This chapter examines 21st century learning, including contemporary learning environments and constructivist approaches, with a specific focus on partnering, and how they contribute to developing skills like critical thinking, information literacy, decision making, and problem solving among learners. Insights from academics like Dr. Tony Wagner and Dr. Teresa Amabile are touched on, highlighting their proposed characteristics of successful learners. These characteristics include curiosity and innovation, with a focus on traits like creativity, problem solving, knowledge acquisition, and critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is further defined and broken down into its components, including the Australian Council for Educational Research’s (ACER) critical thinking framework. The intended purpose of such operationalized definitions and frameworks is to empower educators to feel confident in teaching and assessing this competency in their students, especially in a digital age where technology plays a huge role in information gathering and knowledge construction. The role of information communication technology (ICT) and information literacy is defined and examined in the context of critical thinking, and demonstrates that they are interconnected. Finally, educational technology tools and platforms are explored, including their possible applications at the curricular level and suggestions for future improvements are made in the context of the Ontario curriculum.
critical thinking, 21st century learning, information literacy
Today’s learners are increasingly familiar with using technology to acquire knowledge and to seek answers. As constructivist pedagogies, like partnering, technology-enhanced active learning (TEAL), and inquiry-based learning, become increasingly prevalent in classrooms, these 21st century learners are taking on the roles of researcher, thinker, and sense-maker, among others (Prensky, 2010). This means that students have the responsibility to ensure that the information they are gathering and applying to learning or action is relevant, accurate, and reliable (Tutor2u, 2021). This necessary shift toward student-centered learning calls on teachers to guide and mentor students in ways that develop the critical thinking skills necessary to be successful learners, with particular focus on informed decision-making.
Dr. Tony Wagner believes that the ability to create new knowledge and solve new problems is the single most important skill that students must master today (Fullan, 2013). In order acquire this skill, modern day education is best conducted in ways that engage and motivate students and foster the development of 21st century competencies, like innovation, critical thinking and problem solving. In order for this to be achieved, one must consider what types of learning environments are conducive to competency development in these categories amongst today’s learners.
This chapter outlines what 21st century learning looks like, what competencies it develops, and how critical thinking, as a concept, has been traditionally difficult to characterize and, therefore, teach to and assess for. Also covered in this chapter will be how researchers and educators approach the definition of critical thinking, including how it overlaps and intertwines with problem solving, decision-making, and information-communication technology (ICT) and, therefore, how technology can play a role in critical thinking development amongst learners.
In developing this chapter, a literature review was undertaken to examine how critical thinking plays a role in learners’ educational experience. Through examining existing literature, definitions, and frameworks, it became clear that there are a few elements that are key to understanding critical thinking and decision making through the lens of 21st-century learning.
21st Century Learning
The Learning Environment
Educators can create and facilitate learning in effective ways that differ from the traditional lecture, or sage-on-the-stage, approach. Partnering is a 21st century way of working together whereby students explore and discover for themselves the answers to questions, while educators provide just enough guidance to allow that to happen with minimal need for outside assistance (Prensky, 2010). For teachers, this might mean teaching self-monitoring and self-correcting skills to encourage self-sufficient learners. With partnering, the students’ job is to make use of any tools, including technology, available to them to find information, make meaning, and create, while teachers guide with questioning, contextualizing, and providing rigor to ensure quality (Prensky, 2010).
Borne of constructivist leanings, which stipulate that students construct meaning through experience and that meaning is influenced by the interaction of prior knowledge and new events (Arends, 1998), partnering shares traits with more popularized approaches like project-based learning, or inquiry-based learning, while underscoring the reciprocal nature of the student-teacher relationship. This aligns with Tam’s outline of constructivist learning environment characteristics, including that knowledge and authority are shared between teachers and students, the teacher acts as a facilitator, and learning groups are small and heterogenous in nature (Tam, 2000). In partnering, teachers empower students to use any available technology to personalize their learning experience and follow their passions while seeking information, answering questions, sharing ideas, practicing, and creating (Prensky, 2010).
It is clear that technology can be a very supportive tool in a 21st-century learning environment as students use it to engage with their learning experience in the role of researcher. However, it is their other roles – thinker and sense maker – that may go overlooked by the students themselves. Teachers should ensure they inform students that thinking logically and critically is one of their primary roles (Prensky, 2010) and should have structures in place to provide the guidance and feedback necessary to further foster these skills.
21st Century Competencies
Being a learner in the 21st century means a shift from traditional skills associated with being a student, like rote learning and memorization, to skills like innovation and creativity. Dr. Tony Wagner highlights curiosity as being a key characteristic of an innovative learner while Dr. Teresa Amabile highlights that knowledge and problem-solving are important to the creative process (Fullan, 2013). Curiosity begets knowledge acquisition, which enables students to tackle problems that need solved or decisions that need to be made.
This process requires learners to possess certain competencies, which Wagner refers to as the 7 Survival Skills (Asia Society, 2009), including, but not limited to, critical thinking and problem solving as well as accessing and analyzing information. In the technological age we live in, there is boundless information available to those who seek it. For learners, the ability to effectively search for information and identify what is important and parse it out from that which is superfluous is important to the critical thinking and decision-making processes. Wagner (2008) posits that these survival skills are key to successful careers, continuous learning, and active and informed citizenship and, yet, the education community is unsure how to teach or assess them, posing an obvious challenge.
Critical Thinking & Decision Making
This raises the question of how skills like critical thinking and decision-making are defined and why they are so important in contemporary learning environments. It is important that measurable and consistent definitions are generated in order for educators to effectively teach and assess the skills of critical thinking and decision-making.
Definition and Importance of Critical Thinking
Depending on the source, critical thinking has many definitions, each overlapping with some nuanced differences. Heard et al. (2020) curated a collection of critical thinking definitions and formulated this formal definition to guide the development of the Australian Council for Educational Research’s (ACER) critical thinking framework, which will be touched on shortly:
To think critically is to analyze and evaluate information, reasoning and situations, according to appropriate standards such as truth and logic, for the purpose of constructing sound and insightful new knowledge, understandings, hypotheses and beliefs. Critical thinking encompasses the subject’s ability to process and synthesize information in such a way that it enables them to apply it judiciously to tasks for informed decision-making and effective problem-solving. (p.11)
In addition, Robert Ennis’ definition of critical thinking as “reflective thinking focused on deciding on what to believe or do” (Ennis, 1985, p.45 ) suggests that critical thinking does not only influence individual judgment when it comes to what to think, but also what actions to take. By Ennis’ definition, it would seem that decision-making – deciding what action to take – is intertwined with critical thinking. With respect to problem-solving, researchers agree that while it is related to critical thinking, the term problem solving is more often used in relation to well-defined problems with limited solutions, while critical thinking involves open-ended reasoning and ill-defined problems (Heard et al., 2020).
With the aforementioned definitions in mind, Edward Glaser’s summary of critical thinking can serve as a good basis to understanding what critical thinking is in a nutshell. The three characteristics Glaser considers hallmarks of critical thinking ability include: a disposition towards thoughtfully considering the problems and subjects in one’s life experiences and not just in specific contexts or situations, knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and some skill in applying those methods (Heard et al., 2020).
Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking
It is clear from these interpretations that critical thinking and decision-making are vital to the success of contemporary learners, both in school and beyond in their personal and professional lives. However, in order to teach and assess critical thinking, an operational definition is required so that assessment tools and intervention techniques can be devised (Heard et al, 2020).
This was the driving force behind the development of the ACER’s critical thinking framework, which is evidence-based and outlines critical thinking processes by strands and aspects, with the intention of providing areas of focus for the teaching and assessing of critical thinking skills. The framework considers critical thinking to be a series of cognitive processes that are goal-oriented and purpose-driven, not just reflective thought (Facione, 1990). These cognitive processes can be broken down into six areas, including interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation, and self-regulation, each of which encapsulates a set of subskills. For example, in order for learners to evaluate, they should be able to question the evidence, speculate as to possible alternatives, and draw logical conclusions (Facione, 1990).
For the purposes of the ACER’s critical thinking skills development framework, these cognitive processes were taken into account. In its structure, the critical thinking framework is divided into three strands, further broken down into three aspects each. These aspects encapsulate the knowledge, skills, and understanding that are consistent across definitions of critical thinking (Heard et al, 2020). The three strands are knowledge construction, evaluating reasoning, and decision-making. The aspects of knowledge construction are the identification of gaps in knowledge, discriminating information, and identifying patterns and making connections. The aspects involved in evaluating reasoning include applying logic, identifying assumptions and motivations, and justifying arguments. Finally, the aspects of decision-making are identifying criteria for decision-making, evaluating options, and testing and monitoring implementation (Heard et al, 2020). For reference, the framework is available as a graphical representation in Appendix A.
This framework shares many of the same characteristics of critical thinking that Wagner (2008) discusses when describing the “5 Habits of Mind”. Wagner’s habits of weighing evidence, seeing connections and speculating on possibilities align very closely with the framework’s knowledge construction strand, while Wagner’s habit of being aware of varying viewpoints aligns with the evaluating reasoning strand, and finally, Wagner’s habit of assessing value shares similar aspects to the decision-making strand (Heard et al, 2020; Wagner, 2008). The ACER’s critical thinking framework and Wagner’s “5 Habits of Mind” may be used when considering how to teach and assess critical thinking and decision-making in their classrooms. Wagner (2008) refers to critical thinking as “learning to answer the right questions”, which can be accomplished through an educator’s application of rigor in the classroom when guiding students who are developing critical thinking skills.
This brings us back to the pedagogical approach of partnering when designing the learning environment. To recapitulate, partnering is when students take on the role of researcher, technology user, thinker, and sense maker, while teachers guide, question, provide context, and apply rigor. Educators should make it clear to their students that thinking logically and more critically is one of their primary roles (Prensky, 2010). Learners’ skills of logical and critical thinking can be nurtured and encouraged when educators have a functional definition of critical thinking and clearly articulated subskills that they can draw on when guiding, questioning, and assessing students. The ACER’s framework and Wagner’s “5 Habits of Mind” are two resources that can provide a solid foundation and starting point for teaching and assessing critical thinking.
Critical thinking includes knowledge construction, which involves identifying gaps in knowledge and discriminating information. In contemporary society, much of our knowledge construction and information acquisition occurs in the digital space. That is why Information-Communications Technology (ICT) has relevant applications in relation to critical thinking and decision-making. Understanding information literacy and the role critical thinking plays in navigating the vast digital world of information is vital. Furthermore, having relevant resources and tools that support the development of critical thinking skills and information literacy can help educators nurture these 21st-century skills amongst learners
Information Communication Technology (ICT)
Typically, when we speak about information literacy, we think of skills that are procedural, like retrieving, managing, referencing, and communicating information (CILIP, 2018), but it is important that individuals apply critical thinking in order to assess the information they are collecting (Paul et al, 2007). Information literacy and critical thinking are interrelated in that information literacy emphasizes the ability to identify and articulate the information needed for a purpose, understanding how to find and identify appropriate information sources, and how to critically assess the information gathered (Grafstein, 2017). Therefore, information-communication technology can play a vital role in developing key 21st-century competencies like knowledge construction and decision making.
As technology has become more versatile and accessible in educational settings, it has become a fixture in many classrooms. In a class following a partnering approach to learning and instruction, students are encouraged to use any technology at their disposal to personalize their learning experience, to aid in seeking information, answering questions, sharing ideas, and creating (Prensky, 2010). Students may use computers, tablets, or personal devices like smartphones to accomplish this.
The ability to put students in the roles of researcher, technology expert, thinker, and sense-maker is largely due to recent changes in the way information can be accessed, thanks to the advent of the internet (Heard et al, 2020). However, with the expansion of technology and the rise of internet use comes challenges. The ease with which users can access information is matched by the ease with which users can manipulate open-access online information sources (Heard et al., 2020). For this reason, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals has updated the definition of information literacy to align more closely with critical thinking. They now define information literacy as the “ability to think critically and make balanced judgments about any information we find and use” (CILIP, 2018).
Educational Technology Example
One way that learners may be guided to develop their critical thinking skills in the context of ICT and information literacy, is through the provision of resources that can help broaden their opportunities for constructing knowledge and evaluating information. AllSides for Schools is a web-based platform of resources that provides educators with information and curricular guidance to help guide learners in developing skills like critical thinking (AllSides for Schools, 2022). It originated in 2019 as a nonprofit joint initiative by AllSides and Living Room Conversations to aid educators in addressing digital media literacy and communication skills with their students (AllSides for Schools, 2022). The mission of AllSides for Schools is to teach students how to critically evaluate news, media content, and other information as well as how to use their acquired knowledge to engage in productive dialogue, both in the educational setting and in their communities, professionally and in their personal lives (AllSides for Schools, 2022). To accomplish this mission, the platform has centralized and expanded upon the resources available across AllSides and Living Room Conversations and offers classroom activities and lesson plans (AllSides for Schools, 2022) that educators can draw on when providing guidance, context, and rigor for their learners.
Conclusions and Future Recommendations
As outlined throughout this chapter, contemporary learners require a modernized approach to instruction and learning. It is important that educators understand which skills to foster and help develop. The ability to memorize and regurgitate information is no longer an effective or valuable skill, nor is it a motivating concept for most 21st-century learners. Rather, today’s students thrive best when they are put at the center of their learning experience in the roles of researcher, thinker, and creator. Educators, then, should fill the roles of guide and contextualizer, encouraging students to think logically and critically as one of their primary roles (Prensky, 2010). The goal, as posited by Dr. Wagner and Dr. Amabile is to create innovative, creative, and knowledgable learners with strong critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making skills.
In order to nurture these 21st-century competencies, educators must be able to teach and assess them using clearly defined metrics. That is where operationalized definitions like the one created by Glaser or Heard et al (2020) and critical thinking frameworks, like the ACER’s, are essential. They provide a structure from which educators can guide students, offer feedback, and assess progress. Additionally, educators can steer students to seek information using whatever technology is available to them, including web-based educational technology and platforms, like AllSides for Schools, a critical thinking and media literacy online resource designed to aid in the development of knowledge acquisition, information literacy, and critical thinking skills.
Moving forward, curricular documents and assessment tools should be constructed with more constructivist and student-centered approaches in mind. As an example, current elementary curriculum documents and assessment guides from the Ontario Ministry of Education do mention critical thinking, albeit briefly, including a definition and where critical thinking fits in when considering assessment, though in some documents critical thinking only appears in the glossary (Ontario, 2010; Ontario, 2007; Ontario, 2006). Beyond this cursory mention, no concrete means of teaching or assessing critical thinking, especially in a student-centered fashion are brought forth. This is an oversight that should be addressed in future renditions of the Ontario curriculum for the reasons outlined throughout this chapter.
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Appendix A: ACER Critical thinking skill development framework
ACER critical thinking skill development framework