Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Critical Thinking vs. Problem Solving I - How Are They Different?

I've spent a lot of time thinking about critical thinking and problem solving. Nominally, my course is required to include a critical thinking component by the university so that it order to satisfies a distribution requirement. Over the past five years, I have never really been able to discern the difference between critical thinking and problem solving, a more common term for what we "teach" in physics. Some papers explicitly say that problem solving is a kind of critical thinking, [1] others say that it's a separate skill. [2] I don't really know the proportion. I originally just went for a rather strict problem solving format from the University of Minnesota* that I feel shows me how a student is thinking about problems,and based on Force Concept Inventory scores, I implemented it well (gain around 35-45%).

The students hated it, but my job isn't to be adored.

However, one spring day in 2020, I was informed that my course was to be reviewed for its critical thinking component.** When reviewing a course, all I have to do is to submit a product for each student that shows their critical thinking skills. This product can be a test question, a homework problem, a paper. I have a section on the tests where students individually provide an explanation of how to solve a problem, and I felt that this would do. It is a little stilted. What do you want to do? "Find the velocity." How are you going to do it? "Use conservation of energy." How do you represent that? "1/2 m v^2 = 1/2 m u^2 + mgh." It shows exactly what the student is thinking and how they utilize the data. I felt it would be a good way to show the development of the students' problem solving capabilities over the semester.

But I was given a rubric, and the rubric told me that I was wrong.

These are some highlights from the rubric:

Explanation of Issues. Problem is stated clearly and described comprehensively, including all relevant information.
Evidence. Viewpoints of experts are questioned thoroughly.
Context. Thoroughly analyzes assumptions and carefully evaluates the relevance of contexts when presenting a position.
Student's Position. Position is imaginative and other's views are synthesized within it.
Conclusions. Conclusions are logical and reflect the evidence and perspectives in priority order.

Try that with conservation of energy.

For some of this, expanding the selection from just he planning phase of the problem solving process would probably do. For others, it seems irrelevant. In fact, some of the categories seem to be completely irrelevant to the course ("Influence of Context and Assumptions" is the full title). But, looking at the rubric for the curriculum component, I feel at minimum it requires a term paper, and probably a thesis. The school implicitly takes the side that problem solving is not a part of critical thinking.

Critical thinking, as described by the rubric, is really separate from problem solving.

However, I still think that there should be some overlap. I think in come coming posts, I'll talk about what I think problem solving and critical thinking are, possibly in several posts each, and then I'll talk about some specific problem-solving tools for first year physics students.


* That, I think, they don't use it any more.

** And just after I wrote this, they told me that this was the evaluation of the engineering students' "written communication."


[1] Willingham, D., "Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?" American Educator (2007).

[2] Pasquinelli, E., M. Farina, A. bedel, and R. Casati, "Naturalizing Critical THinking: Consequences for Education, Blueprint for Future Research in Cognitive Science." Mind, brain, and Education 15, 168 (2021).

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