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Rethinking thinking

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At the request of California's Commission on Teacher Credentialing, Dr. Paul and his colleagues in 1995 conducted interviews with faculty at 83 public and 28 private colleges and universities in California.

The professors were asked specifically how they taught students to think critically.

"The basic conclusion we came to is that while everyone claims to be teaching critical thinking ... the evidence is that very few can articulate what they mean by it or explain how they emphasize it on a typical day," Dr. Paul says. "It's something everyone wants to believe they are doing."

But if not teaching thinking, then what are colleges doing?

Patricia King and her colleagues in educational psychology at the University of Michigan have spent the last 25 years conducting experiments to assess the degree to which college produces "reflective judgment" and higher-order thinking skills in undergraduates.

The good news, she says, is that an increase in critical thinking appears to be a direct outcome of attending college. The bad news is that even by the time they graduate, most college students don't reach the higher levels of critical thinking involving true reflective judgment.

"They're making what we call quasi- reflective judgments," she says. "Even four years of college only brings traditional-age college students to a very low level of critical thinking and judgment," she says.

Seniors do have the ability to understand that a controversial problem can and should be approached from several perspectives, she says. But they are often unable to come to a reasoned conclusion even when all the facts to solve a problem are present.

"They're left on the fence," she says. "They say, 'Look how open-minded I am.' But when pressed to say, 'What do you think about this? What suggestions would you make and what are they based on?' - that's when the process falls apart. They are unable to reach or defend a conclusion that's most reasonable and consistent with the facts."

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