We can teach it so much better once we know what it is

By Kylie Murphy, Steve Murphy and Nathaniel Swain

‘Critical’ and ‘creative’ are commonly used terms, but shared understandings of these terms are less frequent. Critical and creative thinking (CCT) refers to two broad types of thinking that manifest in different ways and draw upon different combinations of knowledge and skills depending on the context and purpose. This explains the many slightly differing definitions you will find attached to the terms if you go looking.  Boiled down, critical thinking means evaluating ideas (especially claims and arguments), tools, methods, or products in reasoned ways, while creative thinking means making mental connections between and generating new ideas, tools, methods, or products for an intended effect. They’re different types of thinking but go well together. We believe developing young people’s CCT is a key purpose of education – and that teachers should be taught to teach CCT in a ‘deliberately incidental’ way.

CCT is not just important for Australia to stay internationally competitive or because there is increasing demand for employees with CCT skills. Thinking creatively and critically makes our world, and the lives we live, better. CCT gives meaning to much of what students learn at school. The OECD attributes such importance to CCT that it is introducing a standardised assessment of CCT this year. And of course, ACARA sees its importance, too; CCT is one of the seven General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum.

So, it was with interest that we noted the findings of a recently published study by Carter and Buchanan. The 185 NSW primary teachers they surveyed agreed that the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum (Version 8.4) – which include CCT – were important, but the teachers were not confident in their knowledge of these capabilities. Almost half of the teachers reported that they did not understand the General Capabilities. Most reported teaching the General Capabilities only occasionally or not at all; and of the 37 teachers who were interviewed in the study, only 2 said they taught General Capabilities explicitly. 

Of all the reported excerpts about how Carter and Buchanan’s interviewees said they taught the General Capabilities, several of the General Capabilities were referenced but there was not a single mention of teaching CCT. The teachers cited – understandably – that a lack of professional development was the impediment to their understanding of the General Capabilities. It is not surprising that teachers would struggle with CCT particularly, given questions about the adequacy of teacher education in relation to teaching CCT.

A lack of clarity about CCT is pervasive. The more you read in this area, whether it is the scholarly literature or the grey literature, the more you can be forgiven for wondering if there is any kind of thinking that CCT does not include! We see the lack of definitional clarity around CCT as a significant barrier to confident and effective CCT teaching – but not an obstacle that quality teacher education and professional development cannot help teachers to overcome.

We argue that helping teachers to develop a deep understanding of CCT (much deeper than we can cover in this post) is important because of what well-established educational psychology principles – drawing on cognitive, social, and behavioural psychology – tell us. Only when teachers deeply understand the conceptual structures of CCT will they be able to teach CCT effectively.

Higher-order skills such as CCT are not the product of natural maturation and social interactions, and can therefore be thought of as biologically secondary skills. Cognitive psychology tells us that biologically secondary knowledge and skills should be taught explicitly, in order for the learning to be efficient and effective. This means that to most effectively develop students’ CCT, teachers need to teach CCT deliberately. This involves drawing attention to, explaining, and illustrating the concepts and skills involved (e.g., for critical thinking these might include evaluate, reason, argument, analyse, evidence, logic, conclusion, or the term critical itself; for creative thinking these might include imagination, brainstorm, open-minded, flexible, method, adapt, concept map, synthesise, or the term creative itself). The particular concepts, skills, explanations, and demonstrations will, of course, depend on the learners’ development, prior learning, and interests, and the learning area (or domain) knowledge being drawn on.

Cognitive psychology also tells us that CCT skills are not ‘generic strategies’, learnable in a content vacuum; they require content knowledge. To teach CCT in a knowledge-based way, teachers need to have a particularly deep understanding of CCT – so they can recognise and harness as many opportunities as possible to teach CCT skills utilising the domain knowledge they are teaching. Only by doing this as often as possible, in as many different learning areas as possible, can teachers encourage learners to engage in CCT habitually and ‘generally’. CCT skills taught in isolated CCT focused programs – if new skills are learned at all – do not generalise.

Social and behavioural psychology has much to contribute to teachers’ ability to establish CCT as socially normative thinking practices. To encourage children (and the adults they become) to engage in CCT in the various situations where it’s desirable to do so, teachers should frequently and explicitly model CCT skills, drawing attention to and labelling the specific skills they are using; provide plentiful and varied opportunities for learners to engage in the skills themselves, prompting and guiding where necessary; and try to ensure that the learners feel good (natural positive reinforcement) when they engage in those skills.

By taking a developmentally appropriate cognitive, social, and behavioural approach to teaching CCT – a ‘deliberately incidental’ approach – teachers can teach students not only what it means to think creatively and critically, but also that these are expected and valued ways of thinking. However, if teachers don’t have a deep understanding of what CCT is, they can’t fully harness the power of educational psychology principles to maximise the development of their students’ CCT. We believe that improved teacher education and professional development is needed to help many teachers feel confident enough to teach CCT in knowledge-based, explicit, and socially normalising ways.

We hope that any introduction of standardised testing of CCT skills encourages a more widespread focus on knowledge-based, explicit teaching of CCT. The OECD’s assertion that the “PISA assessment will examine students’ capacities to generate diverse and original ideas, and to evaluate and improve ideas, across a range of contexts” gives us some hope. Whether or not standardised testing of CCT is introduced in Australia, we hope all Australian teachers will get the support they need to develop a deep understanding of CCT and ‘deliberately incidental’ CCT pedagogies.

Overall, we hope that, in the future, all teachers will feel well prepared to teach CCT in a way that contributes to a society in which thinking creatively and critically in all domains of life is the wonderful norm.

From left to right: Kylie Murphy is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology and Pedagogy at La Trobe University’s School of Education. Her background includes secondary teaching in science, psychology, and relationships education, and university teaching in research literacy, critical evidence-based practice, and pragmatic research methodology. Kylie is passionate about critically-informed teaching, including finding ways to support more inclusive and effective teaching of CCT. Follow her on Twitter @KylieMurphyEd or on LinkedIn. Steve Murphy is the Director of Professional Practice & School Partnerships at La Trobe University’s School of Education. He has extensive experience as a STEM educator and educational leader in schools. He researches rural education, with a particular focus on STEM education in rural schools and preparing teachers to work in rural communities. Follow Steve on LinkedIn or on Twitter @MurphyRuralEd. Nathaniel Swain is a teacher, instructional coach, and researcher with expertise in language, literacy, instructional practices, and cognitive science. He founded the national community of teachers and registered charity called Think Forward Educators, and produces a regular blog for teachers known as the Cognitorium. Nathaniel currently teaches Foundation at Brandon Park Primary, where he is also a Science of Learning Specialist. He is excited to be joining La Trobe University’s School of Education as a Senior Lecturer in January 2023. Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter@NathanielRSwain.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

7 thoughts on “We can teach it so much better once we know what it is

  1. Wendy says:

    Know what it is and practise it – teachers need to be critical and creative thinkers, too. Where is the critical and creative thinking in the pre-prepared lessons that one of the authors of this discussion spruik? Oh hang on, perhaps there’ll be units we can buy on critical and creative thinking.

  2. Thanks for your contribution, Wendy. Agreed that teachers should be critical and creative in all of their work. To challenge the second part of your comment, I would love to share and discuss what is working for teachers of CCT currently, and to explore resources that have been developed for a variety of contexts and purposes. Many teachers are sharing such units and lessons in other learning areas for free and in the spirit of collaboration. Surely, we have much to learn from each other as a community of educators, committed to ensuring all children have the best educational experiences.

    I think your comment suggests you have misinterpreted the purpose of my sharing of units and lesson examples. I do not want teachers to deliver resources without thought, creativity, or critique. Quite the opposite. I am passionate about sharing high-quality curricular materials, so that teachers can continue to be critical and creative users of existing content, whilst being open to sharing their own materials that may benefit their fellow teacher.

    If I have summed up your point inaccurately, it would be great to discuss this further with you. I hope that through such dialogue we can get to the bottom of the spirited reactions from some educators to the mere idea of using shared materials, and I hope it can move us forward as a profession.

  3. Michael says:

    I am surprised that academics interested in CCT assert that a standardised test administered by the OECD is a marker of its importance in education. There’s a tacit support here for standardised testing which, I would argue, is counter to the aim and objective of CCT.

  4. Hi Michael. Thank you for your thoughts on this aspect of the article. Speaking for myself here, it’s important to note that the OECD (standardised) test is, as you’ve said, “a” (one kind of) marker of its importance; it is hardly implied to be the primary reason for teaching CCT.

    I think you and I could agree that students thinking creatively and critically is an end worth aiming for in and of itself. CCT is like many important aspects of education that varied stakeholders are interested to investigate and measure. Without knowing how well we are teaching literacy, numeracy, scientific capabilities, as well as CCT, it is difficult to know how well a system is performing, or on a more micro-level, what our students might need from us next.

    Yes you can work to assess and measure CCT and other capabilities using other means. Although they get a bad wrap in some education circles, the point of more standardised measures is to try and achieve a level of reliability and validity, not guaranteed by less formal approaches. My idea of success in CCT in my class might be very different to another teachers, for example.

    Ironically, in this case, critical and creative thinking skills are notoriously difficult to assess empirically, due to definitional as well as measurement issues. This hardly means we should give up on teaching these important skills with all our energies, but it does dampen your critique of our tacit mention of standardised assessment, as no standardised measure of CCT is currently very good! We shall see what the OECD will be able to muster. I dare say these developments will have little bearing on the fact that students should be guided to develop capabilities in CCT, and that embedding the teaching of CCT within a knowledge-rich curriculum remains key.

  5. Kylie Murphy says:

    Thanks Michael and Nathaniel. I think Nathaniel has covered this really well. I must admit I am not absolutely confident that adding CCT to the PISA testing won’t backfire and result in narrow-visioned teaching-to-the-test. That would be sad shame. Assessment of CCT really is a tricky issue, as Nathaniel said. My wish is that regardless of whether or how CCT is assessed, teachers can unite in valuing and encouraging CCT in all the ways they can. And perhaps teachers might themselves develop appropriate ways to assess different forms of CCT and share these with each other. There is so much scope for positive work in this space.

  6. The need for critical thinking is becoming more and more apparent these days with the amount of misinformation and misdirection often found all over the internet. It’s great to see that people are working against this by teaching critical thinking early.

  7. Kylie Murphy says:

    Thank you – and I agree. Evaluating information and ideas in informed and reasoned ways (not just ‘being critical’ in the negative sense) is a hugely important practice for all of us to model, encourage, and reinforce for all of our learners at every opportunity. As teachers, we wield more (potential) power to teach CCT than we always realise, and I’m motivated to help future-teachers wield it as effectively as possible. I appreciate your comment!

Comments are closed.