Saturday 7 July 2018

The school research lead and critical thinking

Attending conferences and critically appraising what you hear, see and read is on its own not enough to make better decisions about teaching, learning and the leadership and management of schools.  What you see and hear needs to be linked to your own expertise, but also the context your school and the needs and preferences of pupils, teacher, parents, governing bodies and other stakeholders.  Drawing upon the work of Jenicek, Croskerry, et al. (2011) in health-care I am going to adopt their argument, that critical thinking and decision-making can be seen as the means for making that link.

Critical thinking

Jenicek et al use a definition of critical thinking which was developed by a range of experts in critical thinking from a number of subject, fields and disciplines and which states that it should be defined as “purposeful self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation and inferences, as well as the explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based.’ (p 12-14).

However, Jenicek at al argue that what’s even more useful than a definition of critical thinking are the skills and abilities which underpin critical thinking in practice.  Table 1 provides a list of the specific abilities underlying critical thinking in medical practice, which should be equally applicable to schools and other educational settings

Table 1 Specific abilities underlying critical thinking in medical practice
  • Understand the principles of argumentation
  • Knowing and understandings dual Systems 1 and System 2 thinking processes and their interactions
  • Awareness and understanding of evolutionary influences on decision-making
  • Recognizing distracting stimuli, propaganda, bias and irrelevance
  • Identifying, analysing, and challenging assumptions in arguments
  • Awareness and understandings of the impact of the cognitive fallacies and poor reasoning
  • Awareness and understanding of the major impact of the cognitive and affective biases on thinking
  • Recognizing deception, deliberate or otherwise
  • Capacity for assessing credibility of information
  • Understanding the needs for monitoring and control of one’s own thought processes
  • Understanding the importance of monitoring and control of one’s own affective states
  • Awareness of the critical impact of fatigue and sleep deprivation on decision-makings
  • Imagining and exploring alternatives
  • Capacity for effectively thinking through problems
  • Understanding the importance of the context in which decisions are made
  • Systematic and effective decision-making
  • Understanding the dynamics and properties of individual vs group decision-making
  • Capacity for anticipating the consequences of decisions

Jenicek et al p14

What are the implications of this model of critical thinking for teachers, school research champions, and senior school leaders?

First, it would be wrong to assume that all staff have the same level of critical thinking skills. Both new and existing educators will need to be trained in critical thinking – so as to help them become more able in integrating different sources of evidence into a coherent decision and plan of action.

Second, teachers, school research champions and senior school leaders may wish to engage in some form of reflection about their current level of expertise in critical thinking.  A couple of useful places to start would be to ask yourself – what do I know about both argumentation and the ladder of inference?  If the answer is nothing, then exploring both these concepts will all likelihood be rewarded with improved critical thinking and decision-making.

Third, the opportunities for developing critical thinking can be easily found throughout, the school day, week or year.  School leaders can use conversations in staff rooms to help understanding the underlying principles of both their own and other peoples’ perspectives.  Departmental meetings may be used to challenge the assumptions of how certain subjects and topics are taught.  Journal clubs may provide opportunities for developing critical thinking, although it should be emphasised that critical thinking is not limited to critically appraising research

Four, new interventions and existing programmes should be subject to critical review to help understand whether there are cognitive biases or affective states which have had an inadvertent negative impact on decisions and associated outcomes.

And finally

Future posts will explore in more detail the principles of argumentation and in doing so will be looking at the Toulmin model of arguments and will look at the work of Kvernbekk (2013, Kvernbekk (2016) in how this model can be applied in educational contexts.


Jenicek, M., Croskerry, P. and Hitchcock, D. L. (2011). Evidence and Its Uses in Health Care and Research: The Role of Critical Thinking. Medical science monitor: international medical journal of experimental and clinical research. 17. 1. RA12.
Kvernbekk, T. (2013). Evidence-Based Practice: On the Function of Evidence in Practical Reasoning. Studier i Pædagogisk Filosofi. 2. 2. 19-33.
Kvernbekk, T. (2016). Evidence-Based Practice in Education: Functions of Evidence and Causal Presuppositions. London. Routledge.


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