This is slightly complex post on an issue on which I have not fully reached my own conclusions. I do however think that it outlines a deep problem in curriculum theory, and one which has significant consequences for our teaching. Let’s start with some definitions. I am calling a ‘vague verb’ one that could be meaningfully interpreted in a variety of different ways by different people. Takes words such as the following:
Each of these verbs is associated with a myriad of definitions in the OED, and they are used in the field of education to mean different things by different people in different contexts. We see the impact of this most clearly in the formation of educational objectives. I remember struggling to find the ‘right verb’ to put into a learning objective: did I want them to ‘explain’ or to ‘evaluate’? Did I want them to ‘think critically’ or did I want them to ‘analyse’? I was fortunate enough to work in a school that did not insist on writing objectives on the board, but on the occasion that I did the pupils (who always seem most astute on this sort of thing) would want me to be clear about what the difference was between ‘explain’ and ‘evaluate’, and inevitably I found myself tied up in knots. Vague verbs as curricular constructs undermine our ability to define our educational aims.
Unfortunately, curriculum designers have tended to compound this problem in how they use these verbs in the process of curriculum construction. One thing that happens is that curriculum theorists attempt to create ‘hierarchies’ of verbs, raising some above others in terms of difficulty and challenge. Perhaps you want to make ‘analysing’ a subset of ‘thinking’. Perhaps you want to raise ‘explaining’ over ‘analysing’. In its most terrible form we end up with judgements about pupils such as ‘in this essay he was explaining but he was not analysing’, which is both a proxy for and a rationalisation of the judgement ‘this essay is not as good as I wanted’. Another curriculum confusion is created when these verbs get turned into nouns, so that a process becomes a product. Thus ‘thinking’ as a verb becomes ‘thinking’ as a noun. The important consequence of this is that it shifts the focus away from the object of the verb, and instead makes the process itself the thing that matters. And then we add the final structure built on this pyramid of sand: adjectives get put in front of these nominalised verbs. So ‘thinking’ becomes ‘critical thinking’; ‘understanding’ becomes ‘chronological understanding’. This is a noble attempt at specificity, but it is hamstrung from the outset in that the nominalised verb being modified is not properly defined. When it comes to specificity in language, you cannot polish a turd: if the initial concept is vague, then any modification of it can be only more vague.
All of this leads me to suggest, somewhat tentatively, something that runs contrary to what is normally assumed in the world of education.
Perhaps the verb just does not matter that much.
All of these verbs refer to something that is going on biologically in our bodies, and mostly refers to cognitive activity of some description in our brains. We are learning more and more about the cognitive architecture of our brains, but there is no cognitive basis on which to distinguish between ‘thinking’, or ‘understanding’ or ‘explaining’. Humans think, and rather than trying to invent multiple categories of human thought, a more parsimonious solution is to leave ‘thinking’ as it is, and rather to focus ourselves on what we are thinking about.
This has the neat effect of shifting the emphasis from process to product.
Rather than talk in a fairly vague way about a mysterious phenomenon in our heads called ‘chronological understanding’, perhaps we should talk of ‘understanding chronology’. It is from there a sensible if not easy step to start defining the sorts of chronology we might want pupils to understand (and, for reasons I have explained elsewhere, I think the verbs ‘understand’, ‘know’ and ‘learn’ can be used interchangeably here). The point is that the verb begins to take a back seat: what I can really focus on as a teacher is the thing I want them to learn about / know / understand / think about.
And so, rather than nod sagely about the importance of teaching critical thinking, perhaps we should instead say ‘we want pupils to think about critique’. We can then begin to specify the sorts of critique we want pupils to think about. Our curricular focus becomes ‘critique’ and not ‘thinking’. Again, we can probably then avoid running down intellectual rabbit holes, such as distinguishing between ‘critical’ and ‘normal’ thinking. Instead, we can spend our time determine what critiques we want our pupils to learn. If the cognitive psychologists are right and what we learn about is what we think about, then it makes no sense to talk of ‘learning critical thinking’ – instead we can say “I want pupils to learn Critique X, and so I shall get them to spend some time thinking about it, so that they might then learn it.”
At some point about twenty years ago, it became popular to stop talking of ‘learning subjects’ and instead to talk of particular ‘types’ of understanding. Thus we ended up with curricular objects such as ‘historical understanding’, ‘mathematical understanding’ or ‘scientific understanding’. But, if we follow my argument here, we have no basis on which to believe that ‘understanding’ as a form of human thought can be categorised in such ways. We have not evolved to do ‘scientific thinking’: instead we have evolved to think. One of the things we think about are the academic disciplines that our culture has created. We can think about history, or science, or mathematics, and by thinking about these disciplines in all their complexity we can come to learn about them. It is simply not necessary to invent a phenomenon called ‘historical understanding’ to describe this. To use a terrible analogy, I do not think we as teachers need to install into our pupils a separate processor for ‘history’, ‘chemistry’ or ‘critical’, any more than we install a separate processor to run different programmes on our computer at home. Rather, these programmes are installed in our pupils’ memories: they learn their disciplines (history, chemistry, a variety of forms of criticism) and then they use their processor to think about those memories.
This is complex territory and I do not have fully-formed conclusions concerning it. I am however increasingly convinced that verbs such as ‘knowing’, ‘understanding’ and ‘thinking’ need to be left to the psychologists. If it emerges empirically that humans do have specific mental processes that can be called ‘critical thinking’ or ‘historical thinking’, then I shall happily bow in humble recognition of reality and begin using these terms, no doubt somewhat satisfied in knowing what is meant by particular mental process called ‘critical thinking’ or ‘historical thinking’.
Instead, I would want to focus our curricular language on what we want pupils to think about. Let us take the discipline of history. Over time, historians have developed (for example) a number of causal models that can be used to construct arguments about why things happened in the past. I want pupils to study those models – explicitly – and to commit them to memory. I want them to recall these models and to use them to construct arguments about the different periods they study. I want them to think about how those models can be used to construct arguments, and I want them to recall these models from their memory in order to criticise the arguments created by others.
None of this runs counter to what most involved in the field of history education want to a achieve. But, importantly, we do not have to invent a new type of human cognition called ‘historical thinking’ to allow that we aim to achieve these things as educational ends.
Picture: The author, Brunetto Latini, reading, France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, 405 x 280 mm. Royal 17 E. i, f. 2v, detail. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/TourBestiaryStudies.asp