Critical Thinking and Engineering Education: Levels of Inquiry

Posted on April 21, 2011

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Author:  Sanjay Goel, http://in.linkedin.com/in/sgoel

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Context:

The quality of any inquiry depends upon the critical thinking ability of the researcher/investigator.  Critical thinking is essential for understanding of complex  and fuzzy situations  as well as good and apt decision making. It is crucial  for engineering professionals who  have to  investigate and solve complex problems, identify and develop best practices, document and defend findings, make decisions even under the conditions of unreliable and even misleading information, criticise assumptions and inference, face ethical and sustainability questions,  and also  provide consultancy on multi-faceted complex problems.  It has been identified as an important  ‘competency driver-habits of mind’ in the three-tier taxonomy of twelve competencies for software development education [1].

It is unfortunate that science and engineering courses often do  not  give sufficient importance to developing critical thinking ability in their students.  A curriculum that puts an overemphasis on training on established theories, processes,  and best practices inhibits the development of  critical thinking [2].   Often engineering subjects give the impression that there is always a right answer and that the ‘facts’ will resolve disputes. They concentrate on mathematical analysis rather than critical analysis [3].

Minger’s Framework:

In 2000, Minger [4] proposed a framework for critical thinking.  Analysts and researchers in all disciplines can use this framework for defining and evolving the scope of their inquiry.  The four levels of this framework are as follows:

i. Critique of rhetoric: argument analysis by checking for logical fallacy, soundness, and validity.

ii. Critique of tradition: critical attitude towards actions in organizations, cultures, traditions, and assumptions that underpin these beliefs.

iii. Critique of authority: being skeptical of one dominant view.

iv. Critique of objectivity: being skeptical of information and knowledge, recognition that information and knowledge is never value free, and are continuously reshaped by the structures of power within a situation. Implies the meta-cognitive process in critical thinking.

Teaching Critical Thinking

The undergraduate curriculum of liberal arts colleges  in USA emphasizes critical thinking.   Some western universities  offer courses in critical thinking to their engineering students as well.   Such a practice  is not common in India.  Last year, I was very happy to learn from Prof. Pankaj Jalote that at IIIT Delhi, they have started offering  a course on critical thinking to their undergraduate students. For the last many years,  IIIT Hyderabad has been conducting  a  workshop, ‘Jeevan Vidya,’  for all their fresh undergraduate students. In a very interesting way, this workshop makes a very laudable effort to initiate the participants  into  critical thinking about issues encompassing Minger’s all four  levels. 

At JIIT, I had included some lectures  on critical thinking as part of some interdisciplinary elective courses, i.e., ‘Research Methodology,’ ‘Human Aspects of Information Technology,’ and ‘Software Arteology’  that were offered to different batches of final year undergraduate computing students during 2005-2010.  In addition, some other instructional innovations/interventions [5][6][7]  have also been carried out to nurture students’  habit of inquiry learning. 

In my view,  all  institutes need  to incorporate  critical thinking and methods of inquiry in their curriculum in their own way. In my future articles, I intend to write more about it. 

I invite the learned readers to share the information and  views  about the following issues:

1.   How different institutes incorporate critical thinking in their curriculum and pedagogy?   What is the impact of these attempts?  What are the difficulties?

2.  What do   faculty members in different disciplines do  to incorporate critical thinking in their own courses?  What is the impact of these attempts? What are the difficulties?

In order to put a deliberate emphasis on critical thinking in the framework of pedagogical engagements, I have used Minger’s four   levels  to define four sublevels of  ‘critique’ activity at  ‘evaluate’ level for revising the Bloom’s taxonomy with respect to the special needs of software development education [1][8].

Critical Thinking and courses on Research Methodology:

In India, because of  UGC’s directive,  the courses on  ‘Research Methodology’ have recently become common for the doctoral programs with many universities. Social sciences have had a strong tradition of such courses  for master’s and doctoral students.  It was pleasant surprise to see inclusive of a chapter on Research methods in  the NCERT book on Sociology for school students of 11th  class .   However, wrt to most other disciplines,  this has not been a very common practice even for doctoral students.  Therefore, there is  insufficient understanding and agreement about the desirable content and pedagogy of such courses especially in the context of  engineering discipline.   Surprisingly, in private conversations,  many professors of  maths, natural sciences,  and engineering  often disapprove  the necessity of such courses.  

In my view,   a good discussion on theories,  models, frameworks, and techniques of critical thinking must be an integral part of the  courses on ‘Research Methodology.’     In order to make  discussion on critical thinking meaningful, this content should preferrably  be contextualised with respect to the core discipline of the target students.  This is a challenging task that need to be addressed by the teachers of  ‘Research Methodology.’   Attempts to offer common course on ‘Research Methodology’ or ‘Critical Thinking’  for many disciplines need to be carefully reviewed. 

References:

[1]   Design of Interventions for Instructional Reform in Software Development Education for Competency Enhancement: Summary of PhD Thesis

[2]  Luís Moniz Pereira & Ludwig Krippahl, On Teaching Critical Thinking to Engineering Students

[3]   http://www.herinst.org/sbeder/engineers/columns/probe3.html

[4]  Jennifer Moon, Critical thinking: an exploration of theory and practice, Routledge, pp 49-51, 2007.

[5]   SERO Model for Inquiry Teaching in Software Development Education

[6]   Project-centric Evolutionary Teaching in Software Development Education

[7]    Engaging Students in Puzzle Solving for Developing their Logical Problem Solving ability

[8]  Revising Bloom’s Taxonomy wrt Engineering Education

[9]  Is Today’s PhD Education in India Aiming To Create Inspiring Intellectual Leaders of Tomorrow?

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