Critical thinking and knowledge bases

A couple of weeks ago our campus hosted a guest speaker who gave a presentation on assessing critical thinking skills, especially in the context of general education.  (This was part of an ongoing project on our campus to reform our general education curriculum and move more in the direction of assessment of learning outcomes.)

The presentation was engaging and thought-provoking, but one piece in particular stood out to me as particularly relevant to information literacy instruction.  The presenter cited research1 that had been done to try to get at what constitutes generalized critical thinking skills.  This research had focused on expert chess players, because the researchers figured that there were few better models of generalized, disciplinary-context-free thinking skills than chess. So they investigated how expert chess players think, what drives their decision-making, how expert chess players’ thinking differs from novice chess players’ thinking, etc.

What they found, however, was that instead of anything that could be described as generalized thinking skills, what the expert players were drawing on was a vast knowledge base:  of patterns of chess moves, of strategies, of famous games, of players’ personalities and their likelihood of making certain strategic decisions, etc.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

And that got me thinking about information literacy, and specifically, the process of sorting through vast reams of search results to find the relevant and reliable results, and to sort them from the rest.  I’ve recently become more and more aware of the incredibly dense and complex filters that I apply to a set of search results.  Try it yourself with the search results for “affirmative action” in Academic Search Premier that are linked in the image at the right:  how quickly did you pull out the popular magazine article and the editorial; how quickly did you sort the other, more scholarly, treatments into their disciplinary pigeonholes?

It’s astounding to me how quickly, and on how little evidence, I’m able to make these kinds of decisions.  (Admittedly, I sometimes get them wrong!)  And I always have to remind myself that 18-year-olds simply do not have the knowledge base yet to do this as quickly as I do.  Even a hypothetical college senior who had achieved all of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education couldn’t do it, at least not as quickly as I — or any of you — could.  It’s not a question of the student’s information literacy skills, it’s a question of her knowledge base, or lack thereof.

And that’s my question:  how do we impart that knowledge base to our students?  Can we?  (Should we, is another question I suppose.)  Or is the best we can do, to throw up our hands and say, “go out and live mindfully in the world for twenty years and then come back and ask that question again?”

  1. I’m not sure precisely what the citation is for the research; it was probably the following article, which I have not actually read, because our library doesn’t have it and I’m not about to tax our already-overburdened ILL system just to verify a citation for a blog post. Ahem. Where was I?  Oh yes, the citation:

    Perkins, D. N. and Gavriel Salomon. “Are cognitive skills context bound?” Educational Researcher 18/1 (1989): 16-25.