Critically thinking about critical thinking in science education: Interrogating the perceptions and actions of Australian senior secondary and tertiary educators

Author: Amy Butler

Butler, Amy, 2020 Critically thinking about critical thinking in science education: Interrogating the perceptions and actions of Australian senior secondary and tertiary educators, Flinders University, College of Science and Engineering

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Critical thinking (CT) is an essential skill for the workplace and education (Oliver and Jorre de St Jorre, 2018; Sellars, 2018). Yet globally, educators feel ill-prepared and ill-equipped to foster CT in students (Lauer, 2005; Choy and Cheah, 2009; Black, 2009; Phelan, 2012; Aliakbari and Sadeghdaghighi, 2013; Reynolds, 2016; Carbone et al., 2019). Despite multiple findings confirming that mixed teaching approaches generate the strongest CT development outcomes (Tiruneh, Verburgh, and Elen, 2014; Abrami et al., 2015), instructional methods continue to emphasise embedding CT into curricula design (Puig, Blanco-Anaya, Bargiel and Crujeiras-Pérez, 2019). This is especially true in Australia, where an embedded approach is advised through policy documents. There are ongoing calls for classroom-based research into 21st-century skills such as CT, with a demand for information that reveals best-practice approaches (Arum, Roksa and Cook, 2016; Doeke and Maire, 2019). Concurrently, CT assessments are criticised for failing to help educators understand how classroom dynamics impact students’ CT development (Benjamin, 2012; Rear, 2019). Consequently, the purpose of this doctoral research is to empower educators with knowledge and tools to increase CT development in their classrooms.

This transdisciplinary thesis contributes empirical, methodological and theoretical knowledge about CT, with a focus on its role in science education. In respect to the empirical contribution, this research adds to understanding of CT development in Australia through an exposition of educator ideas, tertiary science teaching activities and CT development outcomes. It includes the first cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional survey relating to educator perspectives of CT in Australia. This doctoral research makes two methodological contributions by applying scientific thinking to education research. Firstly, it demonstrates how a biologically-based statistical approach can generate deeper understanding of survey data. Secondly, it demonstrates how using a multi-instrument analysis approach creates deeper and actionable understanding of CT development. The main theoretical contribution of this doctoral research – the Adaptive Critical Thinking Framework – is an original synthesis and reconfiguration of the components of CT. Descriptions of the framework elements characterise the essential elements of CT. Elaborations of this framework, including the accompanying definition, summarise the process of CT and highlight the importance of context when applying the elements. This framework is applied throughout the thesis to exhibit its capacity to enhance understanding about CT.

Collectively, this research supplies new insights into CT development in Australia. It demonstrates the capacity of a new framework and a multi-tool assessment approach to enhance understanding of opportunities for CT development in classrooms. Contemporary science graduates require more than just standard scientific skills and content knowledge to succeed (Taber, 2016; Pearl, Rayner, Larson, and Orlando, 2019). Employers require graduates to be reflexive thinkers and problem-solvers (Bezanilla, Fernández-Nogueira, Poblete and Galindo-Domínguez, 2019). Yet the way to achieve this outcome requires strategic changes to teaching practice. Educators need clear policy direction and training to support their decisions and efforts to enhance CT development in their classrooms. There is a need to overcome the failure to measure what matters (Shively, Stith, and Rubenstein, 2018). It is time to think more critically about critical thinking.

Keywords: critical thinking, Adaptive Critical Thinking Framework, higher education, Australia, science, science and society, chemistry, teachers, educators, case-study, critical thinking assessment test

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2020
School: College of Science and Engineering
Supervisor: Professor Tara Brabazon