The Cheshire Cat of Educational Curricula

A recent post by a Twitter follower, Adriano Mannino (@Adriano_Mannino), an academic philosopher and author, reminded me of the great value in teaching students how to think critically in preparing future leaders to tackle rapidly escalating social problems. mannino_tweet

Mannino links to a brief but potent post authored by Peter Ellerton, Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project. It summarizes the meaning of critical thinking, which according to Ellerton, is “the Cheshire Cat of educational curricula—it is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away.” The article’s effectiveness is enhanced with a couple Monty Python videos that help drive home two of the key aspects of critical thinking—argumentation and logic.

I have reproduced the entire article below. It is posted on the IFL Science website here. It was originally published on The Conversation website, on December 17, 2014. In addition, I would like to briefly weigh in on the discussion. Critical thinking frameworks have broad application in everyday decisions (or contexts*), as well as professional problem solving. Here is an example of some key prerequisites proposed by a critical thinking framework used at the graduate school I attended:

  1. Identify and summarize the problem/question at issue (and/or the source’s position). 
  2. Identify and present your OWN hypothesis, perspective, and position as it relates to the analysis of the issue. 
  3. Identify and consider OTHER salient perspectives and positions that are important to the analysis. 
  4. Identify and assess the key assumptions. 
  5. Identify and assess the quality of supporting data/evidence and provide additional data/evidence related to the issue. 
  6. Identify and consider the influence of the context* on the issue. 
  7. Identify and assess conclusions, implications and consequences. 

* Contexts for Consideration: Cultural/Social(group, national, ethnic behavior/attitude); Scientific (c
onceptual, basic science, scientific method); Educational (
schooling, formal training); Economic (
trade, business concerns, costs); Technological (
applied science, engineering); Ethical 
(values); Political (
organizational or governmental); and Personal Experience (
personal observation, informal character).

And, here is the full post at the IFL Science website.

How To Teach All Students To Think Critically (December 22, 2014 | by Peter Ellerton)

All first year students at the University of Technology Sydney could soon be required to take a compulsory maths course in an attempt to give them some numerical thinking skills.

The new course would be an elective next year and mandatory in 2016 with the university’s deputy vice-chancellor for education and students Shirley Alexander saying the aim is to give students some maths “critical thinking” skills.

This is a worthwhile goal, but what about critical thinking in general?

Most tertiary institutions have listed among their graduate attributes the ability to think critically. This seems a desirable outcome, but what exactly does it mean to think critically and how do you get students to do it?

The problem is that critical thinking is the Cheshire Cat of educational curricula – it is hinted at in all disciplines but appears fully formed in none. As soon as you push to see it in focus, it slips away.

If you ask curriculum designers exactly how critical thinking skills are developed, the answers are often vague and unhelpful for those wanting to teach it.

This is partly because of a lack of clarity about the term itself and because there are some who believe that critical thinking cannot be taught in isolation, that it can only be developed in a discipline context – after all, you have think critically about something.

So what should any mandatory first year course in critical thinking look like? There is no single answer to that, but let me suggest a structure with four key areas:

the nature of science.

I will then explain that these four areas are bound together by a common language of thinking and a set of critical thinking values.

1. Argumentation

The most powerful framework for learning to think well in a manner that is transferable across contexts is argumentation.

Arguing, as opposed to simply disagreeing, is the process of intellectual engagement with an issue and an opponent with the intention of developing a position justified by rational analysis and inference.

Arguing is not just contradiction.

Arguments have premises, those things that we take to be true for the purposes of the argument, and conclusions or end points that are arrived at by inferring from the premises.

Understanding this structure allows us to analyse the strength of an argument by assessing the likelihood that the premises are true or by examining how the conclusion follows from them.

Arguments in which the conclusion follows logically from the premises are said to be valid. Valid arguments with true premises are called sound. The definitions of invalid and unsound follow.

This gives us a language with which to frame our position and the basic structure of why it seems justified.

2. Logic

Logic is fundamental to rationality. It is difficult to see how you could value critical thinking without also embracing logic.

People generally speak of formal logic – basically the logic of deduction – and informal logic – also called induction.

Deduction is most of what goes on in mathematics or Suduko puzzles and induction is usually about generalising or analogising and is integral to the processes of science.

Logic is fundamental to rationality.

Using logic in a flawed way leads to the committing of the fallacies of reasoning, which famously contain such logical errors as circular reasoning, the false cause fallacy or appeal to popular opinion. Learning about this cognitive landscape is central to the development of effective thinking.

3. Psychology

The messy business of our psychology – how our minds actuality work – is another necessary component of a solid critical thinking course.

One of the great insights of psychology over the past few decades is the realisation that thinking is not so much something we do, as something that happens to us. We are not as in control of our decision-making as we think we are.

We are masses of cognitive biases as much as we are rational beings. This does not mean we are flawed, it just means we don’t think in the nice, linear way that educators often like to think we do.

It is a mistake to think of our minds as just running decision-making algorithms – we are much more complicated and idiosyncratic than this.

How we arrive at conclusions, form beliefs and process information is very organic and idiosyncratic. We are not just clinical truth-seeking reasoning machines.

Our thinking is also about our prior beliefs, our values, our biases and our desires.

4. The Nature Of Science

It is useful to equip students with some understanding of the general tools of evaluating information that have become ubiquitous in our society. Two that come to mind are the nature of science and statistics.

Learning about what the differences are between hypotheses, theories and laws, for example, can help people understand why science has credibility without having to teach them what a molecule is, or about Newton’s laws of motion.

Understanding some basic statistics also goes a long way to making students feel more empowered to tackle difficult or complex issues. It’s not about mastering the content, but about understanding the process.

The Language Of Thinking

Embedded within all of this is the language of our thinking. The cognitive skills – such as inferring, analysing, evaluating, justifying, categorising and decoding – are all the things that we do with knowledge.

If we can talk to students using these terms, with a full understanding of what they mean and how they are used, then teaching thinking becomes like teaching a physical process such as a sport, in which each element can be identified, polished, refined and optimised.

Critical thinking can be studied and taught in part like physical processes.

In much the same way that a javelin coach can freeze a video and talk to an athlete about their foot positioning or centre of balance, a teacher of critical thinking can use the language of cognition to interrogate a student’s thinking in high resolution.

All of these potential aspects of a critical thinking course can be taught outside any discipline context. General knowledge, topical issues and media provide a mountain of grist for the cognitive mill.

General concepts of argumentation and logic are readily transferable between contexts once students are taught to recognise the deeper structures inherent in these fields and to apply them across a variety of situations.


It’s worth understanding too that a good critical thinking education is also an education in values.

Not all values are ethical in nature. In thinking well we value precision, coherence, simplicity of expression, logical structure, clarity, perseverance, honesty in representation and any number of like qualities. If schools are to teach values, why not teach the values of effective thinking?

So, let’s not assume that students will learn to think critically just by learning the methodology of their subjects. Sure it will help, but it’s not an explicit treatment of thinking and is therefore less transferable.

A course that targets effective thinking need not detract from other subjects – in fact it should enhance performance across the board.

But ideally, such a course should not be needed if teachers of all subjects focused on the thinking of their students as well as the content they have to cover.


Annual Report

Here’s a summary of my 2014 Annual Report provided by WordPress. Dear readers, thank you for your support and all the best in the new year.

Top 5 most viewed posts in 2014:

  1. Algae in the Great Lakes and beyond (August 2014)
  2. Saudades (September 2014)
  3. Mutual Flourishing (October 2014)
  4. After The Rain: A Grunge Band I Can Love (September 2014)
  5. Offshore Wind Energy: Effects on Marine & Volant Species (November 2014)

Top 5 countries that visited the website in 2014:

  1. United States
  2. Canada
  3. U.K.
  4. Germany
  5. France, Indonesia (tie)

Top 5 referring sites in 2014 were:


Martha and George: A Tragic Couple

As 2014 fades into history, this post celebrates two bittersweet events that marked the last year—the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and preservation of the last known Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni).


After a long and stimulating stroll through the halls of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, you may find yourself at the museum gift shop where there is a diorama containing a light brown bird mounted on a tree branch. Her name is Martha and she was the last known passenger pigeon and one of the most famous birds in the world. The Smithsonian handles her with the same extreme care as their other prized specimens, such as those collected by John Audubon, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Wallace.

Image credit: Claire Rosen

Martha (Image credit: Claire Rosen)

Martha died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. She was about 29 years old. Just forty years earlier, 136 million breeding adults would occupy 850 square miles of Wisconsin’s oak barren communities that served as the pigeon’s communal nesting sites. The passenger pigeon was then the most abundant bird in North America and possibly of all time. Habitat destruction and hunting on an industrial scale led to its demise.

Earlier this year, a 67-year-old monument to the passenger pigeon was rededicated at Wyalusing State Park, about 2 miles south of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The monument is perched on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. A plaque installed at the monument is dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon, which was shot in Babcock, in September 1899.


In 1947, Aldo Leopold wrote an essay for the dedication of the monument. The essay is considered by many to be the most poignant piece ever written about species extinction. His  essay was later published in A Sand County Almanac (1953), which serves as a foundation of conservation biology and environmental ethics. Here are the first paragraphs of Leopold’s essay:

We meet here to commemorate the death of a species. This monument symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live that, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.

The historical marker below was erected in 1973 by the Wisconsin Historical Society, in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The inscription illustrates the unimaginable size of the flocks that would darken Midwestern skies.

Erected 1973 by Wisconsin Historical Society Black River Falls, Jackson County, Wisconsin (Source:


Through the 19th century, witnesses marveled at the pigeon’s migrations, noting the hours it would take flocks to pass over head. The murmurations must have been a sight to see—one of nature’s most awesome displays. There are a few online videos of bird murmurations, but these examples pale in comparison to the scale of the passenger pigeon’s flocks. Here is a popular video that offers a tiny hint of the spectacle witnessed in the mid-1800s.

In 2014, birders, organizations and museums paid tribute to the pigeon’s legacy through many conferences, lectures, and exhibits across the U.S. The largest group commemorating the pigeon’s centenary is Project Passenger Pigeon led by a group of scientists, artists, museum curators, and birders. These events were intended to draw attention to the importance of species conservation and our role in species extirpations and extinctions. Here in Chicago, the Field Museum had a special exhibition and produced this backgrounder video.


The famous Galápagos tortoise known as Lonesome George (c. 1910—June 24, 2012) was a male Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) and the last known individual of the subspecies. George became a conservation icon in 1971 after he was discovered on the island of Pinta in the Galápagos archipelago. The subspecies was last seen in 1906 and presumed to be extinct.

Lonesome George

Lonesome George

George was relocated for his safety to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, and placed with two females of a different subspecies. Eggs were produced, however, none hatched. The Pinta Island tortoise was later judged to be functionally extinct while George was in captivity.

Scientists spent years trying to get George to mate and propagate the subspecies, but all efforts failed. When he died of old age in 2012, the entire subspecies may have been lost. However, several months after George died, a study published by Yale University researchers in the journal Biological Conservation suggested that DNA from George’s ancestors survives. On the northern tip of the island of Isabela—the largest island in the Galápagos chain—the researchers  found 17 hybrid descendants of C. (nigra) abingdoni among a population of 1,667 tortoises.

Galapagos Islands (Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

Galápagos Islands (Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

After his death, George’s body would be shipped to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) to be preserved. Unfortunately, preparing for the journey to the museum was fraught with difficulties. Because he died in captivity on the remote island Santa Cruz, there were significant challenges in finding an appropriately large freezer to hold George’s five-foot-long, 165-pound body. Through the resourcefulness of experts in Ecuador and New York, a suitable freezer was found and George was held in a nine-month deep freeze while the AMNH obtained the permits to transfer him to the U.S.

Here is a short video produced in part by the AMNH that highlights George’s legacy; the video’s description follows.

Museum scientists and a master taxidermist describe the painstaking process—part art, part science—of preserving Lonesome George, the famous Pinta Island tortoise who died in 2012 in the Galapagos Islands. As the last known survivor of the tortoise species Chelonoidis abingdoni, Lonesome George served as a global icon of conservation—and a reminder of the urgent need to address ever-increasing extinctions. After a limited time on view at the Museum Lonesome George returns to Ecuador as part of that nation’s patrimony.

George made the long journey from Ecuador to New York, where expert preservationists would sculpt George’s final pose. Preparing a lifelike rendering that reflected George’s majestic character and status as the world’s most famous tortoise would be extremely difficult. The team  was fortunate to have access to many photographs of George and, in the end, he was set in a dignified stance with his long neck outstretched as if he were reaching for a leafy lunch. In fact, green stains were added around George’s mouth to lend more realism to the pose.

Lonesome George at the American Natural History Museum (Image credit: D. Finnin/AMNH)

Lonesome George at the American Natural History Museum (Image credit: D. Finnin // AMNH)

A thermoplastic resin was used to seal George’s skin to help protect it and allow for further restoration or repair of the overlying layer of paint, if necessary. The task of painting George’s skin was tedious and meticulous. While George was alive, his body and carapace (or shell) were always covered by the reddish brown dust from the island. So, the preservationists used soil collected from Pinta Island as a reference for producing a truly authentic skin tone.

Reproducing George’s eyes was a critical final touch. The team photographed the eyes of other tortoises found in local zoos and from those photos were produced the first and most accurate tortoise eyes. All of these extraordinary preservation efforts were necessary because George was widely revered by many people and his preserved state would have obvious educational and scientific value.

The Lonesome George exhibit is on view in the Astor Turret on the AMNH’s fourth floor, from September 19, 2014, through January 4, 2015. He will be returned to Ecuador as part of that nation’s natural heritage.

Perhaps Homo sapiens can for once commit to a noble and worthwhile New Year’s resolution: reduce the catastrophic rate of global species extinction. Or, will our effect on the planet’s plants and animals mirror that of the extraterrestrial impact that wiped out the dinosaurs?