Tuesday, November 25, 2008

AAC&U's LEAP Initiative and Thinking Skills

If you haven't seen it yet, it's worth looking at the AAC&U's long-awaited LEAP recommendations for the liberal arts. (The link is a pdf to the executive summary). There's a lot there, but will just comment on the thinking skills part, shown below.

Later on in the summary, they cite some statistics about what employers wish for in graduates:

Notice anything about the two lists? The thinking skills are permuted somewhat, but they're still there. I'm interested particularly in creative and analytical thinking. In the guidelines these are combined. In the survey data, they are separated. They really should be separated in the guidelines too, because they're vastly different modes of thought. Both of the lists could use some editing. Ideally, the first two of the AAC&U's recommended list would be:
  • Analytical thinking
  • Creative thinking
I'm not sure what 'inquiry' is supposed to mean or how it's supposed to be taught, so let's toss that one. Much worse is the insidious 'critical thinking' skill that many institutions have in their set of goals. Granted, it sounds good--who doesn't want their graduates to be able to think critically. But what, exactly does it mean? It's far to fuzzy to be useful. I hope to convince you of this by contrasting it to analytical and creative thinking as a working dichotomy that can cover all our cognitive bases. Here are my working definitions for the purposes of curriculum development and assessment:

Analytical Thinking includes knowing facts and how they relate to each other. It includes definitions and languages and rules about how they work. For example, one can imagine a field of knowledge as a semantic field over which manipulations are performed explicitly. To the extent this is true, it is an exercise in analytical thinking. Analytical thinking is algorithmic: information retrieval and manipulation. It derives from deductive reasoning: consequences follow from given rules. In math, finding the derivative of a function is an exercise in analytical thinking. Identifying a piece of music as classical is analytical. Deriving the name of an organic molecule is analytical. Determining what a computer program does is analytical. Note that the rules can become very complex, and so there's no limit to the difficulty of analytical reasoning.

Creative Thinking is inductive or random. It looks for patterns and formulates them. It compresses complexities into simplicities, or does the opposite. It does this in the context of a body of analytical knowledge. Solving a known problem using known methods is not creative--it's analytical. Finding a new way to solve the same problem is creative.
In summary, analytical thinking is knowing facts and applying rules. Creative thinking is creating new facts and new rules. Without a background in some body of analytical thought, it's not possible to be productively creative. This models wonderfully well the way we teach and construct curricula.

Consider. First we seek to teach students the language of our discipline, and facts about the objects they encounter. We teach them theories about these, and show them how to apply theories. This is the analytical stage of learning. Some students may do very well with this. If they have a good memory and are good at following rules, they'll be good analytical thinkers.

Then, in many disciplines there's a shift. It's subtle, but devastating to some students, particularly if they haven't been warned, or if the instructors aren't aware. We begin to expect students to apply theories to new situations, or to create their own objects and theories. We're surprised when what we see initially looks random. Student try to mimic our process, but process takes them only so far--there's something else required: the magic of the human brain in generalizing, applying inductive reasoning, and the flash of insight or just sheer audacity of thought that distinguishes the best thinkers.

Some students have this naturally--this ability to insert randomness in a controlled way to create useful novelty. Others will flail around producing garbage. It's essential that they have some mastery of the analytical rules and knowledge of the discipline, or they can't edit themselves. They don't know right from wrong, good from bad if they don't have the analytical skills.

We as instructors can prepare students for this, if we are ourselves aware of this divide. For me, it came in a class called Introduction to Analysis, where I was expected to come up with math proofs on my own for the first time. My instructor was intuitive enough to know this was a hard class, and helped us enjoy the process, difficult as it was for most. But she didn't really understand, I think, why it was difficult. It was the transition from analytical to creative thought. I know this now, and preach it to my students. I even mark problems in the homework as creative or analytical. It's an extremely useful idea for organizing courses and curricula, in my experience. We assess it too, in a gentle way that doesn't require lots of tedious bureaucracy.

So there you have it. Critical thinking, in my opinion, is some confusion of analytical and creative processes, and is not a useful dimension for a general classification of cognition. It might be a great thing to focus on in an art or performance class, as a specific skill to be developed, but not as a first tier red-letter (i.e. rubric) goal.

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