Critical thinking and creativity cannot be taught
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Some Critical Thoughts about Critical and Creative Thinking

Developing creative and critical thinking is a major priority of educators and policymakers. This is promoted because of popular views that students today require more creativity and critical thinking than past generations.

It now common to find creativity and critical thinking featured in curriculum documents, teaching practice guides, and in student assessments. This is rarely, if ever, accompanied by an understanding of how students learn or evidence to support teaching or assessment approaches. This paper provides an overview of human cognitive architecture as relevant to how students learn and demonstrate such thinking.

In doing so, it highlights that general creativity and critical thinking is not something that can be taught. That’s because we have evolved to do this innately without instruction. What does require teaching is the relevant knowledge base to allow students to properly apply these skills.

Differences in students’ creativity and critical thinking is not due primarily to differences in thinking strategies, but on differences in students’ knowledge. For educators to better impart students with creativity and critical thinking skills, they must provide students with an extensive knowledge base. From there, students’ creative and critical thinking will largely follow naturally and automatically.

Developing creative and critical thinking: executive summary

  • Teaching students to engage in critical and creative thinking attracts near-universal approval. However, that approval’s protagonists almost never indicate any general cognitive strategies they themselves learned to use when engaging in such thinking. The absence of such strategies suggests that teachable, general, critical and creative thinking strategies do not exist. Equally absent are concrete examples of students engaging in critical and creative thinking following teaching instruction aimed to specifically develop these capabilities.
  • A suspicion of the non-existence of such strategies and examples is strengthened by the paucity of data from randomised, controlled trials providing evidence of an increase in critical and creative thinking following instruction. Such data are essential prior to the introduction of any new instructional procedure. 
  • While humans do engage in critical and creative thinking, it would prove impossible to teach the relevant strategies if they are innate. Innate thinking strategies allow creative thinking without specific creativity instruction. Evidence of creativity without instruction comes from another, non-human source of creativity — evolution by natural selection. 
  • Normally considered a biological theory used to explain the diversity of life, evolution by natural selection can also can be considered a natural information processing system. Evolutionary theory may provide us with a useful analogy to the human cognitive system, assuming that human cognition is another example of a natural information processing system. Such an analogy throws light on the place of creativity in human cognition. 
  • From an information processing perspective, both evolution by natural selection and human cognition can be described by five basic principles concerned with how novel information is acquired, how it is processed and stored, and how stored information is used to govern action that is appropriate to the environment. The principles are innate to humans. They are acquired unconsciously and so cannot be taught. The first two principles, concerned with how novel information is acquired, are directly relevant to issues associated with thinking. 
    1. The first principle assumes that all novel information has a random generate-and-test process at its base, consisting of random mutation in the case of evolutionary biology and random generate-and-test during human problem-solving. It is suggested that random generate-and-test — which does not need to be taught — is an essential engine of creativity.
    2. The second principle indicates that information can be efficiently transmitted by reproduction in the case of evolutionary biology or by communication between people in the case of human cognition. Once that relevant information has been created by a random generate-and-test process, it is vastly more efficient to obtain it by transmission from a suitable source than to create it in the first instance. The ability of humans to efficiently transmit information to others is arguably our most important evolved characteristic.
  • These characteristics of the basic nature of creativity, along with other important aspects of human cognition, are almost always ignored by those advocating the incorporation of instruction of such thinking skills into curricula.
  • Current attempts to measure students’ critical and creative thinking skills also characteristically make no reference to human cognitive architecture and consequently are deficient.
  • This paper argues that the only way in which such thinking can be enhanced is by increasing the domain-specific knowledge base to which the innate and random generate-and-test engine of creativity is applied. Accordingly, the function of education is to enhance a knowledge base. With an extensive knowledge base, critical and creative thinking will follow naturally and automatically.

FURTHER READING: Why Inquiry-based Approaches Harm Students’ Learning


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