Critical Thinking and Inquiry

"Critical thinking is highly valued but difficult to teach effectively." (How to Improve Critical Thinking Using Educational Technology)

Education research has demonstrated what great educators have always known: students acquire and retain knowledge most effectively when they must understand new information well enough to apply it to new situations, or to reformulate it into new ideas and knowledge (NRC, 2000 ). Fostering critical thinking skills is becoming one of the chief goals of education, particularly at the college level, where a variety of pedagogic techniques are being used to develop critical thinking skills in students (Irenton, Manduca and Mogk, 1996).

These skills are often developed in geoscience students through project-based learning, in laboratory or field settings. In single laboratories or longer-term projects, students are asked to acquire basic knowledge and understanding, review literature, develop research skills, gather, analyze, and evaluate data, and ultimately to synthesize this complex information into an advanced understanding.

It is important that web resources developed for educational use reinforce this kind of learning. Many resources simply display information on pages with the only student interaction being a click on the "next" or "previous" buttons. Even if these pages are nested in cutting edge technology, these experiences are analogous to lectures which have been shown to fail in teaching advanced thinking skills (Schank et al., 1995 ). Schank et al. posit four fundamental features of natural human learning: Learning is goal-directed, learning is failure-driven, learning is case-based, and learning best occurs by doing.The authors also give examples of what it means to use these fundamentals in designing meultimedia or web resources.

Critical thinking is a complex idea. It can mean many different things to different people depending on their point of view. So what do we mean by "critical thinking" and "inquiry"? The next several pages include opportunities for you to explore your own definitions, what research on the subject has to say and an example course that embodies some of the principles we are talking about.