments but also in vocationally driven programmes. Paul
“…critical Thinking is the essential foundation for education because it is the
essential foundation for adaptation to the everyday personal, social and
professional demands of the 21st century and thereafter.”
Thinking Skills the Debates
There are many reasons as to why it has been difficult to define specifically, what is
meant by Thinking Skills.
It is important to break this term down in order to see where there challenges exist, a
skill according to Moseley et al (2005) brings up a picture of physical expertise
p10, whereas Thinking suggests a combination of “ consideration, reflection and
judgement.’ The combination of these words has led to significant dispute about how
to further refine the definition deciding whether it is right to generalise or to indicate
the Thinking skills are individual to person or subject.
There remains a considered view that as they are skills based they can be taught and
probably can improve if the approach is relevant and appropriate for the needs of the
learner in the given context Garratt et al (2000). The value of this to the learner is
instrumental in affording the opportunity to be able to improve their attainment and
thereby improve life chances Bailin (1997).
Dewey (1933) indicated that Thinking occurred where the learner moves away from
a point of reflection to inquiry, at this stage they will then apply a critical thought
process to the inquiry ultimately reaching a conclusion that can be supported and
justified by more than individual beliefs. Dewey’s idea being that all the Thinking
flows from one source but that there is no predefined route that the learner takes in
using that information / knowledge each step is based on evidence and understanding.
The purpose is to ensure that the learner also challenges his or her own understanding
and approaches at each step, thereby developing a metacognitive approach to
King, Goodson, Rohani, (2011) suggested that Thinking skills are made up of a range
of different concepts and include critical Thinking, creativity, insight, comprehension,
problem solving and intelligence. They suggest that these are the most significant,
elements, which help to identify and develop higher order Thinking skills (HOTS).
This term is often used when identifying what, is understood to mean Thinking skills.
It can be accepted, therefore, that there are different levels of Thinking, Smith (2002)
and McPeck (1990), King et al (2011). However, it is important to develop higher
order Thinking skills (HOTS) and this has been identified as critical Thinking or
effective Thinking, Garratt et al (2000) as this will allow the learner to carry out
enquiry at any level for any purpose.
Kuhn (1991) Bailin (1997) take a view, which seems to have broad acceptance that in
terms of teaching and learning, critical Thinking relates to the ability to conduct
reasoned argument.
However, Glevey (2006) felt that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding
about what Thinking skills means and this is where Thinking is so readily
substituted for ‘reasoning” p 295. The result is that there is a failure to recognize that
Thinking in general terms is much wider and can encompass a range of different
elements such as “…contemplating and imaginativeness” p 293 and there is also the
non-verbal method of demonstrating Thinking through image. Therefore, Thinking
cannot be easily pigeon holed into one thing and therefore the way to promote it
cannot be narrowed down without reduction in their impact.
Attempts at reviewing how Thinking skills have been taught in schools have also led
to unsatisfactory definitions. The Thinking skills review group Moseley et al.
(2005),carried out its review of 29 different teaching approaches to Thinking skills
stated that the current position was that no one single definition encompassed all
aspects of critical Thinking and further ‘the term is ambiguous and there is
disagreement about how it relates more broadly to aspects of pedagogy.’
An additional issue is that most assessment forms fail to take notice of these non-
subject /knowledge based skills, how you can assess something which is not defined,
recognized as individually valid, but summatively crucial?
What is clear that there is very little consensus as to what Thinking skills are, yet we
know that learners need to have them and teachers should have strategies which will
allow learners to identify, develop and use the skills. However it is clear that the skills
can be identified as metacognitive, with learners using experience, previous learning
and moving beyond acceptance of what is taught they become critical and begin to
question and make meaning their own meaning.
Indeed several countries have set out very different educational policy provision
which focus on different aspects of Thinking skills that are relevant to their needs,
therefore having a specific definition of Thinking skills may not be important for
policy makers as it is for educators Kadir (2011).
Approaches to Thinking skills
Where there is consensus it is that Thinking skills are pivotal to education and the
more developed the Thinking skills are the more effective education appears to be.
The different approaches to defining Thinking skills suggest that there are different
ways of developing them, those methods, which are directed at specific tasks, and
those skills, which can be applied in a general way.
The Generalised Thinking Skills (GTS) movement take a view that Thinking can be
addressed in a way, which is not contextualised and therefore be developed broadly
allowing for flexibility. The result would be the setting of a pattern or template,
which would allow a learner to apply that template to any task, in whatever discipline,
in order to gain a structured and clear outcome, Smith (2002).
Ennis (1991) suggests that it is possible using this process to develop skills, which can
be applied to a range of different criteria not just academic work, but also which
would be applicable to work and life. Since we know that education now is no longer
restricted to formal educational environments such as schools, FE colleges and HEI
recognising that skills can be gained in alternative ways may have value for those
involved in workplace, vocational programmes. The development of Foundation
degrees over the last 10 years has suggested that giving credit through the APEL
system (Accreditation of prior experiential learning) recognises that Thinking skills
exist in a wider context. This recognition has gained support but it faces challenges
in particular when looking to demonstrate success or failure in acquiring skills the
assessment process therefore becomes crucial.
Newman (2002) suggests that in terms of medical training that Learners critical
Thinking skills are crucial if they develop GTS- then this will allow them to apply this
framework of learning to a new programme, this ability to transfer skills reflects the
suggestion that HOTS are not subject specific and might be sufficiently generalisable
to allow progression from one learning environment to another. It also suggests that
the individual skills gained from different environments could be transferred
successfully. This general fluidity has received much criticism- the issue is that in
order to be able to take on board complex issues learners must have the strategies to
cope with variety depth and difficulty of work, some learners develop them and some
do not. Thinking in terms of a framework of skills may not be the best way to
develop specific skills.
There have been considered developments of teaching programmes ; Lipman (1991)
focus on Communities of Inquiry, which encourages learners to look for, shared,
meaningful, and reflective Thinking leading to transferable learning outcomes.
: Feuerstein, (1981) where the mediator works with the learner to develop a process of
Thinking about the Thinking process relevant to situations and De Bono (1985) who
encourages mental habits such as PMI analysis amongst others which provide
practical advice and guidance as to what sort of interventions will best enhance
Thinking for the learner. They were primarily focused on children and young adults
and have been met with traditional scepticism from some educationalists Smith
(2002). The attempts to use these approaches with adults have been limited, the view
where it has been taken, that as adults are already thinkers they don’t need help,
seems to deny the issues which exist in relation to the practical educational gaps in
learning strategies for returning learners.
The critics of GTS approach, such as McPeck (1991), Bailin et al (1993), take a view
that Thinking cannot be seen in an abstract way, in order for learners to appreciate
and formulate understanding they must be able to contextualise, building their
understanding from their surroundings and influences a social constructive
approach. Further, that applying this one size fits all argument creates a homogenised
non-specific approach, which loses its cohesion once challenged, the “power trade off
argument”. McPeck (1991) suggests where there are generalised skills templates for
learning and processing these cannot be as effective as a specifically developed
approach within a subject or discipline. The argument runs that there is no point in
asking a GP to carry out complex surgery they may have generalised medical skills
but their surgical knowledge is not specific the patient might live but the operation
carries more risk of harm, complications and pressure.
McPeck (1991) suggested that in order to develop effective Thinking skills there had
to be structures put in place so that a learner can contextualise his learning- De
Bono’s Thinking hats problem solving questions- the view is based on the premise
that individuals think about something that non-subject specific strategies were
bound to fail as learners could not develop the relevant foundation for Thinking. This
argument has merit. Studies such as that carried out by Soden and Pithers (2007)
indicated that where Thinking skills such as key skills with children and study skills
with adult FE learners were taught separately learners struggled to see how the skills
could be applied in their subjects or indeed why they were doing the module in the
first place. Paul (1995) cited in Lai 2011 indicated that joining with the domain
specific non GTS group “identifies critical Thinking as learning to think within one’s
discipline by appropriating the standards and values embodied in that discipline” p15.
However, Smith (2002) takes the view that Thinking skills, as McPeck/Ennis
considered is too broad, that indeed, whilst most people can think, what is needed is
to have effective critical Thinking skills, delivered in terms of domain rather than
task. Thinking therefore could be delivered through setting down procedures in the
cognitive domain: operationalizing the Thinking and then demonstrating
understanding The suggestion is that the process/product argument can be forgotten
in practical terms, but that in terms of a strategy for developing teaching and learning
incorporation of these three elements will encapsulate the facility to produce critical
Bailin (1997) takes a view that there is a third way to consider integration of
encouraging and developing Thinking within education. Her focus is to generate a
mastery of Norms and values- rather than skills, by so doing she moves beyond the
contrasting positions of the philosophical and psychological approaches and limits her
consideration to the developing Thinking, looking at the what the learner needs in
order to ensure that Thinking takes place and that they come to a reasoned decision.
This seeks to diffuse the power trade off argument and reflect that there is a need to
develop an understanding that encourages Thinking in educational terms, by passing
the challenges to the curriculum developers; this may not be helpful, as it still does
not give a definitive answer that can guide policy in a practical way. It does however
suggest that there is no wrong way to develop Thinking in learners.
Indeed Siegel (1995) tried to link the positions of Ennis (1991) and McPeck(1991),
suggesting that there were two parts to Critical Thinking, one which was based on
Reason Assessment accepting that a person can think in this way and that they can
justify why they do so, and the second, critical spirit which looks at dispositions to
think in this way. This form of compromise was also supported by Dam and Volman
(2004) suggesting that where there was a development of general skills, outlines of
critical Thinking could be transferred from one domain to another, allowing for
transference of skills. However, it is also clear adult learners, in order to develop these
Thinking skills processes, need help to do this and that is where I turn to next.
Frisby (1992) suggests that there are real issues as to what educators perceive
Thinking skills are and this range of academic views is of no real help to those who
have curriculum issues to consider and those who have to teach the programmes,
whether they are bespoke teaching skills classes or integrated skills within the task.
The nature and breadth of adult education is such that it creates innate pressures to
succeed in different learning environments, which are not helped by unclear teaching
and learning approaches.
Adult Learning and Thinking skills
Whilst there have been significant curriculum changes for children in compulsory
education, with ensuing philosophical debates about how this has worked, adult
education - Further Education (FE) in particular has been largely left to look after
itself Lingfield (2012). However, with a growing number of mature learners returning
to education, in FE colleges, university or in employment, the skills gap has begun to
be evident Leese (2010). In Higher Education there has been recognition that mature
learners who come to university may not have the necessary Thinking skills,
Ecclestone et al. (2009) which will allow them to feel confident integrating into
challenging programmes. Students coming straight from FE also seem to be lacking in
certain skills, which allow progression Lowe and Cook (2003) suggest that
universities have identified that such learners are not equipped with effective
Thinking skills, that they have been programmed in school and are slow at adapting to
transition, leading to a high dropout rate linked to poor study skills which include
Thinking skills.
Knowles (1967) set out his theory of adult learning, Andragogy, based on the view
that adults unlike children do not need direction and control the way in which younger
less mature learners did. The method has been considered and has been accepted as a
teaching and learning strategy for adult learners it is however not without controversy
Hartree (1984) Grace (1996). There is a significant diversity in adult learners
educational experiences, Knowles view was that they are all willing and able to learn
may not be applicable to all learners Knowles (1979); Grace (1996). The motivation
for attending HE/ FE courses is not consistent and for many learning is not an
opening, which they gladly take, it is more out of necessity that they return to
education, especially in the Further Education environment. This position reflects one
of the key criticisms of Knowles; his subjects were mainly middle class returners to
education at a particular level, whereas many learners today face pressures, which
were not contemplated in his study Holton E. f (2001 ). It is therefore important to
look further into teaching and learning frameworks, which consider learning in a
vocational as well as academic framework. Towler et al (2011) suggest that in certain
FE programmes learners felt that they needed direction in order to give them a
learning framework supporting the contention that adult learners are not always able
to learn in the way Knowles anticipated.
King and Kitchener’s (1981) adult learning framework suggests that a learner needed
to go through 5 stages in their development in order to get to the point where they
could start to be critical and a further 2 in order to act upon their ability to be critical
in their own Thinking. This seems to be contrary to Knowles position at first glance,
but on review it fleshes out further what Knowles was contending, that whist adult
learners are perhaps more open to learning there are some significant challenges to
their own understandings which have to go through, and that adult learners are
prepared to do this. The disposition of a learner is therefore crucial to their openness
to challenge their own knowledge Siegel (1995). Where perhaps King and Kitchener
(1981) part company with Knowles is that they see adult learning to involve an
approach which demands more than problem solving, it envisages that the learner will
be able to move across learning boundaries and contexts adding to their knowledge
and being aware knowledge and understanding are different.
Craft (1991) posits that for her Thinking skills belong in the cognitive domain and
are more likely to be considered as solving skills and as such adults have displayed
them already in life, but may not be attuned to academic formal study. This position is
supported by Brookfield (1997) who intimates that adults tend to think in a practical,
short term, problem based way, developing ideas may not be what they intend to
achieve but may occur nevertheless. Ennis (1991) suggests that as Thinking Skills are
overlapping constructs of life, knowledge and creativity with the sum of the whole
being greater than the parts.
The above presupposes that the learner is also ready to learn, however there are
challenges to this position, which suggest that there is no clear age defining moment
when the learner begins to, think critically. The issue is when does a person begin to
develop the potential to learn at the higher order level, if we can determine this then
the teaching and learning strategies for delivering the skills to think critically can be
identified and put in place.
According to Piaget, in Sutherland (1999) children begin to have the potential for
higher order Thinking skills at about 12, however less than 50 % go on to develop
those additional skills in a formal school framework. If Piaget was right then all adults
have the capacity to think at the higher order level but they may not act on this and
therefore do not practice those skills in order for them to become effective thinkers as
Smith so wanted. However, Dirkx (1998) reflects that perhaps adults apply these
higher order Thinking skills in different ways, non-academic, non-assessable ways
every day, arguing that adult learners make meaning through life rather than through
subjects. Therefore, in order to harness this when the learner returns to education it
becomes important to scaffold the learning approach to their natural learning process
rather than an imposed method.
Overseas Students and Critical Thinking
There is an increasing awareness that students from different learning cultures may
find that criticality is not a skill, which has been developed in their undergraduate
education Tian and Low (2011). In a recent study considering issues which students
from China faced when studying in UK reflected that in many instances the ability to
think critically in terms of life and education comes with maturity . This opens a
further aspect of study within Critical Thinking as to whether or not it us a purely
Western construct which is deserving of further consideration at a later date. The
broader issue of criticality and cultural criticality was also raised by Tian and Low
(2011) and for postgraduate study Tian and Low (2012) Leedham (2011).
Whilst Paton (2005), Durkin (2008) suggest that this is a significant issue there is
little evidence at present to indicate that critical Thinking at undergraduate level is not
However, it is right to say that there is an increase in the number of overseas students
moving directly on to Masters level programmes, which demand a more stringent area
of criticality than Undergraduate programmes. These learners therefore not only have
to take on board new surroundings, language but also a new system of engaging
critically with ideas. Limited studies have taken place, which considers the
implications of studying abroad, in particular for Chinese students, and even less has
taken place in terms of comparing mature home and overseas students Tian and Low
(2011). However, what is clear is that there are potentially significant cultural and
educational barriers, which overseas students may face in terms of engaging critically
with philosophies of learning. Further that these barriers are perhaps driven by their
own educational experiences, which tend not to demand the same degree of criticality
or overt engagement in the learning process and their understanding of the technical
language and vocabulary of education Leedham (2011). Whilst some institutions
support learners through integration programmes prior to engagement with the course
proper there appears to be limited evidence that this has involved the relevant
departments in terms of teaching relevant subject technical vocabulary. An increase in
the number of overseas students recruited to UK and US based universities makes it
an organizational issue to ensure learner opportunity to gain success and satisfaction
on their programme. Further that they should be able to engage with similar
understanding as those who progress with fewer overt barriers Wang and Farmer
Broader perspectives on critical Thinking:
Freire in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) sought to raise critical consciousness
amongst groups of adult learners through teaching and developing literacy and
numeracy skills focusing the issue of criticality on democratic perspectives. The
curriculum was delivered focusing on what Freire thought were relevant to the
learners, thereby encouraging ownership of understanding, linking thoughts and views
to the learners own dispositions. Freire influenced by Dewey, saw that education was
pivotal for social change. The challenge with Freire’s model for developing Critical
Thinking was that it sought to change social perspectives through the challenging the
educator / student relationship. In addition, Freire identified that in his view that there
was a conspiracy of silence in the way in which certain groups were seen to be the
oppressed they were he felt limited because they were not allowed to challenge
accepted norms within the development of curriculum or teaching / student
Mezirow’s (1981) views were based on three aspects of teaching and learning,
experience, critical reflection and rational discourse, all embedded in the principle
that communication is the most effective way to encourage growth and change. The
key for Mezirow was to ensure that change took place the learner had to use all three
aspects to move away from their own narrow world view of knowledge, to something
which encompassed a wider world view and thereby leading to greater autonomy in
their own choices and awareness within society, again like Freire a bigger picture
outcome based on meaning and dispositions. These skills can be formally identified
through either the APL (accreditation of Prior learning) scheme, more relevant to
formal qualifications but also the APEL process which takes on board the informal
experiential learning of an individual as evidenced in Wilcox and Brown (2011) as
well as the Open University qualifications focused specifically on the skills gained in
employment in addition of course to the process of recognizing skills in the
foundation degree scheme. A view which runs somewhat counter to Mezirow’s
Transference has been developed by Boyd et al (1988) and supported by Merriam
(2004), where the rationality is given a broader context, allowing the experience,
individuality of the subject to play a greater part on making meaning from experience
and discourse. Accepting that in some circumstances making meaning of situations
does not always involve rationality to the same degree as Mezirow suggests.
In the field of lifelong learning, the policy of widening participation plays a vital role
in determining change in adult education. Adults are returning to various types and
levels of further and higher education more equipped by life experiences than ever
before, but their prior educational experiences either at school or undergraduate level
may not have equipped them to use these experiences. Indeed, it may also be
suggested that neither FE nor HE is necessarily as equipped to support them in their
educational journey as perhaps we once thought.
What we can say from the literature is that there are different approaches to Thinking
skills: those with a psychological focus are seen to be more process oriented rather
than philosophical where the product of learning is critical. Further that the learner
will gain skills because of the dispositions which they have and that these dispositions
are identified through the attitudes and values, which the learner has at the outset of
the intervention as well as those that they gain during the process.
We can also reflect that mature learners appear to be more ready to evaluate
understanding differently, King and Kitchener (1991), Mezirow (1981), Freire, (1970)
that some of the dispositions they have been informally developed are nonetheless
useful, practical and relevant to Thinking in an effective way. The learner therefore
should be encouraged to channel their experiences in a way, which satisfies the needs
of the programmes. There is also a wider implication, that perhaps many of the
programmes offered in FE and HE fail to take on board the informal skills and
abilities which learners have, that there needs to be reevaluation on the content as well
as the method of delivery of the programmes offered in order to ensure that learners
gain value in educational terms for the informal life experiences. Whilst some
evidence of this has been taken on board through APEL, many organizations are
unsure of how to do this, or indeed, they are not convinced that this process satisfies
the relevant rigour demanded of their professional body or institution.
One of the ways to develop the programmes is to look at the methods of building in
life skills in an academic fashion, the McPeck /Ennis discussion about the concept of
Thinking skills depends on individual dispositions and the willingness to be open to
change in new ideas. Knowles, King and Kitchener and Mezirow amongst others
reflect that adults, mature learners are more ready for this type of intellectual
development although learners who are mature by experience have developed life
skills or dispositions which also equip them to become effective critical thinkers, in
that context age therefore may not be the only indicator of openness to higher order
Thinking skills.
As indicated earlier also that there is now also a different set of mature learners to
consider when looking at criticality in Thinking. The principles set out in McPeck et
al (1990) seem to relate primarily to the theoretical issue of Thinking skills, there is a
wider additional picture, which also needs to be addressed in terms of adult learners
coming from different learning cultures such as China.
Despite all of the issues set out above, it remains clear that many governments are
demanding the development of education systems, which allow learners of all ages to
develop relevant Thinking skills. They may not have the same focus but they serve a
very real educational and cultural purpose.
About the author:
Admitted as a lawyer in 1990, practised in south of England, specialist in Domestic
violence, family and mental health related matters, with a hint of advocacy
throughout. I became a teacher in FE and HE, taking my PGCE through distance
learning with the University of Greenwich with law as a specialist area. As a result of
my legal knowledge, teaching practice I have developed a FdA legal practice course
taking on board e learning / integrated and blended learning for adult professional
Second year Ed D candidate working on skills and knowledge needed to produce an
effective paralegal learning experience.
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  • ... They also found that self-regulation strategies could predict critical thinking and language achievement of the learners. Gibby (2013) discussed that critical thinking skill in adult EFL learners could be increased through practicing. Therefore it can be stated that both critical thinking strategies and self-regulation strategies could help the learners achieve English vocabularies highly well. ...
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