Traditional education vs. constructivist approaches, critical thinking and the usefulness of computer information technology

Below is the Q&A from our Education in Japan forum:

Q:  In Japan, traditionalist education or conventional schooling is still the mainstay of the educational system despite much rhetoric about the need for Japan to adapt its system to the challenges of the 21st century, the use of PCs and other IT devices tends to be strictly controlled during class lessons, and IT rooms often under lock and key.  At the other extreme, in many of the school systems of the West, students increasingly only need to know how to find information and then to analyze and present it, but they don’t need to remember the content. How are student to analyze information if they don’t have any background knowledge to compare it to?” What is the role of computer education vs. traditional education? Will learning suffer because students are just skimming issues and topics in their use of multimedia and computer technology to get the answers to their questions?

A:  Although I can’t say I’ve definitively found my way through this question yet,  I can venture a position and response to the question of whether 21st century education should really boil down to just learning to navigate the wealth of available information and data through IT and multimedia use, or whether there is some sort of foundational core knowledge-cum-hierarchical order of learning that traditionalists (or educational guardians of  traditional disciplines) have tried to impart through the generations.

Part of the dilemma expressed in the question above pertains to what constitutes a 21st century education. The necessary 21st century skills are deemed to include “Critical Thinking and Problem Solving; Collaboration across Networks” and “to be able to communicate, function and create change personally socially, economically and politically on local, national and global levels” in “an increasingly diverse, globalized, and complex, media-saturated society” (see What is 21st century education?).

The issue is also closely related to the question of how educator-pedagogists view whether children are able to handle abstract ideas early on or must begin with building blocks from the simple to the complex, as well as the transition from traditional educational methods to more constructivist approaches of educational pedagogy,  including project-based learning (see Project-based learning for the 21st century for the skills listed). Many years ago, I wrote Does Method Matter: Traditional vs non traditional in which I looked at the pros and cons of traditional textbook methods which in the Japanese sense means “traditionally” teaching the foundational core skills and body of knowledge, skills within the framework of the National Curriculum …  I’ll now revisit some of the ideas I wrote back then and expand on them.

Below, I try to tackle the issue by outlining the key viewpoints expressed by various outstanding educators, theorists and thinkers about thinking.

The belief on the existence of a traditional hierarchy and core ideas is strongest with science and math educators, so I start by mentioning the ideas of David Harriman author of The Logical Leapin an interview, where he reviews the origins and basics of inductive reasoning:

“David Harriman: 

The book presents a theory of induction in physical science. In other words, my goal is to identify the method by which scientists can validly infer generalizations from particular instances. Since the 17th century, many scientists have been remarkably successful in reaching generalizations about the world, and philosophers have been remarkably unsuccessful in figuring out how they do it.

My approach is to look closely at what scientists have actually done, and to induce the principles of proper method from cases of successful discovery (for example, Newtonian mechanics and 19th century atomic theory). Along the way, and particularly toward the end of the book, I also look at cases where scientists have made errors—and I show that there is always some departure from the proper inductive method in such cases.

A physicist needs explicit epistemological guidance; he can’t simply try to emulate the famous physicists before him. Which of these past physicists should he emulate? They often expressed different views regarding method, and often took different approaches in practice (with varying degrees of success). The only solution is for the philosopher to identify the right method by a careful process of induction, in the same way that physicists identify the laws of nature. That’s what I try to do in The Logical Leap.

CB: What specific topics do you discuss, and what new points emerged from this study?

DH: The book starts by discussing the foundation of inductive reasoning. We must first understand how a toddler grasps simple generalizations such as “heavy things fall” or “pushing a ball makes it roll” before we can hope to understand how Newton discovered advanced generalizations such as the law of gravitation or F = mA. Chapter 1 presents this foundation, which contains new insights into how we grasp the causal relationships expressed in our first generalizations.

Then I turn to the discoveries of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton, and examine the method that made the Scientific Revolution so revolutionary. I discuss the role of experiment, and defend its power to prove causal laws. I discuss the role of mathematics, and explain why this science of quantitative relationships must serve as the language of physics. Finally, after presenting how 19th century scientists discovered the atomic nature of matter, I discuss the criteria of proof for a broad theory; in other words, I try to give scientists the objective standard (good name for a journal, by the way) they need to judge whether a theory is properly regarded as proven.

This theory of induction is original, but I did not originate it. The Logical Leap is the result of my collaboration with Leonard Peikoff, the world’s leading expert on Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand). Within the realm of physical science, my book is a presentation of Dr. Peikoff’s theory.”

Lisa Van Damme summarizes Harriman’s rationalistic approach in Physics by induction: Genius of Learning Physics the Proper Way:

“Scientific knowledge is presented as a series of commandments rather than as conclusions that have been reached by a laborious process of observation, experiment, and induction. If taught physics this way, a student’s grasp of the principles is necessarily detached from reality.

This approach to teaching physics also fails to provide students with a real understanding of the scientific method. If they are not exposed to the way in which a great scientist makes observations and then integrates them to arrive at an innovative conclusion, then they will not understand how science is done. Like the writing process, it will seem like an innate gift of born scientists, and they will never understand that they too can learn the process by which new discoveries are made. Because students are not learning the scientific method through real, historical examples of scientific discoveries, they usually have a few classes within the physics course devoted just to the scientific method. But the way this method is taught reflects the same rationalism. Students are told that the first step in the scientific process is to, “Choose a hypothesis.” Not a word is said about the process of observation that should lead you to a hypothesis, so the implication is that the hypothesis must be chosen on a whim or divinely inspired. Again, what they leave out is observation, integration, induction.

Mr. Harriman was acutely aware of the rationalistic method by which physics is taught in the schools today, and he devised a way of teaching physics that gives students a real, grounded, and complete understanding of the principles of physics. He determined that the best way to teach physics is to teach it chronologically.

By chronologically, I do not mean that he tried to chronicle every development in the history of physics. That would be practically impossible and pedagogically disastrous. He taught the essential discoveries of physics in their historical order of development.

The reason Mr. Harriman taught the history of physics, is that by teaching it chronologically you teach it inductively. Induction is the process of reasoning from concretes and lower-level abstractions to higher-level abstractions. The earliest discoveries in physics are necessarily the closest to the perceptual level. They are the simplest discoveries, and lay the groundwork for all later developments. So, if you study physics historically, you begin with these simple discoveries, close to the perceptual level. After these discoveries are grasped, you can proceed to the next stage in history, integrating the most basic discoveries with the observations made by the next scientist, and grasping a conclusion at a step more removed from the perceptual level. As you proceed through history, you are able to grasp principles on increasingly wider levels of abstraction.

[Dr. Leonard Peikoff] said the following in “Philosophy of Education.” “Knowledge is not a grab bag of unrelated items. It has a definite set of relations from the foundations in direct perceptions, on up to the more esoteric, complicated and advanced theories. Proper education has to reveal, or rather re-travel that structure with the student. It has to take them up the levels from the foundation, from the directly perceptual, letting them see at each point how one level proceeds from the earlier back to the directly given. That is the only way to tie advanced or abstract knowledge and concepts back to reality.”

As a result of Mr. Harriman’s approach to teaching physics, my students have not just memorized the principles of physics, they understand them clearly and concretely.”

[For those who know of the John McCaskey schism and his critical review of Harriman’s book, read In Defense of the Logical Leap (the bone of contention being that learning occurs in a Spiral not Linear manner (Spiral Theory)]

Lisa Van Damme has been particularly vocal on the necessity of a hierarchy of knowledge in learning and education, see her many essays and interviews linked below:

See “The Hierarchy of Knowledge, the most neglected issue in Education” and the must-read Van Damme’s How to Teach Your Child: A Necessary Order to Knowledge part 2 | 3 | 4 ) and also An Interview with Lisa Van Damme, she says the maintenance of traditional studies under this traditional hierarchy when combined with Ayn Rand’s ideas of Objectivism: i.e. Reason—the faculty that operates by means of observation, concepts, and logic— is how you have is a sound education. Van Damme also says that abstract ideas or concepts such as in higher science or difficult literature shouldn’t be introduced unless built upon what students already know.

Then we look at theories of education where learning means that learners construct knowledge and meaning for themselves based on one’s experiences … this is where the theories of cognitive constructivim (John Dewey, Piaget) and social constructivism (attributed to Vygotsky) come in, and with it learning by more fluid experiential ways, including entertaining abstractions .. and shifting the focus of learning onto the learner of the material as an active “maker of meanings”. “Constructivism “student-centered learning vs. traditionalism” looks at the problem with constructivism vs. traditionalism (the Law of Primacy / the Law of Exercise / the Law of Recency) noted in Laurie H. Rogers’ “The Laws of learing” which suggests how to deal the two seemingly disparate theories. However, these only address the form and methods of teaching and do not address the content of learning … her laws of learning don’t grapple with the fundamental idea that there is a core body of knowledge or hierarchical order of learning. (For other papers in this vein, see A Comparison between Traditional and Constructivist that also address the effectiveness and results of the two methods.) See also Wikipedia on Constructivism:    This is where a lot of controversy comes in and Wikipedia identifies the source of confusion, so that constructivist methods do not necessarily exclude hierarchical or sequential learning, but that constructivism may be defended as superior methods in the “higher order of learning of mature learners”:

Constructivist learning theory is associated with high order learning of mature learners, androgogy or heutagogy, not early learning as discussed by the Cognitivist, Piaget[39] or Vygotsky,[40] whose research focused on children and sequential learning. Social constructivism is not congruent with the Constructivist learning theory. Dewey, Montessori, and Kolb represent the Constructivist learning theory where experiential learning occurs through real life experience to construct and conditionalize knowledge, and a mentor guides the mature learner. Piaget, Bruner, and Vygotsky are Cognitivist who work with young children and base their learning theories upon sequential development of mental processes scaffolded by an instructor…

So where does that leave us? What we have now is the complication in the perceived or actual divide between the traditionalists vs. the progressives; the teacher-centered (teacher as resource pool of core knowledge, hierarchical order) vs. student-centered; teacher as imparter of knowledge (and passive student receiver) in the traditional learning environment vs. interactive student learner in the constructivist learning environment.

The difference is widely perceived to be a significant one and one that establishes or changes the balance of power in the learning environment (or learning eco-system):

According to Constructivist Teaching and Learning by Audrey Gray:

“In the constructivist learning environment (which presumably introduces IT the most) students and teachers are interactive; students are (ideally) empowered because organization and management of the constructivist classroom and its content are more democratic and power and control are shared.”

On democratic and freedom in the classroom and ownership of learning, here there is another fundamental difference of beliefs that I am not sure can always be reconciled between those who focus on content to be learned vs. those who focuse on learner-focused-and-process-focused learning. See the Rand versus Hayek on Abstraction debate:

“The final point of contrast between Rand and Hayek concerns the uestion of whether and to what extent conceptual thinking is an active or a passive process. The question is not about the nervous system, which is obviously engaged in a whirlwind of activity, but about the conscious subject of knowledge. To what extent do individuals act as agents in control of the process of thought? To what extent do individuals initiate cognitive processes? To what extent are individuals capable of generating new ideas by thinking outside of their inherited traditions or acquired conceptual framework? Rand holds that the conceptual level involves active cognitive processing, which we as cognitive subjects have the ability (and responsibility) of initiating, directing, and validating. She holds that forming concepts, unlike perceiving, is an active process of integrating classes of things and differentiating them from other things. Her famous injunction ―check your premises reflects her view that we are capable of identifying the implicit assumptions in our conceptual framework in order to question their truth and revise them as needed.46 Her novels dramatize these views through characters who exhibit great initiative as independent, innovative thinkers. Rand also believes in free will, in the strong sense in which it affirms that we face alternative possibilities open to choice, and denies that all thoughts, choices and actions are necessitated by antecedent factors. She locates man‘s freedom in the choice to think, to raise the level of conscious attention, and to direct attention to relevant facts in the course of reasoning. As noted above, Rand does not speculate about the mind-brain relation, and thus does not offer any specific theory of how the choice to think relates to underlying physiological processes. In my view the most promising approach is the view of consciousness as an emergent property of the brain‘s interaction with the world, a control mechanism that serves the purpose of maintaining unity of action when the nervous system has evolved to a certain level of complexity. Freedom of will is then a further level of emergence related to the additional complexity of the greatly expanded cortex in human beings and the attendant capacities for conceptual thought and self-awareness. 47 In his political works, Hayek also stresses the creative powers of human beings when left free of coercive controls. But such creativity, he claims, is less the result of conscious thought than of evolution through social selection. The value of freedom is not primarily to enable individuals to innovate by rational insight, but rather to allow a proliferation of ideas, preferences, and practices from which the processes of social selection.”

Objectivists (rational thinking and the role of induction process) like Van Damme and Harriman, on the other hand, will harp on the possibility of cognitive error in the educational and learning environment, without rational and induction processes of thinking (which are hinged upon a hierarchical order of knowledge … by Harriman and Van Damme’s extension) which presumably are engendered when the early and immature student has considerable control and freedom in the classroom content and learning direction.

The divide between the different theorists also appears to hinge on the processes and paths of learning … and upon inductive thinking linear or spiral (see Inductive Quest) vertical logic, most applied in the scientific method.

“… the difference is that Harriman presents in the book a linear approach to inductive generalization-formation—using a conceptual framework and reasoning (and experiment when applicable), one forms a concept, which acts as a “green light” to form the inductive generalization—whereas Dr. McCaskey highlights the fact that scholars in the history of science would say that the process by which scientists learn concepts is more of a iterative process. This view of new knowledge as iterative brought up in my mind a number of technical issues regarding how our reasoning impacts our concepts, and vice versa, such as whether or not this is related to the Objectivist idea of “reduction.” It was because of my research that I learned about the Objectivist idea of a “spiral theory of knowledge.”
The spiral theory of knowledge is a technical aspect of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism. In the Objectivist view, all of one’s knowledge should be tied together into an integrated sum, with the higher, more abstract knowledge resting on the lower-level knowledge, and with one’s perceptual knowledge as the base. The spiral theory is the idea that gaining new knowledge is a process of rising from the perceptual level to higher abstractions to form concepts, and them moving back down to the perceptual level to validate, apply, and refine those concepts.”

Adversarial-thinking and debate dialectic logic (used in the law and the humanities disciplines) and Analysis-Synthesis approaches(which are used in scientific disciplines) also tend to adopt more linear deductive reasoning approaches (see Tom Ritchey’s “Analysis and Synthesis: On Scientific Method – Based on a Study by Bernhard Riemann” (although the Harkness and CollinsSocratic method popular with law schools, will add another dimension to the linear logical thinking and problem-solving).

Contrast the above more rigid straight lines of thinking, with the more fluid and organic processes of lateral thinkingparallel thinkingcollaborative concept brain-storming(and associated groupthink problems), Collins’ associative semantic memory or semantic network processing model and Tony Buzan’s mind-mappingvisual analogyvisual thinking and  design thinking:

“Design Thinkers also use divergent thinking and convergent thinking to explore many possible solutions. Divergent thinking is the ability to offer different, unique or variant ideas adherent to one theme while convergent thinking is the ability to find the “correct” solution to the given problem. Design thinking encourages divergent thinking to ideate many solutions (possible or impossible) and then uses convergent thinking to prefer and realize the best resolution. Unlike analytical thinking, design thinking is a creative process based around the “building up” of ideas. There are no judgments early on in design thinking. This eliminates the fear of failure and encourages maximum input and participation in the ideation and prototype phases. Outside the box thinking is encouraged in these earlier processes since this can often lead to creative solutions. An example of a design thinking process could have seven stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn.[1] Within these seven steps, problems can be framed, the right questions can be asked, more ideas can be created, and the best answers can be chosen. The steps aren’t linear; they can occur simultaneously and can be repeated.

These many approaches to thinking and critical thinking are most highly valued in situations where the end goal is solution-finding… and which are increasingly also applied to science and engineering fields at higher levels. Other non-linear “out-of-the-box” thinking approaches is seen in problem-solving artistic or creative fields (and it is here where constructivist approaches show their strengths).

Critical thinking is a buzzword in 21st century education everywhere, which has come to involve a lot of psychology, cognitive and brain science, is defined as including “the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following:

  • understand the logical connections between ideas
  • identify, construct and evaluate arguments
  • detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
  • solve problems systematically
  • identify the relevance and importance of ideas
  • reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform himself.

Critical thinking should not be confused with being argumentative or being critical of other people. Although critical thinking skills can be used in exposing fallacies and bad reasoning, critical thinking can also play an important role in cooperative reasoning and constructive tasks. Critical thinking can help us acquire knowledge, improve our theories, and strengthen arguments. We can use critical thinking to enhance work processes and improve social institutions.”

Wikipedia: The list of core critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, explanation, and meta-cognition. There is a reasonable level of consensus among experts that an individual or group engaged in strong critical thinking gives due consideration to establish:

  • Evidence through observation
  • Context skills
  • Relevant criteria for making the judgment well
  • Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
  • Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand (see above)

According to the Wikipedia article on Education and Critical Thinking:

John Dewey is just one of many educational leaders who recognized that a curriculum aimed at building thinking skills would be a benefit not only to the individual learner, but to the community and to the entire democracy.The key to seeing the significance of critical thinking in academics is in understanding the significance of critical thinking in learning. There are two meanings to the learning of this content. The first occurs when learners (for the first time) construct in their minds the basic ideas, principles, and theories that are inherent in content. This is a process of internalization. The second occurs when learners effectively use those ideas, principles, and theories as they become relevant in learners’ lives. This is a process of application. Good teachers cultivate critical thinking (intellectually engaged thinking) at every stage of learning, including initial learning. This process of intellectual engagement is at the heart of the OxfordDurhamCambridge and London School of Economics tutorials. The tutor questions the students, often in a Socratic manner (see Socratic questioning). The key is that the teacher who fosters critical thinking fosters reflectiveness in students by asking questions that stimulate thinking essential to the construction of knowledge.”

All models and constructs of thinking are concerned with the occurrence of cognitive bias or error in learning or educational outcomes, and critical thinking is an outcome-goal-oriented concept that tries to devise paths or habits of thinking that will eliminate or minimize those errors. See Ladder of Inference by Trevor Maber (see Ted-talk video) is a more intuitive and recent model for rethinking thinking, which begins at the bottom rung of data and observable data, working its way up to conclusions, going through different rungs taking into account the process of filtration of beliefs, meanings, assumptions …

Mark Twain said, “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you know that ain’t so!”The article Critical Thinking and Technology warns us that:

“…for a really effective computer dialogue, the most important (and most difficult) provisions an author must make are the ones that lead a student to rectify incorrect responses. . . .Socratic rectification of” misconceptions and incorrect reasoning can be achieved only if the author has prior knowledge [of]. . . the actual incorrect responses likely to be made. This is why authors must be well versed in the research results if they are to write good material.”

In Thoughts on Thinking: The Challenge of Critical Thinking Gary Heisserer writes:

Perhaps the most comprehensive definition of critical thinking comes from Halpern (1999):

Colleges and universities across the country are changing their educational standards by providing graduates with more than just the tangible skills they need to be competitive and productive in the workforce, they are also providing students with the opportunity to be better thinkers by providing learning plans that activate and enhance students’ higher-order thinking skills. This high-order thinking is often called critical thinking and involves judgment, analysis, and synthesis (Halpern, 1998,T 10).Critical thinking refers to the use of cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. Critical thinking is purposeful, reasoned and goal-directed. It is the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions. Critical thinkers use these skills appropriately, without  prompting, and usually with conscious intent, in a variety of settings. That is, they are predisposed to think critically. When we think critically, we are evaluating the outcomes of our thought processes—how good a decision is or how well a problem is solved. (p. 70) Central to Halpern’s definition is the idea that the critical thinker must have not only the necessary analytical tools but also the inclination to use them. Implicit in this argument is the reality that as educators, we must facilitate the learning of both critical thinking skills and dispositions.

What then is the role and relationship of computers and information technology in the fostering of effective learning and critical thinking skills in education?  Heisserer writes:

“Online tutorials are being developed helping Web-users to examine a site’s purpose, sponsor, content, bias, and most recent revision (Lederer, 2000). Discipline-specific critical thinking taxonomies are being developed to assist in the teaching and in the evaluation of critical thinking. Interactive media, electronic discussion forums, Weblogs, and Webquests have become commonplace in both the face-to-face and the online classrooms. The number of technology-enhanced teaching methods and programs claiming to help students think critically is itself overwhelming. These efforts reflect an explicit recognition of both the expanding importance and the increasing difficulty of developing critical thinking skills in our information age.

 There also appears to be a widespread recognition that critical thinking is a necessary component of authentic intellectual maturity. This sentiment is expressed by Villaume and Brahham (2002) in their discussion of the ramifications of being able to read critically:

After much discussion, we concluded that we choose to actively and thoughtfully construct meaning because we experience reading as an act that empowers us. We believe that we have the right and responsibility as readers to ask our own questions, to make our own connections, to visualize our own images, and to formulate and reformulate our own predictions.  … In short, we choose to read actively and strategically because to do otherwise means that we must relinquish our rights as readers and submit to the meanings, beliefs, and purposes advocated by others. (Why do we teach section, ¶2) It is this empowering attribute that makes critical thinking so essential. Critical thinking and information technology have been inextricably linked. Our information age presents new challenges and new mandates for teaching critical thinking, while also presenting new and exciting opportunities.”

In addition to quoting Halpern above, Heisserer’s paper which reviewed the methodology and results of the Computer Information Technology unit in administering student Critical Thinking Skills Tests, appears to conclude that

a) The critical thinking teaching methodologies used in both the programming and the networking units did not enhance the critical thinking of the students during the time period of this study

b) There is no reason to believe that the networking students are any more capable of critical thinking than the programming students

c) Instructors need to be continually aware of their teaching strategies with regards to enhancing the critical thinking of their students. First, however, instructors need to rethink how students learn by knowing how they think. Once this thinking process is understood, instructors will understand when and why they may need to revamp old methods of teaching in favor of methods that require students to reason, resolve conflicts, examine alternatives, break down arguments, assess credibility, form opinions, and make conclusions. Students will experience more learning when they take charge of their learning and intellectually activate their thinking processes with these new methods; the ability for students to thinking critically will just naturally follow…

So concluding from the foregoing, for the student to actually benefit in education from computer and information technology access, instructors and teachers should:

a) Use IT to make available diverse ways for instructors to respond to all types of personalities (of learners)

b) Use IT to intrigue and stimulate intrinsic interest, appeal to emotions or rational intellect by challenging or pose a problem-puzzle to be solved, e.g. by posing the fundamental questions, “big” questions, questions that lie at the heart of our disciplines.

c) Adopt IT as short visual (and auditory) representations to stimulate or help students learn and to contribute to a discussion

d) Know that students will still have to be able to think critically about all the information that they are able to access via IT.

e) Use IT to help students work collaboratively with other learners to solve problems

f) Use IT to provide learners with positive feedback ahead of summative judgment of their efforts

g) “Use computers to help students learn the higher order cognitive skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation rather than using technology (as we have often done in the past) to drill for memory or to shine light on a screen …

One outcome of research and observation over a wide range of students and introductory courses is that many students do not break through a full command of a particular concept or line of reasoning unless they can be reached in one-on-one Socratic dialogue. . . . [But] the necessary one-on-one dialog with a single student can easily take as long as 20 to 30 minuets or more. . .. Personal computer[s] with graphic capability [offer] the prospect of making one-on-one dialogues practicable in spite of numbers. The problem becomes one of writing effective dialogues that pull students over the early, most severe obstacles, and help them on the way to further learning, with decreasing dependence on Socratic assistance.” — writes Ken Bain in Fostering Critical Thinking with Technology

h) And to do all of the above well, instructors and teachers will have to have a handle on their learning and research material well, be able to detect incorrect responses, errors and fallacies in their students’ thinking in the materials they create through IT use, and be aware of and to use IT in their teaching strategies in enhancing their students’ critical thinking skills.

My take is that a midway position between the traditionalist vs. constructivist approaches is possible and desirable; that constructivist teachers would do well to “know their stuff well” and at the same time, facilitate their students’ understanding and grasp of the fundamentals and basics albeit, through their constructivist approaches; and that coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, traditionalist approaches can embrace all the attendant benefits of IT to foster learning and critical thinking skills of the 21st century skills, as long as the framework of hierarchical knowledge or core knowledge, leaves room for open-ended enquiry, and for the incorporation of other approaches such as project-based learning approaches. Some educational systems such as Finland and Singapore have successfully combined defined core curriculum frameworks but which build-in progressive educational methods and learning approaches into their curriculum and daily lessons, on top of a defined sequence of core knowledge concepts and learning skills.   The Japanese educational system, however, has had an unsuccessful trial-run with these approaches during the yutori hoiku period, the educational outcomes of which unfortunately did not go down well with educators and parents here in Japan who blamed the deteriorating skills and declining academic standards on these less rigorous approaches to education.



What is 21st century education?

Project-based learning for the 21st century

Halpern, D. F. (1997). Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum: A Brief Edition of Thought and Knowledge. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Also published in Spanish (2000)

Critical Thinking (Wikipedia)

Insight assessment website Measuring Thinking Worldwide

Critical thinking: Context and Definitions:

John Dewey identified learning to think” as a primary purpose of education in 1933 (Halpern, 2003, p. 8).  Dewey defined critical thinking as, “Active, persistent and careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends.” 

Constructivist Teaching and Learning by Audrey Gray

Critical Thinking and Real World Outcomes by Michael Hogan

Further readings:

Halpern, D. F. (2003). Thought and Knowledge: An Introduction to Critical Thinking (4th Edition). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Publishers. Also published in Russian (2003).

Halpern, D. F. & Riggio, H. (2003). Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking (4th ed.) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Publishers. (with separate instructors’ manual)

Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (2003). “Applying the Science of Learning to the University and Beyond: Teaching for Long-Term Retention and Transfer”.Change, July/August, 2-13.

Halpern, D. F., & Hakel, M. D. (Eds.), (2002). Applying the Science of Learning to the University and Beyond. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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