Incorporating Critical Thinking into STEM Education

As essential as STEM is, it is far from sufficient in a modern education

Dave Kinkead Jan 7, 2020

Science and mathematics are an essential ingredient for developing students who can effectively participate in a complex and diverse 21st century society. Current and future generations face a range of wicked problems that will require innovation and ingenuity to solve.

Yet as essential as STEM in eduction might be, it is far from sufficient. Today's student's need to develop much more from their education than the ability to pipette peroxide, code software, build machines and solve equations. They also need to think critically about what they are doing and why.

So it's no surprise that critical and creative thinking feature heavily in educational policy, the demands of employers, and wishes of parents.

Asymmetric transferability

It would be convenient for everyone then (except perhaps for philosophers), if teaching students science also taught them to think critically.

There must be some crossover. After all, we teach differential calculus and Boyle's Law not because graduates need to perform optimisation by hand or calculate gas absorption on a daily basis but because this knowledge equips them with a useful perspective and ability to solve abstract problems.

If it doesn't, what's the point of including things like this in a general secondary education?

Yet the evidence to support the claim that teaching scientific knowledge improves critical thinking is rather depressing.

It's not that critical and thinking and STEM are incompatible with each other. Rather, content focused learning with a heavy reliance on memorisation and recall fails to effectively develop critical thinking skills.

Either we add critical thinking to the curriculum which requires us to remove some other subject (and who needs music and the arts anyway) or we must somehow integrate critical thinking into existing subject matter.

And given that the school day is already full, it seems sensible to look at the latter approach.

Disciplines as methods of inquiry

We can begin to understand how we might integrate critical thinking into STEM subjects by viewing all subjects as particular approaches to inquiry.

Physics asks different questions to history, chemistry uses different methods to psychology. What makes a subject a subject is it's unique approach to investigate (including the kinds of questions they ask) but what makes all subjects common is that they seek to generate new knowledge.

Understanding the nature of knowledge and the justification of our beliefs is what critical thinking is all about. It about metacognition and evaluation -- of thinking about our thinking and making judgments about its quality.

When we explicitly focus on metacognitive evaluation (when our thinking itself is an object of study) from within the context of subject matter, we are incorporating critical thinking into our teaching. From this point of view, all subjects are just domain specific methods for understanding the world around us.

Question then justify

There are a multitude of strategies that we might employ to develop critical thinking in STEM, but the simplest of them begin with questions. Here are a few examples to try:

None of these questions have simple yes/no answers. Many are better/worse style answers rather than right/wrong. Some can't even be answered by the best scientists today.

That can make them uncomfortable to ask (especially when you don't know the answer yourself). Yet this is also what makes them so transformative for student cognition. They require students to analyse information, to evaluate it, and synthesise it into new beliefs -- the key cognitive skills we are hoping to develop.

Asking and then answering these questions isn't enough however -- it's just the first step. Students must also justify their responses to each other. Without justification, a classroom discussion will quickly degenerate into empty talk-fest of preferences and taste.

"I think it's X."

"No, I think it's Y".

"No, it's X!"

Once we begin to ask these question and justify our answers to our peers, we begin to develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter we are investigating and the limitations of our knowledge. We begin to reflect not just on what we know, but importantly on the how and why we know it.

Once we do that, we are beginning to think critically.