Open University Thinking And Learning English Language Essay

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To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge. This chapter discusses the essentials of effective thinking and learning that underpin the approach taken throughout this book. It examines the place of critical thinking in the whole process of returning to study, and suggests that, by making your own learning a point of focus in our studying, yin improve your abilities as a earner as well as make the learning of particular material more efficient.


As you read this chapter you will be reflecting on your own style as a learner and thinking about the need to engage with learning at an evaluative level, that is, to make value judgements about new knowledge and skills. The notion of reflection, acknowledged obliquely by Disraeli in the quotation above, is key to your progress as a thinker and a learner - the implication being that you need to think constructively about the limits of your knowledge and the boundaries of your professional skills.

The personal dimension to learning

Being conscious of ignorance

One of the things in my professional life which makes me uneasy is when a student returning to study on a professionally based course claims to know all that they need to know about their professional work and, by implication, not to need the course upon which they are about to embark. This is in part because I find it difficult to 'teach' someone with this initial belief about the value of study, but I am also aware of the difficulty for them as a learner. A sense of enquiry and an interest in the challenge of changing the way things are, and the way you are yourself, are an important part of any process of effective learning. The implication of Disraeli's words at the head of this chapter is that awareness that one does not know is prerequisite to coming to know about something. As a returning student you need to recognize that, despite previous learning and professional experience, there remain things which you can learn profitably about both your professional work and yourself as a learner. Introductory literature to courses for returning students within professional domains will tend to include motivational statements about the former kind of learning (that is, about the kinds of enhancement of professional knowledge and skill attainable within a given programme of study). The latter kind (learning about yourself as a learner), however, is often overlooked. Yet, as already noted, you need to conceive of your approaching course of study as an opportunity for self-improvement and self-fulfillment at a more fundamental level than the mere accumulation of more knowledge and skill.

To be successful at advanced study requires that you learn to monitor and evaluate your own patterns of thinking, learning and remembering. Of course, Disraeli's words only take us so far. Certainly it is important to be conscious that there are things about your professional work that you still need to learn, but it is also necessary to come to an understanding of how you have learnt what you have so far and how you are learning new material and new skills. In short, monitoring your progress as a learner is crucially important in becoming a more effective learner. Brockbank and McGill (1998) have some useful things to say about the central role of reflection in effective learning.

Recognition of possibilities, your own potential and your individual approach to learning

It may be some years since you undertook sustained study, and studying - often in addition to a heavy workload - may seem an unfamiliar and forbidding challenge. It is important, however, to recognize that you can make a successful return to study (the evidence is probably all around you) and that you already possess the kinds of skills that can be harnessed to enable you to work effectively. It may be a matter of taking a fresh look at the kinds of skills you use in your professional life that may be applicable to, or adaptable to, learning in the context of renewed academic study. You need to unravel for yourself the strategies that are most effective for you. At the risk of stating the obvious, learning is very much an individual business. All of us think and learn in different ways, some of which may seem superficial but many of which are fundamental. For example, the way in which individuals are able to use the visual representation of material in their learning will vary considerably. Diagrams, plans and illustrations will have different value across any range of students. One of the students (a therapist) who commented on some of the ideas in this book described the way in which she used a flow chart:

To get a structure about a problem, to find my orientation, I use a flow chart. For example, when I prepare an exam or presentation I take key words and make it all fit on one side of A4. I make a path that has smaller paths leading off it. I use it with clients as well to give them another way of working.

Flow charts may not be something you find it easy to work with; this is simply an example of the kind of reflection you need to engage in - a topic which is pursued later in this chapter.

The need for critical thinking

You will already have got the message that study is about improving the mind as much as it is about learning particular things and gaining specific skills. What I want to argue for in this section is that there should be an inevitable symbiosis between your professional work and your return to study in terms of your developing critical thinking abilities. Professional work requires that you do more than react to events - necessarily it implies that you will be reflective and critical about what you do and the decisions that you make. It is also the case that advanced study requires you to think critically and to give evidence of that thought in the way you present your ideas, be it in oral or written form. Further, it is likely that if your programme of study focuses wholly or in part on professional issues (perhaps falling into the 'continuing professional development' category) then it will almost inevitably involve critical reflection on your professional practice. There is then a coming together of professional and academic work under the umbrella of 'critical thinking'. The intention of this section is to draw your attention to just some of the aspects of critical thinking in the hope that you will be able to make links for yourself between what is required in your professional work and what will be needed in your academic studies.

What counts as critical thinking

'Critical thinking' is a term which is widely used and abused in various parts of the literature. In this chapter it is used to describe a kind of thought processing which is more than routine and non-directed and which reaches levels of clarity and purposefulness that enable you to unravel problems which are within your range of knowledge and skills. The word 'range' is included here because it is important to recognize that critical thinking is, in one sense at least, independent of levels of knowledge and skill. You may operate in a mode of critical thought at your current level of knowledge and skill, whatever that may be. Of course, you may not reach a 'correct' conclusion in this sense, but that becomes less significant (in the academic setting if not in the real world of professional practice) than the fact that you are engaged in a critical way.

It might be helpful, therefore, if you can separate out your understanding of your ability to think from your knowing of things and your set of acquired practical skills. This is a rather artificial exercise and is not to say that knowledge and practical skills are unimportant, or less important than your ability to think, but simply to recognize that they need to take their place in the whole of your intellectual profile. It would be deceptive to conceive of your return to study as a matter of gaining in knowledge without recognizing the corresponding gain in thinking ability that is required.

Some students have reported that at the outset of their return to study they have a view of their intelligence as being fixed at a certain level. On further questioning, it has often become apparent that this view has been arrived at as a result of previous experiences of academic study. I have come to think that such a view is unhelpful in that it implies that study may bring about an increase in knowledge but that it will not change the supposedly immutable underlying ability to think. This is not the place for an extended discussion of the psychology of intelligence (on which topic entire libraries might be filled). However, if you have the view that intelligence is a fixed commodity that is carried around in the head and is relatively unchangeable, then this may lead you to miss the point of study and of the possibilities in it for you. The ability to reason and to think through problems clearly can be improved; intelligence, if you need to consider it at all, is best conceived of as a dynamic concerned with the ability to learn and to adapt as a result of learning. Rowntree (1988) might be an interesting book to consult on this subject.

Critical thinking in the professional context

The purpose of this subsection is to draw parallels between what you are likely to have experienced in your professional work and what you will need to consider in your academic studies. I have often sat in committee meetings trying to resolve apparently intractable problems (for example, how to develop a taught course to meet the needs of students from a wide range of disciplines while retaining the teaching of 'discipline-specific skills') and found myself wondering how and why this difficulty has come about. It is all too easy to find oneself locked into trying to find a solution and to lose sight of the reasons why the problem exists in the first place. Sometimes, in such meetings, people will wonder out loud what is the purpose of it all, which is often a reasonable question. The original purpose and definitions often need to be revisited and clarified in professional life, just as they do in an academic piece of work.

It is quite likely that you will be able to recall instances from your professional life where colleagues have reached conclusions without considering all of the relevant features of the situation (for example, interpreting a child's disturbed behaviour without considering all of the aspects of that child's home and school life), where justifications for decisions have failed to acknowledge all of the factors involved, where the implications of decisions were not thought through before implementation (for example, deciding on a planning application without considering its environmental consequences). All of these are instances of non-critical thinking, where people, however knowledgeable, have failed to use all of I their critical faculties: they have thought too narrowly about the objective, they have used powers of rhetoric to make false justifications, or they have not thought beyond the immediate. In a similar way, there is a need to try to avoid these same pitfalls when you think through a problem set in the academic context and when you present your ideas to an academic audience.

To think critically means more than simply to be negative about something. Certainly, it involves finding fault. But critical thinking is a matter of finding fault with argument, with the basis upon which evidence is cited and with the reasonableness of conclusions reached. It is probably the case that in much of your professional life these things are implied. Colleagues may not set out their arguments, the bases for their acceptance of evidence and so on, for your convenience; all of these things may remain implicit. Critical thinking therefore requires a construction on your part of how things have come to be, as well as an analysis of what people say or do. When you have constructed in this way, for example, the history of a medical diagnosis that is under question then you can begin to analyse efficacy and begin to hypothesize about prognosis. The point of all this is to stress the link with academic work, where you are required to analyse what is written in the literature and what is claimed from empirical investigations using the accepted methodologies of your discipline. It may well be helpful if you conceive of critical thinking in the academic arena as an extension of what you already practice (perhaps unknowingly) in your professional life.

Task: Critical thinking in the professional context

Can you cite an example from your professional context which picks up on some aspect of non-critical thinking, for example:

where individuals reach conclusions without considering all of = the relevant features of the situation;

where justifications for decisions reached fail to acknowledge all of the factors involved;

where the implications of decisions are not thought through before implementation?

If so, try to write down where the process of critical thought has broken down - and, where possible, identify why that should have been so.

Student responses

Non-critical thinking - when a professional doesn't see the .need to have the background information about the client; for example, a client may have challenging behaviour and the professional tries to find a way of reducing this behaviour without finding its cause.

(Clinical psychologist)

When the government makes efforts to 'raise standards' in schools by, in part, increasing testing without realizing that continual assessment can be a distraction rather than an advantage for children's actual learning.

(Primary school teacher)

Analysing problem-solving protocols

A useful source of ideas on problem-solving protocols is the book by Halpern (1984). She goes into more detail than I have space for, but throughout her book the message is similar: you can improve your capabilities as a problem-solver through a process of analysis of your own problem-solving style and of the features inherent within the tasks that you face. The mechanical engineer facing a malfunctioning engine follows a problem-solving procedure, typically beginning with some hypotheses based on the kind of malfunction that is apparent. Similarly, that same engineer might set about tackling an academic assignment by following a prob1cm-solving procedure, perhaps beginning by trying to make clear to him / herself just what the assignment brief requires and within what constraints the 'answer' is to be delivered - for example, whether it requires an illustration of an approach or the justification of a specific solution to a stated problem, and the maximum word count required. The difference between the professional and academic tasks is, of course, that the former may be more defined and practised than the latter. In any case, for you as a professional returning to study, analysing how you go about solving problems in either context is likely to be a profitable exercise and profit in one domain is likely to feed into the other.

A defining feature of your profession or academic discipline might be that it requires you to follow certain general heuristics ('rule of thumb' procedures that are likely to set you in the direction of a correct response to the problem with which you are faced) or a specific algorithm (a procedure that will necessarily yield a correct solution if followed exactly). Professions and disciplines operate on particular ways of knowing and responding to problems. For example, a natural scientist may operate on an understanding of a set of fairly immutable laws of nature, whereas a social scientist may need to balance probabilities based on a critical understanding of the dynamics of social groups. It may help you to begin to unravel the way in which arguments and procedures are constructed in your area if you can set out a kind of protocol in which you 'think aloud' through a problem- solving process that is typical of your professional working routines.

Clearly, constructing this kind of problem-solving protocol might be a feature of your return to study in that you may find yourself having to make overt the process of problem-solving that you engage in regularly within your professional practice. In seminar discussions or in written assignments within the academic context you may have to analyse that process with a view, for example, to clarifying justifications you have made and identifying alternative possibilities. Similarly, it may help you to understand the way in which the academic arena operates if you think of, for example, a tutorial with your supervisor as a time when he/she is modelling for you the kinds of protocol that may he followed successfully in academic study. In this way study may be seen as just another problem-solving context in which certain rules pertain and certain protocols can be followed to your advantage.

Note, however, that there is a danger in breaking down a task into discrete identifiable stages and then treating these as if they have a reality beyond being descriptors of a process. It is often the synchrony between steps in a process that makes that process what it is. A solicitor who successfully carries through a divorce petition is doing more than going through a series of discrete steps. Breaking down a process into stages may be useful as a means of analysis, but we should remember that it is an artificial procedure which may lead to an artificial description and, if used as a way of training, may lead to an artificial kind of understanding. Consequently, an approach such as 'programmed learning', where learners proceed through sets of material packaged into small steps and delivered with an emphasis on repetition, can lead to a situation where those same learners lose sight of the overall meaning of the event, where the main ideas ire obscured by the detail and where the way in which concepts are interrelated is not understood.

Taking account of context

One of the aspects of critical thinking that should be emphasized here, and which arises from the dangers of breaking down situations for analysis is the need to consider the context as well as the problem. Academic study again mirrors professional work in requiring that you as a student consider a problem within the context in which it is set. An individual's views about a particular issue (such as the seriousness of the offence of driving without road tax) are likely to change if that issue is presented in different contexts (consider the offence of driving without road tax alongside dropping litter and driving across a road junction when the lights are on amber, and again alongside serial rape and armed robbery). In short, meaning can change according to context and in professional decision-making this phenomenon can create natural conflicts. Academic study which involves reflection on professional practice will therefore need to take this into account. It may well be the case that the non-critical response to a problem-solving scenario might be to offer clear-cut, universal solutions, whereas a critical response might be to offer an account in which context is accommodated as a variable with particular parameters of meaning.

Representation of problems

Table 2.1 sets out some of the different ways of representing what- ever professional or academic problem faces you. These alternatives may provoke you to think about the way in which you first approach a problem-solving task.

Very often the first thing you have to do in problem-solving is to familiarize yourself with the problem state and its particular make-up. Thinking about how to represent problems should enable you to begin to think about how to manipulate elements of the problem in order to better understand it and so begin to find ways of resolving it. For example, it may be that you need to focus on just what it is that makes the problem difficult to resolve simply by asking: 'What is the problem exactly?' On the other hand, it may be that you need to unravel the overt and covert aspects of the problem: the paramedic faced with the 'brave' accident victim claiming to need low priority and who displays j little visual evidence of injury needs to consider the possible effects of shock, the likelihood of internal injury in terms of the nature of the accident and so on. And again, if part of the difficulty of the problem you face is in its lack of definition then clarification may have to be your starting point. At a simple level, if you are not clear exactly what certain terms mean - for example, in an academic assignment title - then you may have to seek out meaning in, for example, a technical glossary. At a more complex level, it may be that lack of definition requires that you restate the goal in different forms - for example, achieving an 'appropriate placement' within social services provision for an adult with learning difficulties might be interpreted as adapting her current environment rather than seeking out a new placement.

Table 2.1 Representing problems

Ways of representing

Examples of occasions for use

Possible advantages

Write down in words or figures

Where the presentation of the problem is oral.

Saves you the effort of trying to hold the problem state in your head.

Restate in your own words

Where the presentation is convoluted or deliberately opaque or ambiguous.

Helps you to see what you think you are trying to do - particularly useful in a group problem- solving context where different perceptions of the nature of the question may be helpful.

Draw a graph

Where the problem is spatial or involves relationships that change over time.

Can present all of the information at once; can simplify.

Draw a diagram

Where the problem relates to a process, or a set of relationships or the development of concepts.

Can show how a process fits together or relationships become operative.

Create a hierarchy or tree diagram

Where there are various possible outcomes or different, but equally feasible, routes to a solution.

Can help to unravel complex relationships; can indicate how one thing follows from another, etc.

Create a matrix

Where there are various combinations of results.

Can help to unravel the relationships between categories.

Strategies for solving problems

There is not space in this book to describe adequately all of the kinds of problem-solving strategies that might be available to you in the course of your studies. However, in this subsection we will look at a selection of approaches in order to give you an indication of the kinds of ideas that may improve the way in which you go about solving the variety of problems that you will encounter in your return to study.

A means-ends analysis will allow you to define sub-goals that, when achieved, should enable you to progress from the posing of a question to the main goal. It is a matter of analysing the problem that you face in terms of what means are required to get you to the desired outcome or end. It may be that in investigating, for example, how clients are treated at the first point of contact, you first need to look at the reasons for and circumstances behind that contact before you can make progress towards an understanding.

It may be possible, of course, to determine the means by working back from the end; that is, it may be that you can work backwards from the goal to your present questioning state. For example, if the problem relates to an unsatisfactory by-product in a particular process of food production then it may be necessary to work out how the by-product comes about before you can work out what can be done about the whole of the production process.

Brainstorming is the technique of setting down on paper as many ideas relating to a theme, or possible solutions to a problem, as you can in a random and spontaneous way. Some see this technique as merely a chance to say or write down anything that comes into the head without having to justify or explain it, while others see it as useful way to generate ideas without being restricted by artificial boundaries. Most commonly used as a group activity, there is no reason why it cannot be used on an individual basis. In my experience it carries with it the possible advantage of freeing students from the kinds of psychological constraints that sometimes impede problem-solving. If you feel locked into a particular kind of solution or 'accepted' way of proceeding, then letting your mind generate ideas in an unfettered way can be liberating. It is, however, likely to be only the first stage in a problem-solving process. Any list of ideas generated by brainstorming will still need to be refined, for example into categories and then into some kind of rank order of practicality, cost, acceptability and so on.

Using analogy in problem-solving is a matter of going through a process of reasoning by using parallel cases. You may have tried to explain something complex to a client who has no specialist knowledge and found yourself resorting to 'It's like..' and then using an analogy which relates the technical to the everyday experience of that client - for example, 'when the water rises as you get into the bath' or 'the layers of an onion'. Just as analogy is useful in explaining complex material to others, so it can be a useful device in helping you to interpret a problem facing you. I have found with my students that encouraging them to develop an analogy for themselves allows them to recast a complex problem which appears to be outside their range of experience into a form with which they are familiar so that they are then able to begin to manipulate ideas.

The three approaches noted above are discussed in more detail in Halpern (1984).

A place for originality and creativity

You might think that originality and creativity belong in the 'arts' disciplines and have little to do with other areas of academic study and professional life. This may be a misguided view. Often in higher education there will be open-ended tasks with outcomes which are not clearly defined in advance. What the task setter is looking for in such tasks is creativity and originality as much as accuracy, relevance and presentation. Similarly, the very nature of much professional work requires creative solutions to be found to everyday problems, and indeed some industrial companies reward workers for creative solutions to existing problems in the workplace.

In your academic study, as in your professional work, you are likely to need to think divergently as well as convergently; that is, to think around and beyond problems as well as to focus on a solution in the immediate. You are likely to need to express sensitivity to issues and to use imagination to predict outcomes. Also, I hope you will find that there is a place for risk-taking. Indeed, at the sharp edge of academic enquiry a project without any kind of intellectual risk attached is unlikely to prove profitable. Creativity may be hard to identify and to judge, but this does not deny its existence or lessen its value.

Reflection: A place for creativity?

Is there a place for creativity in your professional work? If there is, then:

how is it manifest;

how is it evaluated by you (if at all);

how is it judged by others?

Student responses

People think engineering is a matter of working systematically to achieve set goals, but in fact solving engineering problems is a very creative business… I guess our creativity is not really evaluated as such - but the results are.


The highest praise my partner has heaped upon me is to say that I have completed some of the most imaginative bridgework he has ever seen.

(Dental surgeon)

If you are particularly interested in trying to become more creative in your approach to problem-solving then you may find some useful ideas and strategies in Parnes et al. (1977).

Reflection as a way to effective learning

Having a range of problem-solving techniques and creative strategies at your fingertips will undoubtedly help you to learn. An equally important element in the learning process, however, is the capacity for reflection. I know that all the students I meet who are re-entering the world of study can learn, but I am also aware that those who will become the more effective learners are those who find ways of reflecting on their own learning and therefore

give themselves opportunities to take control over that learning.

Evaluative appraisal

The defining feature of reflection, which distinguishes it from mere recall, is that it contains some evaluation of what has happened. A necessary feature of effective learning is that it involves an ongoing process of evaluating what is being learnt in terms of its effect on one's wider knowledge and ability to understand issues - failure to engage with learning in this evaluative way is likely to lead to a restricted understanding. You may doubt this cite examples from your own experience where learning by rote - without any evaluative appraisal - has been effective for you. But if you think carefully about the effects of such rote learning then you may recognize that while you can learn information by rote, that learning is likely to be limited: firstly, there are limits to how much you can learn in this way; and secondly, recall of that information is constrained by the need for the appropriate cues.

As student in higher education you need to be able to think flexibly and in a self-initiated way, and you cannot afford to be dependent on any particular set of cues. As a student, therefore, it will be helpful to find ways in which you can operate at a judgemental level with regard to material to be learnt and the way in which it is presented. You might try to engage with new learning at a personal level, asking yourself how it affects you and the way you understand the world. Notions that learning and problem-solving require objectivity

are misleading. It is subjectivity that denotes learning as being of the human kind and that takes it out of the realms of what, for example, a computer can 'learn'. It would be inappropriate here to be side-tracked into a discussion of artificial intelligence, but a cursory glance at the literature will indicate that teaching computers to perform tasks is one thing hut teaching them to think (in the real sense of the term) is another. If you can engage with learning at a level that involves you in personal evaluative appraisal of both what is being learnt and the way you are learning it, you may both learn particular material in a more meaningful way and make yourself a more effective learner in the long term. Brockbank and McGill (1998) explore the significance of emotion and action in learning. They also emphasize the need for lecturers to engage in dialogue with students: and it is the need for dialogue to which we now turn.

Making use of an 'active listener'

It may well be that, in your return to study, there is an important role to be played by someone operating as an 'active listener' - that is, listening and reflecting back to you what you appear to be saying so that greater clarity can be achieved. Students working in isolation sometimes have difficulty in developing their ideas if they do not have some way of making their views known to another and getting constructive feedback. Of course, this kind of dialogue can be achieved in the process of handing in assignments and receiving back comments, but that process inevitably involves delay and does not always allow a debate of the kind which is envisaged here. Somehow you need to try to make use of someone who can listen to what you say and engage with you in a discussion about it. Certainly, some of the students who commented on the ideas in this book found some use for this notion:

Yes it is very important to have it to get another perspective on a subject that may open up other alternatives that you may not have thought of… you can then pursue these ideas if desired.


I am totally reliant on a person who acts as what you call a 'critical friend'. Without talking to her I don't think I'd know what I think about anything at all - I need her there to bounce ideas off.

(Environmental scientist)

I think someone once said something about not knowing what he thought until he heard what he said - well, for me there is some truth in that and certainly it goes one step further if someone else can tell me what they think I am getting at. I use people at work - one bloke in particular who seems good at saying things like 'so you mean that…'

(Industrial chemist)


The ideas which underpin this book have been introduced and the benefits of an active and evaluative approach have been highlighted.

It is important to begin to think of strategies for adopting a critical, reflective approach in your studies. 'These strategies may or may not involve others and will operate at different levels of formality. As with much of returning to study, the choice is necessarily and properly yours.


If, in a self-evaluative sense, you can say that you have recognized things in the world that you do not fully understand and recognized things about yourself as a learner, then you can reassure yourself that you have taken the step, recommended by Disraeli in the quotation at the beginning of this chapter, towards knowledge both of things and of yourself. Alongside this self-awareness needs to be a determination to develop critical faculties as well as to accumulate knowledge. As Confucius (551 - 479 bc) noted: 'Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is perilous'.