Thinking critically for an AI world


In this Edspresso episode we hear from Peter Ellerton, the founding Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project, and a former Head Teacher of Experimental Sciences.

He explains why critical thinking will be valuable in an artificial intelligence (AI) future and what teachers should be aiming for when teaching their students how to be critical thinkers.

What is critical thinking, and how can education best support its development? Why can't we outsource our cognitive concerns to machines? Is critical thinking transferrable across domains?

Peter is the author of our occasional paper - On critical thinking and collaborative inquiry.

Credits: Recording and production by Jennifer Macey (Audiocraft), editing by Andy Maher, and voiceovers by Sally Kohlmayer. This episode was recorded in 2018. The views expressed in Edspressos are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education.


Image: Peter Ellerton
Edspresso Episode 3: Thinking critically for an AI world, with Peter Ellerton.


Welcome to the Edspresso series from the New South Wales Department of Education. These short podcasts are part of The Education for a Changing World initiative. Join us as we speak to a range of experts about how emerging technology such as artificial intelligence are likely to change the world around us, and what this might mean for education.

We regularly hear that critical thinking is a key 21st-century skill. Of course, it's always been highly valued in education. Yet debate continues about what critical thinking is, and how we can best support its development in school education.

In this episode, we hear from Peter Ellerton, the Founding Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project and the former head teacher of experimental sciences. Peter explains why critical thinking will be valuable in an AI world, and what educators should be aiming for when teaching their students to be critical thinkers.

Peter Ellerton:

I'm Peter Ellerton, I'm a lecturer in critical thinking at the University of Queensland and Director of the University of Queensland's Critical Thinking Project.

It's difficult to define critical thinking to the satisfaction of all. There's lots of ways that people do this. A broadly inclusive way of understanding critical thinking is, in some sense a person is aware of their own thinking and holds their thinking to some kind of standard, some kind of means of evaluation by which they can judge whether it's good thinking or not. You want to be aware of just having any kind of analytical thinking, being called critical thinking. Because indeed it can be done by machines.

Critical thinking is also understood as an ability to problem solve or make decisions in a variety of circumstances. So, we have to understand critical thinking in that sense as first, about our own thinking, rather than trying to use it or weaponise it against others. It is something about us, it is a mirror we can hold up to ourselves.

Critical thinking would be important in an AI future for a couple of reasons. One, because it's always important, humans have to get by in a complex world. And you might think, well, we'll be able to outsource a lot of these cognitive concerns to machines. But that's a very questionable claim, what it means to make human judgements on value is a very different thing from the type of AI that we currently engage with.

We have to have a peculiar human way of judging value and of applying these principles based on our values in context. We have the usual things people say, that you know, we have to know how to use the technology properly. We have to know the context in which we can deploy it. And that's more than the machines themselves can do.

One of the things that's characteristic of critical thinkers is a certain tolerance for ambiguity, to be comfortable in uncertainty. And this is not at all what AI is good at, at the moment.

Inquiry into the world demands suspended judgement and demands a kind of epistemic weigh station to be able to sit somewhere comfortably knowing that you don't know all the facts, knowing that it may change, and being OK with that, and juggling these judgements as you move forward. And I think that's something that humans will always be able to do better than computers.

Critical thinking is certainly spoken about as different, or at least spoken about at different times, from creative thinking or problem-solving or decision making or other types of thinking.

There's merit to being able to look at these things from different angles. But I think you can't lose sight of the fact that none of these things can extrude to far from the others all they'll all atrophy, they depend on each other.

Critical thinking demands creative thinking. It underpins so much of problem-solving. It demands also good communication skills. It demands a social awareness on the part of thinkers. Thinking will be important in an AI-oriented future and the best thinking we can do, not only individually, but collaboratively.

The future has to be collaborative if there's to be one at all. The skills of working socially and collaboratively with people, indeed thinking collaboratively with people, of communicating your thinking, of engaging in a kind of social cognition with others.

All those skills necessary for that to happen, the social and communication and teamwork skills are all necessary skills to learn how to think really well. So, while we can talk about them as different, I think it's a dangerous project to imagine we can just focus on one to any great depth without talking about the others.

Content and subject knowledge is important to develop critical thinking. Indeed, it can be shown empirically that the more complex and sophisticated the content you work with, the more opportunities you'll have for sophisticated thinking. However, not all complex subject areas or complex knowledge within those subject areas demands critical thinking. We may simply learn a methodology or understand a particular type of problem and recognise that problem type, it doesn't always mean that we're thinking critically.

So, whilst a deep and broad subject matter knowledge can help us to think critically, it's not always essential. You can think that critically using very simple and straightforward subject matter. So, it's an interesting relationship between the two.

The extent to which critical thinking is domain-specific or transferable across domains remains contentious. I think it's a very big call to say that simply by immersing yourself in complex knowledge that you'll develop good critical thinking skills. What you can say, I think, is that teaching people to think critically is not a curriculum project. Teaching people to think well, to think critically is a pedagogical project. Teachers with pedagogical expertise in this area can teach people to think very well across a whole range of discipline contexts.

And, in that case, it is certainly transferable across domains if it's taken as a pedagogical approach. It's also a big claim to say that you can't develop critical thinking without going deep into the subject area because I think we have lots of evidence from programs such as philosophy for children, where very young children with very, to our ears, simple content are thinking very, very sophisticatedly.

The Australian Curriculum has a focus on critical thinking through the general capabilities. But, again, this is a curriculum focus, it says very, very little about the pedagogy of teaching people to think well. I think the focus on the curriculum is a necessary part, but I think it's far from sufficient. Because teachers don't necessarily know how to transfer that into their practice every day.

Because critical thinking a bit like a language can't be learned from a textbook. You have to do it and you have to do it socially. So, the general capabilities are a good thing, but without the pedagogical focus to put them into practice, I don't think they could ever really fulfil their promise.

It's a reasonable concern to wonder what we can do with students by the end of their schooling in terms of critical thinking ability, and to consider what kind of milestones they could pass. I think we need to understand that there's no such thing as a finished product when it comes to critical thinking. We want to get them in that metacognitively evaluative mode about their own thinking that makes them always reflect and critique how decisions are being made and aspects of their own thinking.

That sets them up for what we mean by lifelong learning. It's a mode of operation by which they understand their own cognition. Though they will never be a finished product, I also think one of the things that's very, very important for us to do is to help students shift any perceptions they may have about the nature of knowledge as fixed and external to them and understand that they are far more than simply passive recipients of information. That they construct their understanding of the world.

Students aren't simply libraries to be stocked with facts. They're to be taught to think. They have to be actively involved in their learning. John Dewey said it beautifully when he said that thinking is a method of intelligent learning.

The advice I'd give myself if I could talk to myself as a primary school student, or indeed current primary or kindergarten students, would be how you're taught in school doesn't necessarily reflect how knowledge is created. And to understand that as a pupil you need to be far more than a passive recipient of information. We have to see knowledge as an organic thing that we have to engage with as part of that framework rather than something that is just banked with us.

So, I shouldn't despair if I find that I can't recall vast amounts of information cause that's not really the skill we're after, the AIs can do that just fine. We want to be able to know what to do that knowledge. And the word we have for doing things with knowledge is thinking.


Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edspresso series. You can find out more about the education for a Changing World Initiative via the new South Wales Department of Education's website.


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