Over three days experts from the world of adult education discussed the EU's Adult Learning Action Plan, at a conference in Budapest, 7-9 March. The conference underlined the need for adult learning, more than ever before, to contribute to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in Europe, as part of its economic recovery, and in response to its ageing, multicultural and constantly changing societies.
Participants agreed that future priorities should concentrate on enabling adults cope with change and transitions in their lives and jobs. One of the main issues highlighted was how to achieve efficient expansion of the sector at a time of economic austerity.
"This is a conference which is the result of three years of very hard work on a topic that is striking for its importance," the European Commission's Deputy Director-General for Education and Culture, Xavier Prats Monn̩ told the more than 250 participants from over 35 countries, who attended the conference along with partners from the United Nations, the Council of Europe, OECD and EU Institutions.
Outcomes of the EU's action plan on adult learning
The purpose of the conference ��� accompanied by the publication of a Commission paper summarising the outcomes of the EU's action plan on adult learning ��� was to take stock of results achieved over the past three years of European co-operation in the field of adult learning and to use lessons and experiences learned to formulate better and more effective strategies for the future.
Despite progress, reforms, innovations in many countries and regions, the hard fact remains that the population of adult non-learners is 50 million more than it was 10 years ago. Achieving key competences, including adequate literacy, numeracy and digital skills, is still a problem among a third of the workforce, many of whom will need to upgrade their skills to remain in employment.
Central importance of adult learning
Adult learning experts and civil society organisations joined with social partners and representatives from public authorities across Europe in underlining the central importance of adult learning in tackling the Union's skills deficits and building a cohesive and pluralist society. As keynote speaker Ms Maria Jọo Rodrigues, Special Advisor to the EU Presidencies and to the European Commission, put it, "Adult learning is a central task for the 21st century ��� vital to enabling people to make the most of their lives and jobs and therefore an essential element in the Union's EU2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth."
Participants at the conference acknowledged the success of the Adult learning Action Plan (2008-2010) in promoting the adult learning agenda in all EU countries. They gave evidence of the value of having a common reference with agreed milestones and intensive debate as an instrument for supporting policy-making and a European forum for promoting exchange of innovative ideas in the field.
The conference has given a strong impetus to the Commission's work in the field of adult learning. The orientations developed at the conference will help shape a new Adult Learning Action Plan to be launched later this year in the framework of the Education and Training 2020 strategy to support the development of a strong and responsive adult learning sector in Europe.
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Studies show that the majority of academic faculty believe critical thinking to be of primary importance in instruction. Yet most of these same studies also show that few faculty can articulate a reasonable conception of critical thinking or show how they try to foster it in their teaching. And contrary to what many believe, there is no historical evidence to suggest that critical thinking has ever been at the heart of teaching and learning in any human society.
Almost 70 years after Edward Glaser conducted the first official study on critical thinking, we are still a long way from realising it in the typical university classroom.
Glaser argued for the importance of critical thinking in education. Critical thinking, according to him, "calls for persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends".
It requires an ability to recognise problems, to find ways to tackle those problems, to gather relevant information, "to recognise unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments...to reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgements".
If we are ever to become serious about cultivating the skills of mind articulated by Glaser; if we want instructors to teach in such a way that students learn to think their way through content rather than memorise bits and pieces of information for tests; if we want students to embody traits of mind such as intellectual empathy, fair-mindedness and confidence in reason, we must explicitly place critical thinking at the heart of the curriculum.
Doubtless many teachers in many countries are doing what is in their power to foster critical thinking in their classrooms. But this is not enough. We need whole institutions to take critical thinking seriously and to support long-term professional development in it..
Although there are many ways to articulate such a conception, we might start with William Graham Sumner, who argued in his classic sociological text Folkways (1906) that if the habit of critical thought becomes a norm in society, it "will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators. They are slow to believe...They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other.
"They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens."
A substantive conception of critical thinking will enable students to think within the content they are learning, to see subjects and disciplines as modes of thinking to be reasoned through. It will be applicable to all human thought, target both the analysis and assessment of thought and take into account the affective as well as the cognitive dimension of thought. It will emphasise not only intellectual skills and abilities but also intellectual traits; it will draw attention to those workings of the mind that function as barriers to the development of critical thought, such as egocentric and sociocentric thought. It will integrate the creative with the critical and incorporate the ethical dimension of thought. And it will be open to contributions from any field of study as well as continual development.
What must be avoided are simplistic approaches to the development of the mind, such as "1-2-3 step" problem-solving strategies, or fragmented approaches, or approaches that cannot be applied to a full range of real-life problems and issues.
Choose a conception that is systematic, integrated, trans-disciplinary and based in intellectual but non-technical language
It is difficult to teach critical thinking in a tacit way. Therefore we need explicit tools for cultivating the intellect and promoting intellectual standards such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, sufficiency, logic, significance and fairness.
For example, we can teach students to ask relevant questions. To clarify thinking, we can ask students to elaborate a point or exemplify it. To teach students the importance of accuracy, we can ask them to check to see whether something is true. To foster reasonability in thought, we can ask students whether there is a more logical interpretation of the data. To encourage fairness, we can ask whether students have considered all relevant viewpoints in good faith.
A substantive conception of critical thinking will be systematic and integrated, and one whose underlying principles are tied together in a way that makes logical sense and which uses the full range of critical thinking principles. For instance, a framework that integrates tools for the analysis and assessment of thought with the goal of cultivating intellectual virtues and the emancipation of the mind is superior to an approach that merely offers a list of disconnected abilities applied in narrow ways.
A substantive approach will be applicable to all subjects and disciplines, and use ordinary rather than technical language. We want to avoid, for instance, approaches such as formal logic, which is sometimes wrongly taken to be critical thinking. Although formal logic is useful in, say, mathematical thought, it is not typically useful in conceptual or literary thought, or indeed most human-centred thought.
Choose a conception that fosters traits of mind, as well as intellectual abilities.
Fostering intellectual skills such as gathering relevant information and making reasonable inferences is important. But our main focus should be the cultivation of intellectual virtues such as intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, intellectual empathy, intellectual courage, intellectual autonomy and fair-mindedness.
When we target intellectual traits or dispositions, we help students develop as independent thinkers, as people who routinely distinguish what they know from what they don't know, as people concerned with the ethical dimension of thought, and with living a life of integrity. When we ignore these traits while teaching intellectual skills, we unwittingly foster sophistic thinking, or the opposites of the intellectual virtues - intellectual arrogance, intellectual hypocrisy, intellectual cowardice, intellectual conformity, narrow-mindedness and the like...
To become effective educational leaders, administrators must work their way methodically through the theory of critical thinking and apply it in their work and lives. Only then can they assent to it because only then will they grasp it. Only then will they see it as the heart of teaching and learning.
An effective professional development programme cannot be dependent on one or a few persons. It must become a defining concept for the institution.
Tie assessment to critical thinking
Students and faculty are assessed as never before throughout all of higher education. But do today's pervasive assessment tools evaluate the extent to which students are learning to think their way through content? Do they assess the extent to which students are learning to reason within alternative viewpoints empathically and represent them accurately? Do they assess the extent to which students are able to draw important conceptual distinctions? Do they evaluate the extent to which faculty foster these and other essential intellectual skills, abilities and traits?
For the most part, unfortunately, the answer is "no". But this need not be the case. When we focus assessment processes on a substantive conception of critical thinking, faculty are more likely to foster it and students are more likely to learn it.
The cultivation of critical societies, as envisioned by William Graham Sumner in 1906, is perhaps possible. At present we are a long way from this ideal, although there is growing recognition of its importance. But if we are ever to create such societies on a broad scale, the cultures within which schools, colleges and universities function will need both to grasp the idea of critical thinking and to value it. And education will need to take a leading role in cultivating critical thinking abilities and traits. What, after all, is the purpose of education if not to emancipate the mind through critical thought?
Linda Elder is an educational psychologist, and seeks to foster critical societies through education and social reform.