Halliday, J.  (2000)  'Critical thinking and the academic vocational divide', in The Curriculum Journal, 11  (2): 159 - 175


Critical thinking has been defined as a core skill, and there is much support for it as a skill that will bridge the academic and vocational divide. However, both of these views are mistaken and misleading, and may well lead to a reinforcement of that divide.

 The vocational turn has been gathering momentum in the UK at least since the Ruskin speech. Some commentators have seen this as the reproduction of capitalism, while others point out that there is an absence of discussion of ultimate ends. There are also problems in trying to predict the exact skill requirements of the future work force. These problems have been glossed by an apparently consistent support for core skills, although the term covers  'personal dispositions, mental strategies, accomplished practical routines or a combination of all three' (160). It is not always necessary in an occupation to develop critical thinking anyway -- for a joiner, the point is to work within a series of  '[technical]... aesthetic and moral considerations' rather than  'mounting a political challenge to the status quo' which is what a local community activist might require  (163).

 Various lists have been drawn of core skills, including  'numeracy, communications, problem-solving, information technology and manipulative dexterity', attributable to the YTS programme. Later ones added included  'self-development, learning and studying, self management and organisation, working with others, communicating, information seeking and analysis, using information technology, identifying and tacking into disciplinary problems, numeracy, practical skills, skills associated with science and technology and design skills' (161, citing Tribe 1996).

 Some people have advocated a particular emphasis on critical thinking in teaching students. Kuhn  (1991) focuses on argument and the control of attitudes. She specified is that students should learn to differentiate opinions/theory some evidence, support opinions with evidence, propose alternative opinions and be able to see how evidence would support them, and  'to take an epistemological stance which involves the weighing the pros and cons of what is known' (quoted on page 165). Kuhn suggests that early vocational education limits these abilities, and an ESRC study was based on it  (see below).

 Meanwhile, the key interest in academic journals focused on critical thinking. Politicians began to see this as one way to bridge the academic and vocational and develop a unified system. However, where academics stressed the development of personal autonomy, the vocational implications were different, and aimed at  'flexible technicians are capable of solving technical problems across a range of occupational domains' (161). The CBI seems to want people  'to think critically about the means to achieve an end prescribed by employers', while philosophers such as Spring talked about the development of  'autonomous, rational, educated persons' (161).

 There have been attempts to define critical thinking, and these also represent two main options -- skills that can be learnt in the abstract, or much more implicit and contextual forms of practice. Teaching is a good example. For the former, Ennis lists various proficiencies, including detecting ambiguity and contradiction in statements, judging the validity of conclusions, spotting assumptions, and challenging matters such as  'a statement made by an alleged authority' (162). The problem is that dispositions are ignored, so what we have is  'actually a highly complex list of proficiencies coupled with the simple admonition to exercise these proficiencies' (163, quoting Siegel 1988). For the latter, everything depends on context, on critical thinking about something. The problem is that the word  'critical' can often mean simply  'good'.

 The real issue with the academic and vocational divide is that one form of practice is more socially valued than the other. Academic thinking is supposed to be more valuable because it is more abstract and detached, and therefore more generalisable. This can produce a view that vocational thinking is cognitively deficient and in need of a supplement. However, academic forms of thinking are as much determined by practice and context as any other.

 The ESRC study cited above looked at Scottish Vocational Education in care programmes, and noted that none of Kuhn's deficiencies seemed to be deliberately taught. Detailed analysis of actual lessons, involving  'coding video recordings of the Peer critiquing,... assessment... and the administration of a standard critical reasoning test' showed that lessons based on Kuhn could be successful in developing  'depth of reasoning, clarity of argument, sensitivity to ungrounded assumptions and so on' (166). However, examination of the experiences of students in a follow-up study showed that reasoning about real work situations did not reveal this kind of critical thinking  (in the ESRC study, it was simulated work).

 The real work situations revealed the importance of moral and ethical questions, and justification of action. There were conflicting requirements needing balance. Here, distinctions between opinions and evidence, for example were far more blurred, and it was less than tactful to demand evidence for the claims of people like headteachers. It seemed more important simply to work with relevant people. [This seems pretty uncritical about work practice to me -- all would be well if senior practitioners could show that they acted without prejudice or damaging assumptions].

 The author also explain to students about academic practice --  'much reasoning that takes place in universities does not approximate to the conception of critical thinking outlined by Kuhn either'(167). Nevertheless, there were some relative standards, some idea of better or worse reasoning, and a claim that justifications can be more sophisticated than just appealing to feelings or authority --  'the view that it is better to be educated than not' (168).  [I think the author needs a bit of sociological critique here applied to universities, to get away from ludicrous abstractions like this].

 Personal feelings and dispositions are relevant to concrete action, although they are not sufficient. Moral issues have  'an essential indeterminacy', which means that students should not just defer on every occasion. Teachers need to accept this too, and doing so can give students confidence. There are no abstract standards that can be applied uniformly, and students can lose confidence in their own moral reasoning if they believe that there are. Similarly, if critical thinking becomes a skill, students are likely to accord authority to experts in it, rather than attempting to participate in self-critical communities of practice  (168)  [Wenger is cited here, but Dewey gets more attention below, so this looks like an American pragmatist approach].

 Dewey insists that training can only be accomplished through actually practising an occupation, and drawing on 'the shared practices of a community' (169). He emphasises the  'mostly noncognitive background' to cognitive inquiry. Garrison  (1996) suggests that noncognitive elements  'such as need, affect, intuition and selective attention' actually work to inform thought rather than the fashionable notion of meta-cognition, which focuses on the cognitive alone. Interest affects meaning, and so do human relations. All thought is contextual, including critical inquiry. The infinite regress that threatens cannot be dealt with by abstracting critical skills. Instead, some sense of appropriateness limits endless reflection --  'Justifications come to an end at some point that is known by those who are engaged in similar activities' (170)  [This whole discussion would be much more informed by Bourdieu and the notion of habitus].

 Is good thinking transferable? Some learning does seem to be capable of being applied to new contexts, although it is not always worthwhile to do so  [the example is learned criminal behaviour being applied to new enterprises]. Politicians would do better to realise that there are inevitable tensions between  'endless criticality and acquiescent action' (170). Communities of practice need to be challenged, and this is where transfer from one field to another can help.  [The example is Heidegger's analogy between joinery and philosophy -- both need to work with the grain and so on -- 171]. Encounters with the unknown also offer a challenge. Practices can overlap, but probably not enough to produce  'core skills', and critical thinking as a core skill requires  'communities of critical thinkers united in a conception of what this super practice is for' (171)  [Shades of the Kuhn Popper debate, or Hammersley on the role of educational researchers as arbiters of policy].

 All educational activities have  'traditions of inquiry supported by communities of practitioners', often working with tacit criteria and notions of validity  (171). These provide the  'epistemological ground which gives reason a purchase on something beyond the personal' (171), and abstracting critical thinking from them makes no sense. It replaces the community with  'the authoritarianism of a form of discourse policed by officers of various examining bodies' (171). This encourages instrumentalism, because there is no independent way to establish what critical thinking as a core skill is.

 The vocabulary of skill suggests that vocational practices are cognitively deficient. This ignores that vocational practices can be rigorous and can also resist attempts by policy makers or curriculum theorists to police them  [see Ozga on skill as a contested issue]. Critical thinking as an abstraction seems likely to mislead people through a  'cheap and easy appeal to their materialistic interests in securing a job' (172). Taught critical thinking may be an inoculation against proper widespread grounded critical thinking. Bolting it on to vocational courses could be elitist, and helped to domesticate the work force.

 Why aren't other valuable activities such as those involved in music, drama sport reading media studies, knowledge of the legal system or foreign languages deemed to be central?

 Finally,  'there are many people who can read Shakespeare and redecorate their living rooms without recourse to any core skill that obviously links the two activities' (173).

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