The Development of Thinking and Reasoning

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  2. Critical Thinking Skills
  3. Teaching for the development of reasoning
  4. Critical Thinking | SkillsYouNeed
  5. Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

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Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas. Critical thinking has been the subject of much debate and thought since the time of early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates and has continued to be a subject of discussion into the modern age, for example the ability to recognise fake news. Critical thinking might be described as the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. In essence, critical thinking requires you to use your ability to reason. It is about being an active learner rather than a passive recipient of information.

Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not. Critical thinkers will identify, analyse and solve problems systematically rather than by intuition or instinct. Critical thinking is thinking about things in certain ways so as to arrive at the best possible solution in the circumstances that the thinker is aware of. In more everyday language, it is a way of thinking about whatever is presently occupying your mind so that you come to the best possible conclusion.

A way of thinking about particular things at a particular time; it is not the accumulation of facts and knowledge or something that you can learn once and then use in that form forever, such as the nine times table you learn and use in school. The skills that we need in order to be able to think critically are varied and include observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem solving, and decision making.

On the other hand, the good news is that, since our critical thinking ability varies according to our current mindset, most of the time we can learn to improve our critical thinking ability by developing certain routine activities and applying them to all problems that present themselves. Once you understand the theory of critical thinking, improving your critical thinking skills takes persistence and practice.

Think of something that someone has recently told you. Then ask yourself the following questions:. Someone you know? Someone in a position of authority or power? Does it matter who told you this? Since there is no mechanism by which such estimations can be judged as being more or less accurate, a normative model that depends on some external criteria might seem to be impossible to verify.

It might, however, be possible to model standard deductive inferences within a Bayesian framework. Deductive reasoning can be seen as an attempt to construct a representation of premises for which there is a shared attempt to maintain some consistent level of internal probability, e. In this case, it might be possible to use a normative model in order to evaluate the way that people reason in this constrained system.

However, since such an exercise is clearly artificial, and does not generally reflect the nature of real world information, norms of this kind will be correspondingly artificial. The key point is that probabilistic models of inference essentially depend on what must be idiosyncratic representations of real world probabilities, since they depend on information stored in long-term memory.

This is quite critical, since it makes Bayesian norms almost by definition undetectable.


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However, environments can be variable and individual experience will reflect this variability. Thus, probabilistic models produce by their very nature variable outputs that cannot be compared since this variability reflects variability in inputs. Inferential reasoning can be applied across the whole range of experience and probabilistic approaches to inference must then reflect the wide variety of individual experience.

Thus, it could be argued that these approaches suggest that human reasoning cannot, even in principle, be described by a normative model Elqayam and Evans, In the following, I will nonetheless attempt to argue that despite variability and the undoubted influence of many forms of heuristics, human reasoning in its conscious component does indeed depend on a simple normative form of basic logic which does not necessarily correspond to a specific logical model , for both epistemological and developmental reasons.

Before attempting a more specific analysis, it is important to make some initial distinctions. Normative models can be considered in very different perspectives Elqayam and Evans, In the following, I will consider that a normative model is a prescriptive description of the optimal way that a system should function in order to accomplish its basic goals. It is important to distinguish between such models and descriptive models, which are attempts to describe the actual workings of a given system in a real-life situation. Simple variability is not an indication that a normative model is inapplicable to a given system.

There is one further critical part of any analysis of normative models. Normative models are mathematical or logical abstractions that aim to capture the essential functioning of what are necessarily messy and complex systems. Such models are, by definition, the product of human reasoning, since they are the result of people trying to understand the basic parameters of a specific system.

The role of normative models in the understanding of human reasoning becomes double-edged, since such models must not only describe the way that people can optimally reason, but importantly these models must also be able to account for the ability of people to construct these models in the first place. With this in mind, it is useful to note that many normative models have epistemological underpinnings that are essentially based on standard bivalent deductive logic. Given the increasing importance of Bayesian models, as discussed previously, it is particularly useful to note that Bayesian statistics are derived using such logic.

In fact, careful analysis of the arguments for probabilistic models clearly shows that these are based not on Bayesian inferences, but on classical logical arguments. If human inferences were uniformly Bayesian, then one would expect arguments to be phrased specifically in terms of degree of belief.

However, conclusions that explicitly leave open the possibility that alternative theories have a clear probability of being correct are rarely encountered. In other words, it is important to distinguish between the characteristics of the output of a given model, and the epistemological underpinnings of these models. In most fields, the second part of this equation is basically irrelevant.

When discussing characteristics of normative models of human reasoning, this becomes fundamental. In fact, one key component of the argument that will be presented is that a minimal normative model for human reasoning is necessary in order to account for the ability to produce normative models in the first place. There is one final distinction that is important in this context. One of these is meant to be a major source of variability in reasoning, while the other has at least the potential to reason more logically.

Dual process theories Sloman, ; Stanovich and West, ; Evans, postulate that people have two major inferential systems that interact with each other. Such theories have multiple forms and use different criteria to attempt to distinguish between these two systems. There is, unfortunately, no real consensus as to the characteristics or the definition of these two systems see Evans and Stanovich, , for a recent discussion. However, roughly speaking, these postulate a basically heuristic form of inference, which we is often referred to as System 1, which is presumed to be an evolutionarily primitive system that makes rapid inferences that are automated, contextual, use surface properties of problems, and rely extensively on stored knowledge.

Such inferences are low-cost and do not involve working memory capacity. The second system, which postulates a more analytic form of inference, referred to as System 2, by contrast, is conscious, slow, and relatively costly in its use of working memory.

Although there are variable descriptions of the dual process framework, Evans and Stanovich suggest that one minimalist approach to this distinction is to suggest that heuristic inferences correspond to rapid, autonomous inferential processes, while analytic inferences are characterized by working memory-based processes that support hypothetical thinking. The latter are particularly characterized by cognitive decoupling, allowing inferences that are not necessarily tied to existing knowledge structures Stanovich and Toplak, Given this intrinsic variability, there is no reason to think that a single normative model would ever be able to capture its properties, at least not within a relatively straightforward model.

However, System 2 allows at least the possibility of hypothetical thinking involving some degree of conscious processing of information. If this basic distinction is reasonably accurate, then the ability to even consider the possibility that normative models could exist must be the result of System 2 processing. With these distinctions in mind, there are two forms of argument for a normative model for System 2 reasoning.

Piaget in fact referred to his field of study as genetic epistemology. The basic argument, which was derived from Kant see Henle, can be stated as follows. In order to adequately process the infinite variety of information that is potentially accessible, the human mind requires some basic categories. Kant assumed that the basic categories were a priori, that is, that they are a basic component of the human cognitive system and are essentially biological.

Such an essentialist view of the basis of human cognition is actually quite common in many developmental theories. These are determined by the biological niche humans have constructed over evolutionary time. For example, understanding that a physical object retains its basic identity even when it changes shape or disappears would be a critical component of a cognitive system evolved to survive in a world in which there is are constantly moving objects.

Similarly, and more in line with our current problem, understanding that objects that move by themselves can be considered to correspond to a category which we refer to as implicitly living. Objects in such living categories are considered to have shared invisible attributes, which is a very useful way of conceptually dealing with the world in which separating out living from nonliving categories is a vital component, and understanding the specific properties of the latter can be particularly useful.

Such a basically biologically based approach has in fact been proposed for human reasoning. There is one problem with this, however. The distinction between living and nonliving categories, and the ability to understand primitive transformational consistencies, such as those required to understand object permanence are found in very young children, which at least suggests empirical support for a biological hypothesis. This is simply not the case for inferential reasoning, and the idea that there is an essential biological basis that corresponds to some form of internal rules of inference appears to be empirically untenable.

In line with Kant, he assumed that the human mind did indeed require basic categories in order to adequately process information about an inordinately complex world. However, he did not assume that these categories were biological in origin. Instead, he postulated that biology provided the basic processes that allow systematic cognitive change.

He also postulated that such changes were essentially systemic. In other words, he clearly made a distinction between the accumulation of knowledge, which could lead to a piecemeal and unconnected body of knowledge, and the development of the basic categories of mind that allowed people to process such knowledge. This latter can be considered the basis of the epistemology of the mind.

In this perspective, the idea of a normative model of the mind can be seen as having the same basic function for cognition as the idea of a universal grammar has for language. More specifically, if human minds had essentially different epistemologies; that is, if they used different basic forms of categorization and reasoning, then the problem of just how people could communicate efficiently would arise.

Piaget added one component to this analysis. He early on remarked that young children appear to have a more primitive epistemology than adults that is the underlying basis of their thinking relied on basic categories that were less consistent than those that appear to underlie adult reasoning. For example, young children have variable notions of the basic concept of quantity, being unable to consider that quantity is an invariant property of mass Piaget et al.

The lack of such invariance makes their thinking inherently unstable. A parent who is faced with a child who does not want to eat a meal because there is too much food, and who mushes up the food into a smaller area, is using this instability to successfully manipulate his or her child. In contrast, adults have no problem understanding invariance of quantity, in fact most consider the questions used to examine this notion to be simply stupid, since the answers are self-evident.

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It is this form of basic difference in epistemology that Piaget attempted to describe in his research program, something that has often been lost in the debates over details about the age at which specific abilities appear, etc. This approach thus assumed that there was change and development in such a basic epistemology. However, the course of this development is not really variable, but was meant to mirror both the physical and biological properties that are critical components of the basic cognitive system.

Thus, Piaget postulated that there was an invariant developmental sequence by which the very primitive cognitive categories present at birth, combined with whatever innate tendencies might drive early information processing, would gradually transform into the adult version. Piaget also supposed that epistemological development would tend towards the same basic normative model.

A critical point is understanding just why this would be true. These start by interactions based on action and perception. Over time, and repeated interactions, children develop a logic of actions, which follows a coherent and nearly universal sequence Piaget, In fact, this same sequence has been observed in primate species and some mammals Scarr-Salapatek, Thus, it could already be argued that the end-point of sensori-motor development can be described by a normative model, one that reflects the deep structure of the way that humans structure physical action in the real world.

To make this distinction more explicit, when it is claimed that most 2 year-olds have the same basic epistemology, one that corresponds to a clear normative model, this does not mean that they have learned the same things. Specific learning clearly depends on the concrete environment in which children are raised. Thus a child might learn that cookies are good to eat in one context, and another might learn that candies are good to eat, depending on what is available.

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Critical Thinking Skills

However, when trying to get cookies or candies or anything else that is desirable, that is hidden by an obstacle, all children will use the same action logic. Once again, the actual actions can vary for example, one child might bat the obstacle away, while another might reach for it to move it away , but the logic of the action sequence is the same action 1 is directed towards the obstacle with the aim of displacing it, action 2 is directed towards the goal.

In fact, debates about sensori-motor cognition are mostly about whether sensori-motor logic is developed faster or slower, but there is little debate about the form of this logic. There are thus quite solid grounds for suggesting that development at this level can indeed be described by a normative model Dasen, Thus, for example, basic categorization is derived from the process of perceptually based similarity relations, causal categories are derived from direct causality, etc.

More specifically, reasoning reflects the basic structure of conditional action schemas. For example, there are many ways to get a biscuit, thus understanding the uncertainty of such actions directly reflects what children have already learned about the physical world Byrnes and Overton, Increasingly abstract forms of reasoning require a long and complex process of representation and restructuring of more abstract concepts, but these still reflect the underlying structure of the physical world.

This point of view would thus suggest that the end-point of epistemological development would be essentially the same. Once again, if one examines studies looking at the ability of pre-adolescents to make inferences about the concrete world, empirical results strongly suggest that the same level is attained by most children, although there is a great variation in age.

Thus, most children can understand that liquid quantities are conserved over transformations, allowing them to consistently infer that a simple change in container will not alter the quantity. The same is found with transitive inferences, the logic of which most children understand by adolescence when the content is concrete and clear Markovits et al.

Teaching for the development of reasoning

Once again, similarly to studies of sensori-motor development, debate about the form of such concrete logic is not about the form of such logic, but about whether the corresponding abilities are developed more or less rapidly. Thus, there is also very clear evidence that the logic of pre-adolescents, which allows understanding of many forms of conservation, and basic forms of transitivity, causality, categorization, etc. In other words, a normative model can be claimed to exist to describe the concrete reasoning of most children by adolescence.

Since development on the more abstract, formal level is derived from reasoning structures developed previously, this suggests that formal reasoning should indeed correspond to a single form of normative model. Having a shared epistemology is certainly useful in order to allow different members of a species to process variable information in ways that are internally consistent. There is one further argument for the existence of a single normative model of human reasoning. If this normative model is a model of the underlying epistemology of the conscious component of the cognitive system, then the ability to communicate must require sharing the same basic epistemology.

In fact, it could be argued that normalization of System 2 reasoning is particularly critical in this context. In order to understand this point, it is useful to consider communication with System 1 intuitive reasoning. Although much of just what is involved in such reasoning remains mysterious, we can fruitfully speculate about some aspects of this. Intuitive inferences can reflect at least two forms of information. The most critical of these from our point of view is the internal structure of experiences stored in memory.

Theories such as probabilistic models of inference Oaksford and Chater, assume that intuitive inferences reflect stored knowledge about the world. A useful example is the belief-bias effect, which is the tendency of people to accept conclusions that are judged as believable as being logically valid Evans et al.

Although experiments examining this effect use conclusions that are highly believable for a large number of people, believability is clearly personal. In addition, there is certainly an emotional component to the force with which believability acts on System 2 processing.

One excellent example of this is given by a study by Klaczynski, He found that interference with System 2 processing was much stronger when the beliefs that were being examined were related to a domain with very high emotional valence religion than when these were related to a domain with lower emotional valence class. There are increasing numbers of studies that link emotional experiences to inference-making Blanchette and Richards, Thus, it is reasonable to assume that Intuitive processing tends to be highly personal, in that it reflects idiosyncratic personal experience, which conditions not only understanding of the underlying structure of experience and events, but is complicated by emotional valences that clearly reflect individual experiences.

Intuitive processing is by definition unconscious, and certainly experience shows us that idiosyncratic and emotionally driven inferences do not generate much in the way of metacognitive awareness.


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In other words, intuitive processing can clearly serve individual purposes by allowing people to make rapid, low-cost inferences that reflect their past experience. Doing so increases the chances that future behavior will mirror past circumstances, which allows individuals to profit from experience in a very immediate way.

If that were the end of the story, there would be no need for any other inferential system. However, there is another component to human behavior, and that is the fact that humans live in social groups. This makes intercommunicability a critical component of any form of reasoning, since group behaviors require reconciling many divergent individual agendas in a way that allows group cohesion.

Further complicating this dynamic is that fact that group complexity increases exponentially with numbers of group members. This explosion of social information has been hypothesized to be a major evolutionary driver for human cognition Dunbar, Recently, Mercier Mercier, ; Mercier and Sperber, has proposed a general evolutionary theory for the development of System 2 reasoning abilities that suggest that these abilities have evolved in order to regulate communication in complex social groups.

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This perspective views reasoning as a form of argumentation which allows people both to present overt reasons for actions in an attempt to convince others and to allow others to evaluate arguments. While reasoning might have other functions, it is a useful hypothesis to see it as a means for exchanging explicit reasons for action, since this would have the potential to allow groups to make decisions that were more efficient than a simple majority rule would provide.

Seeing reasoning as a form of communication, or even as a useful underpinning for communication, makes an even stronger case for the existence of a common epistemological core, since the essence of argumentation requires a sufficiently strong common basis. Now, there are at least two ways that effective communication can be insured. The first involves the use of common biologically based intuitive schemas.

In the absence of explicit language or symbolic thought, such schemas characterize the social cohesion of many social animals. There is reasonable evidence that humans also have such implicit social schemas. For example, we have recently shown that humans share an intuition about coalition formation as a function of individual power that is similar to what has been found behaviorally in chimpanzees Benenson et al. Another form of implicit inference is that underlying the Gricean view of linguistic communication, in which pragmatic interpretations of language acts are underpinned by common assumptions that are derived from shared experience Grice, However, such intuitive schemas can only work well when social behavior is relatively constrained.

Human social behavior, while certainly sharing many aspects with more biologically constrained social species, is, however, very flexible. Flexibility, while allowing greater ability to adapt to changing circumstances, has a clear effect on the possibility of ensuring effective communication solely on the basis of shared intuitive schemas. This puts a greater functional burden on overt, language based communication to ensure that social interactions do not degenerate into conflicts based on differing individual intuitions and perceptions. But, in order for such communication to serve this function, it is imperative that there exist a shared epistemology, i.

This again provides theoretical weight for the idea that explicit human reasoning should have a normative core. There are thus reasons related to the basic epistemology of human cognition and to the importance of reasoning to communication that suggest the necessity of a single normative model for explicit human reasoning. There are some basic considerations that can give clues to just what this model entails. The first is an argument from conceptual power.

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

The last couple of hundred years have led to a proliferation of models of logic that have radically different underpinnings. Each of these models is a product of the human mind, individually or in concert with others. One important constraint for a normative model that does indeed correspond to the workings of the explicit, analytic mind is that it should allow the construction of multiple forms of models of logic.

In addition, such a model should be readily understandable by most people, exactly because of the premise of communicability that we have claimed previously. Both of these constraints, along with historical and developmental considerations suggest that the normative model of the mind should involve some basic principles that underpin the notion of validity.