Critical Thinking - its role, value and impact upon driving attainment

Students who have a deficit of ‘thinking skills’ are not only lacking sufficient grounding to embark upon undergraduate study, but also missing a vital skill essential for the 21st-century workforce.

Speaking at a Cambridge Assessment seminar on 11 February 2010 on Critical Thinking, Richard Wainer, Head of Education and Skills at CBI, said: “The ability to think, reason and make sound decisions is a vital skill for the workplace – and crucial for employees who want to do well and advance…yet many firms have expressed concerns about the lack of problem-solving skills they are seeing in school leavers.”

The seminar was held to highlight how an explicit focus on Critical Thinking can enhance the attainment of pupils of all backgrounds and abilities, following recent research. Importantly, the research showed that pupils who study Critical Thinking as a discrete subject at AS level tend to do better in their other A level subjects, whether they are taking sciences, languages or humanities. Professor Steve Higgins of Durham University, agreed “there is consistent positive evidence of the benefits of teaching for thinking.”

Dale Bassett, Senior Researcher at the think-tank Reform, claimed that today’s curriculum is to blame. He commented that the teaching and learning of Critical Thinking has been “lost” in the curriculum through “prescriptive, restrictive exams”.

The seminar brought together over 60 teachers, industry representatives and leading academics. There was much debate whether Critical Thinking should be treated as a specialist, stand-alone subject or ‘embedded’ and taught in other subjects. However, there was widespread agreement about the benefits of thinking skills in education and employment and a consensus that, whether delivered separately or embedded, it is important that the teaching of Critical Thinking be explicit.

Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research & Development at Cambridge Assessment, said: "False oppositions are displayed in two common questions around Critical Thinking. They are: 'Should it be taught as a separate subject, or integrated into all subjects?' and 'Should it be part of the formal curriculum and assessed, or part of the informal curriculum and unassessed?' Research shows the answer to the first is: 'It should be reinforced through dedicated provision and then applied in all subjects'. The answer to the second is also clear: 'It doesn't matter, as long as it is based on a sound conception of Critical Thinking and delivered through robust pedagogy'."

Critical Thinking is still relatively new as a stand-alone qualification and understanding of the discipline is still being formed. Its early use was largely confined to university entrance tests but it is now widely available at upper secondary school level. In June 2009, students at around one in six schools took OCR’s Critical Thinking AS level.

Oates added: “In developing qualifications in Critical Thinking, Cambridge Assessment isn’t asserting that a qualification is the only way to enhance pupils’ facility in Critical Thinking, but is offering schools a supportive, clear structure for both learning provision and recognition of attainment.”

The films below capture the views of several Critical Thinking teachers as well as the presentations from the recent event. A podcast is also available further down this page.

To hear the whole event (all presentations and debate), please download the podcast below.

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