Should schools teach lessons on developing general creativity or general critical thinking? Maybe not.

I came to this conclusion after reading a superbly written literature review on the effectiveness of cognitive training regimens (Sala & Gobet, 2019). These training programs take a variety of forms, including working memory training, music lessons, chess instruction, and brain training programs.

Regardless of the type of training, the results were consistent: preliminary evidence from correlational studies is promising, but in well designed experimental trials, none show any evidence of raising intelligence.

This article is consistent with others on the same topic (e.g., Protzko, 2017; Sala & Gobet, 2017), so I was not surprised when I read it. These results typically show that training programs improve the skills that are taught a lot, improve similar skills somewhat well, and don’t improve unrelated skills at all. What did surprise me in the article was this statement:

An important practical implication is that school instruction and professional training should concentrate on domain-specific material and avoid domain-general cognitive training.

(Sala & Gobet, 2019, p. 17)

Translation: Schools should not teach general skills; they should teach specific skills and knowledge instead.

Shots fired! It is educational orthodoxy in the United States that schools should teach general cognitive skills, like critical thinking and creativity. My first scholarly article was advocating a general viewpoint of critical thinking (Yanchar, Slife, & Warne, 2008). Everyone seems to agree that teaching students these broad skills is a good and worthy goal for schools.

But if skills do not transfer across different tasks or domains, then teaching general skills is a waste of time. Critical thinking in history is very different from critical thinking in biology. Creativity in dance does not use the same skills and knowledge as creativity in physics.

These concepts might be examples of the jingle fallacy, which is treating different concepts as if they were the same because a language uses the same word for them (Kelley, 1927, pp. 63-64).

If the research on attempts to raise intelligence also applies to other broad abilities, like critical thinking and creativity, then the educational implications are important. It would mean that:

  • Raising overall critical thinking or creativity requires teaching a person how these are goals are manifested in several disciplines.
  • Like intelligence, competence in critical thinking and creativity may be a psychological ability that manifests itself in specific situations–not a learned general skill that a person applies to specific situations.
  • Abstract lessons about creativity and critical thinking are a waste of time. Teachers should still teach these principles, but in context for a specific domain. And they should not expect the skills to transfer easily to other domains.

I am not quite ready to throw general creativity or critical thinking training out the window. But Sala and Gobet (2019) raise an important issue, and educational psychologists, administrators, and teachers should be willing to carefully scrutinize the value of generalized lessons to overall abilities.

References

Kelley, T. L. (1927). Interpretation of educational measurements. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company.

Protzko, J. (2017). Effects of cognitive training on the structure of intelligence. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 24, 1022-1031. doi:10.3758/s13423-016-1196-1

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). Does far transfer exist? Negative evidence from chess, music, and working memory training. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 515-520. doi:10.1177/0963721417712760

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2019). Cognitive training does not enhance general cognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23, 9-20. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2018.10.004

Yanchar, S. C., Slife, B. D., & Warne, R. (2008). Critical thinking as disciplinary practice. Review of General Psychology, 12, 265-281. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.12.3.265

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