TOWARDS AN ACCOUNT OF TEACHING GENERAL THINKING SKILLS THAT IS COMPATIBLE WITH THE ASSUMPTIONS OF SOCIOCULTURAL THEORY
The sociocultural paradigm in educational research, emphasising the situatedness of learning and the embeddedness of thought in cultural and linguistic practices, has called into question the plausibility of the enterprise of teaching general thinking skills. In this paper I argue that the sociocultural research programme needs an adequate conceptualisation of general thinking skills if it is not to be vulnerable to various criticisms, including that of a lack of reflexivity, connected with the charge of relativism. I go on to argue that Habermas’ insight that rationality can be described in terms of a speech situation can be adapted to provide a coherent redescription of general thinking skills. This redescription of reason, compatible with the assumptions of the socio-cultural paradigm, is in terms of the orientations and ground rules that structure an always socially situated but self-reflective and self-transcending type of dialogue. On this account teaching general thinking skills can be conceptualised as induction into the practice of dialogue across difference.
Key words: Dialogue; Discourse; Habermas; Reason; Thinking skills
The sociocultural approach to cognitive development has gained ground in recent years and led to many valuable studies with an emphasis on the teaching and learning of specific forms of cognition related to specific cultural practices (Wertsch, 1985; Rogoff, 1990; Saljo, 1991). Some have suggested that this approach, while strong in providing convincing accounts of the reproduction of cultural knowledge, faces the challenge of providing an adequate account of the construction of new knowledge or of thought apparently going beyond its cultural context (e.g. Vosniadou, 1991, p287; Hatano and Miyake, 1991 p283). In this paper I respond to that challenge through considering the issue of how to conceptualise, from a sociocultural perspective, the teaching and learning of general thinking skills. My main argument is that, while Habermas’ theory of communicative action, is open to criticism, it provides a fundamental insight that can be built upon to provide a redescription of general thinking skills in terms of a situated type of dialogue.
The paper is divided into four sections. The first section looks at the idea of teaching general thinking skills and why this idea has become problematic. The intellectual sources of the challenge to the idea of teaching general thinking skills are traced to two traditions which see thought as embedded in culturally situated ‘language games’ (Wittgenstein) or ‘speech genres’ (Bakhtin/Volosinov). The second section suggests that the sociocultural paradigm is potentially vulnerable to the philosophical critique of relativism and argues that this problem is closely related to the difficulty of conceptualising general thinking skills within that paradigm. The third section takes insights from Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality to help construct a solution to this problem. This solution is that we locate general thinking skills in a situated type of dialogue defined through intersubjective orientations and structuring social ground rules. Since this locates general thinking skills in a situated, historically emergent, discourse practice it is compatible with key socio-cultural assumptions. The final section deals with the practical implications of this theory which are that the teaching of general thinking skills should be seen as induction into a discourse practice or ‘language game’. This offers insight into two successful approaches to teaching thinking: Philosophy for Children and the ‘Thinking Together’ approach that promotes the use of ‘Exploratory Talk’.
In an article on the impact of viewing cognitive development in cultural contexts, Rogoff, Gauvain and Ellis (1991 p 315) draw out and contrast two very different models of cognition. Their characterisation is broad but useful in revealing a fundamental division in underlying assumptions about cognitive development. The first model, associated with Piaget and the rationalist tradition in general, they call the ‘Central Processing Model’. According to this model each individual has a central processor which contains general skills and propensities. All experiences feed into developing these general skills and propensities and all are equally available to apply to tasks in any context. Rogoff et al., quoting research from the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, call the alternative to the central processing model the ‘Specific Learning Model’ (ibid.). This alternative model which, they claim, has emerged from cross-cultural research, stresses the context-bound nature of cognitive skills. On this model what is learnt in the context of one cultural task can only be assumed to relate to that task. This Specific Learning Model is the corollary of conceiving thinking skills as embedded in cultural tool systems, especially situated language use.
On what Rogoff et al. call ‘The Central Processing Model’ of cognition the transfer of cognitive skills learnt in one context to another context of application does not need to be explained because it is considered to be the normal case, what needs to be explained is the absence of such transfer. For Piaget, for example, the failure of children who could do a task in one context to be able to do a task with the same underlying logical structure in a different context was a problem which he felt needed explaining and which he attempted to explain in terms of contextual factors (Rogoff 1990 p5, Donaldson 1987). This Central Processing Model naturally suggests the existence of general thinking skills, viewed as context-independent abstract structures of thought underlying context-specific applications. It has been a major influence behind programmes intended to teach such general thinking skills (Nickerson et al. p36, Papert 1981, Adey and Shayer 1993).
According to Perkins and Salomon (1989) there has been a shift away from this model of general thinking skills, that called by Rogoff et al the Central Processing Model, motivated by a lack of empirical support. They quote a variety of research projects - including work by Thorndike dating back to the early years of this century, recent studies by Hayes and Simon and the considerable research on Papert’s LOGO, a programming based thinking skills project - all of which have failed to find evidence of the automatic transfer implied by the traditional model. They sum up the evidence:
The case for generalisable, context-independent skills and strategies that can be trained in one context and transferred to other domains has proven to be more a matter of wishful thinking than hard empirical evidence. (1989 p19)
This analysis is closely supported by Hennessy et al. (1993 p79) who argue from it that the teaching of general thinking skills should give way to the teaching of subject specific thinking skills on the cognitive apprenticeship model. Perkins and Salomon, however, argue that it is a pity that this evidence has been used by some to reject the idea of teaching general thinking skills when the problem lay, they claim, with the overly abstract and overly universal view of thinking skills underlying the different educational programmes. They write that transfer has been shown to occur when certain conditions are met:
perhaps most importantly, ... when learning takes place in a social context (e.g.,reciprocal teaching), whereby justifications, principles, and explanations are socially fostered, generated, and contrasted. (ibid. p22)
General thinking skills can be taught, Perkins and Saloman conclude, but to understand how best to teach them we need a new model of what these skills are, a model mediating between the inadequate alternatives of context-free generality and context-bound specificity. This conclusion is to some extent supported by evaluations of thinking skills programmes which show that they can work but that more contextualised approaches tend to work better than more de-contextualised approaches. Hattie, Biggs and Purdie (1996), for example, conducted a meta-analysis of 51 study skills interventions and found that ‘Despite, perhaps, the conventional wisdom, most intervention does work most of the time’ (1996, p128). However separate general study skills programmes were found to be much less effective than teaching meta-cognitive strategies as part of the teaching of content within courses. Other evaluations have led to similar conclusions (see Wegerif, 2002).
Forrester (1992 p33-5) argues that explanation of thinking skills in terms of internal mental mechanisms on the Central Processing Model is redundant. Since the only evidence we have of the development of cognitive skills and their transfer to different contexts is from social interaction it is more efficient and effective, he argues, to interpret these skills in terms of social interaction, especially 'participation in dynamic and "on-line" conversational contexts'. A very similar argument is made by Edwards and Potter in advocating a discourse based psychology (1992 and Edwards, 1996). These arguments are versions of arguments found in the writings of Wittgenstein. In the Blue and Brown books (1958), describing the mystifications inherent in ordinary language, he writes:
...we are strongly inclined to use the metaphor of something being in a peculiar state for saying that something can behave in a particular way. And this way of representation, or this metaphor, is embodied in the expressions “He is capable of ...”, “He is able to multiply large numbers in his head” “He can play chess”(p117-18).
Wittgenstein goes on to note how sure people are that to these kind of abilities
there must correspond a peculiar state of the person’s brain, although on the other hand they know next to nothing about such psycho-physiological correspondences. We regard these phenomena as manifestations of this mechanism, and their possibility is the particular construction of the mechanism itself (ibid. p117-18).
Wittgenstein’s point is not that such mechanisms do not exist, although he seems sceptical, but that even if they do they could not explain our thinking and our understanding to us. In place of reductionist explanations, Wittgenstein’s method is that of redescriptions to show us the phenomena in a different light. This he calls ‘perspicuous representation’(1967 p122).
The redescriptions that Wittgenstein gives to illuminate the nature of thought are in terms of ‘language games’ embedded in ‘forms of life’. Understanding how to play a language game is the same as ‘knowing how to go on’. According to Wittgenstein the posited inner darkness of private cognitive abilities is a kind of dream produced by the language and quite unnecessary to seeing clearly the reality that we are and live as we speak, think and ‘know how to go on’ (1967 p61).
McPeck (1981, 1990) - the most vocal critic of the general thinking skills movement - produces an argument against the possibility of teaching general thinking skills based explicitly on Wittgenstein. He claims that it is meaningless to consider thinking apart from thinking about some subject area. The temptation to do this, and turn thinking into a separate skill, is an illusion of the way we use language. McPeck writes that ‘Reasoning ability covers all manner of cognitive phenomena’ including fishing, writing poems, driving a car and others to the extent that ‘the phrase “reasoning ability” does not denote any particular skill, nor indeed any particular kind of skill’ (1990, p4-5). He overtly grounds his argument, that critical thinking can best be taught through the traditional subjects, on what he calls ‘Wittgenstein’s insight about the very intimate connection between thought and language’(1990 p35).
...different subjects employ different language games, and different language-games have their own peculiar (or unique) rules of predication. ... Thus, there are almost as many distinguishable logics, or kinds of reasoning, as there are distinguishable kinds of subject.
It follows from this that there are no useful general skills to be taught, but only the specific skills needed for participating in different language games.
In his introduction to a special edition of Learning and Instruction on ‘Culture and Learning’ Roger Saljo (1991 p 179 - 85) argues that the issue of the cultural context of learning has been brought to the fore by historical change, especially the increasing pluralism of modern societies. Culture can no longer be viewed ‘as a separate variable and, as it were, be added on to an acultural conception of human activities’, he writes, but must be seen as the essential medium of human understanding (ibid. p180). Although the recent cultural turn in educational research shares much common ground with the philosophy of the later Wittgenstein it seems to stem more from Soviet theorists, especially Vygotsky and, to a lesser extent Bakhtin (who also wrote under the name Volosinov. In this special edition Wittgenstein was not mentioned while Vygotsky was heavily referenced (Saljo 1991). Mercer and Fisher, referring to this perspective as ‘neo-Vygotskian’, although Mercer later adopted the term 'sociocultural', characterise it as follows:
The essence of this approach is to treat learning and cognitive development as culturally-based, not just culturally influenced, and as social rather than individualized processes (1992)
This theoretical perspective questions some of the assumptions traditionally associated with the thinking skills movement. To make sense of the idea that thinking is a social rather than an individual phenomenon requires a considerable paradigm shift. Another aspect of the same paradigm shift is to question the idea of thinking as essentially formal. The stress on the importance of the context of thought becomes, in the ‘neo-Vygotskian’ (Mercer and Fisher 1992) or ‘sociocultural’ (Mercer 1993, Wertsch 1991) research programme, a rejection of the traditional implicit model of thought as being essentially abstract and formal. On the sociocultural, model thought is pictured as fully embodied in the often ambiguous business of social interaction.
Wertsch seems to have coined the term ‘sociocultural' (1991, p18-46). Vygotsky preferred the term ‘sociohistorical’ but is quoted by Wertsch and other proponents of this approach as the main theoretical influence. Writing in the 1930s at the same time as Piaget was developing his enormously influential logico-mathematical structural model of cognitive development Vygotsky produced a different account of development emphasising the crucial role of culture and education. He criticised Piaget for the unsituatedness of his approach, writing:
The developmental uniformities established by Piaget apply to a given milieu, under the conditions of Piaget’s study. They are not laws of nature, but are historically and socially determined. (1986 p55)
Vygotsky’s programmatic statements repeat the central message that ‘all that is internal in the higher mental functions was at one time external’ (Vygotsky 1981, p36). The claim is that ‘higher mental functions’ or thinking skills, when looked at as the property of an individual, are internalised versions of social interactions. Even in their internal and individual form they remain essentially social (Wertsch, 1991, p27).
Wertsch (1979) draws the parallel between a Vygotskian account of learning thinking skills as the internalisation of inter-personal processes with Wittgenstein’s account of thinking embedded in language games. Although these two approaches seem highly compatible, Vygotsky was working within a Marxist framework which differed considerably from Wittgenstein’s. One of the most significant differences is Vygotsky's stress on history and the genetic origins of thought. Wittgenstein acknowledges that language games are embedded in forms of life which change historically but he seems uninterested in the causes of that change. He was concerned only to describe language games, expressly repudiating any idea that the insights of philosophy should change social practice (1967 p124). Vygotsky, by contrast, was an engaged educator as well as a psychological theorist. His interest was precisely in changing children by teaching them more effectively and in participating in historical transformation in the new socialist experiment that surrounded him and to which he was committed (Alex Kozulin, introduction to Thought and Language, Vygotsky, 1986).
The sociocultural paradigm, defined broadly to include those who do not use the term but seem to share the key assumptions referred to by Mercer (quoted above) has led to many valuable and insightful studies of learning thinking skills. Brown and Newman’s influential paper on ‘Cognitive Apprenticeship’ (1986) is subtitled ‘teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics’ and includes detailed recommendations on ways to teach these ‘crafts’ basic to school-based education in accordance with the apprenticeship model. Edwards and Mercer’s study of classroom interactions describes education as a form of ‘cognitive socialisation’ (1987 p161) into a particular form of discourse, ‘educated discourse’. Lemke does much the same for school science teaching, describing it as an induction into a way of using language (Lemke 1990). Rogoff’s book Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context (1990) refers to many studies of teaching and learning thinking skills, all of which are studies of skills tied to the context of specific cultural tasks.
Where the Central Processing Model places thinking in the heads of individuals the sociocultural paradigm situates it in cultural practices, social institutions and situated language games, discourse practices and literacy practices. Whereas for the Central Processing Model the idea of general thinking skills is unproblematic and specific cultural influences on thought need to be explained; for the sociocultural paradigm, and the associated Specific Learning Model drawn out by Rogoff et al , this situation is reversed. Thinking skills embedded in specific cultural practices are considered to be the normal case while the idea of thinking skills in general, that is skills that transcend specific practices and are general to all of them, is problematic and difficult to conceptualise.
In situating thought in cultural contexts the sociocultural paradigm inevitably raises what Bruner calls ‘the spector of relativism’ (1990 p30). This apparent area of theoretical weakness is closely linked to the difficulty of conceptualising general thinking skills. If a solution to the problem of relativism can be found within the sociocultural paradigm, that solution may well translate into a solution to the problem of conceptualising general thinking skills. This is why it is worth exploring the charge of relativism and responses to it.
McPeck (1990), quoted above, argues that different language games define their own criteria for truth validation. The same conclusion must follow even more strongly for moral values. McPeck, being more a follower of Wittgenstein than of Vygotsky, is not perhaps exemplary of the sociocultural position. However he expresses clearly a position, opposed to the possibility of teaching general thinking skills, that is a version of the Specific Learning Model and is related to similar issues central to the sociocultural paradigm. Wittgenstein’s notion of a language game interdependent with a form of life is closely related to Bakhtin/Volosinov’s (1986) notion of discourse genres developed to explicate Marx’s claim that consciousness is embedded in actual social relations. If thought and logic are conceived of as fully situated in language games or discourse genres, which are in turn embedded in cultural practices, then it would appear to follow that we cannot judge the validity of truth claims or moral claims made within a cultural context from a perspective outside that context. McPeck’s claim that each language game defines its own logic is closely related to the sociocultural claim that thinking skills are culturally embedded. Both appear to be claims that lead to relativist conclusions about truth, reason and ethics.
Habermas’ idea of performative contradiction offers an argument against relativism based on rules implicit in the performative use of language. This is the idea that:
there are certain unavoidable assumptions that accompany any argument and the propositional content of the argument cannot contradict these assumptions (Holub p143).
There appears to be such a performative contradiction involved in arguments leading to cultural relativism: their propositional truth claims contradict their implicit performative claims. If they are true, then, as themselves apparently universal claims transcending cultural contexts, they are false.
This argument points to the need for a self-reflective account of thinking skills that can understand the thinking involved in putting forward the account. If, following McPeck, one can isolate the specific logics of language games then what is the logic that enables one to do that and in what language game is it embedded? In Lemke’s study of school science, to give another example, we have reason described as ‘a way of using language’ (1990 p121). Lemke shows how approaching the issue of reason from this perspective proves insightful in revealing the genre patterns that apply to it. Reason clearly is, amongst other things, a way of using language. But the challenge raised by the critique of relativism is: can Lemke account for his own reasoning in the same way? Can his own practice of social science, as exemplified in his book, be adequately described in terms of the ‘rhetorical and genre structure patterns’ he uses to analyse the reasoning of the subjects of his study (p122)? Clearly it could be analysed in this way but such an analysis alone would not do full justice to its claims. Lemke’s implicit claim, a claim he shares with the scientific rationality he describes, is to transcend any limited cultural context in order to tell the story of school science as it really is.
The main moral argument against relativism is that it removes any yardstick for the criticism of social practices. This usually has conservative implications because it legitimates, by default, the current practices of any society. In educational terms the critique of the possibility of teaching general thinking skills can lead to the enshrining of existing practices as immutable, particularly traditional subject divisions. This outcome can be seen clearly in the Wittgensteinian arguments of Hirst (1974) and McPeck (1981, 1990), both of whom argue for the specificity of the logics required by the already established academic subjects. In the sociocultural paradigm the use of both apprenticeship and socialisation as models of learning account well for the reproduction of social practices but not for the development of the capacity to criticise and change them. What is needed in addition to an account of social reproduction is a socioculturally situated account of how apparently context transcending reflective and critical thinking can be taught and learnt.
Habermas argues that once we make the shift from what he calls 'the paradigm of consciousness' to 'the paradigm of mutual understanding' it becomes apparent that reason is not about the structures of representation in a consciousness, but about the way participants in dialogue orient themselves to each other (1987, p 314). In all of the different contexts in which reasoning occurs, it retains a certain unity of form because of ‘communicative presuppositions’ necessary to it. For example, Habermas points out, argument would be futile unless participants believe that the outcome will not be determined simply by coercion but also by, what Habermas calls, ‘the unforced force’ of the better argument. If this minimum belief is not present then sincere debate cannot occur. From this and other similar requirements, requirements which could not be argued against without falling into self-contradiction, Habermas claims that minimal rules characterising an 'ideal speech situation' can be deduced. Provisionally, at an earlier stage, he proposed a formulation (Habermas, 1990, p 89) which read like a set of participant rights, such as the right of all to speak, to question assertions and to remain free from coercion. Habermas does not argue that these ground-rules are the facts of argumentation but rather that they, or some similar set, are the necessary ideals of argumentation :
Once participants enter into argumentation, they cannot avoid supposing, in a reciprocal way, that the conditions for an ideal speech situation have been sufficiently met. And yet they realise that their discourse is never definitively “purified” of the motives and compulsions that have been filtered out. (Habermas, 1987, p 322)
Habermas’s account of the ideal-speech situation can be and has been criticised (e.g Linell, p11). It is in the nature of communicative rationality that its ground rules cannot be fixed in advance because they can always be challenged in a debate which has no necessary end. Despite this, the central insight of Habermas’s position, that reason is more a matter of historically emergent social ground rules than of a determinate logic, is hard to deny. Rorty argues that, while Habermas is misguided in apparently seeking universal and quasi-transcendental grounds for rationality, he is nonetheless right that rationality must be defined through ‘the sort of encounter in which the truth cannot fail to win’ (Rorty, 1991, p 39, by ‘truth’ he means the best belief to hold in the context) and that this depends on certain ‘virtues’ such as ‘relying on persuasion rather than force’ and ‘respect for the opinions of colleagues’. Similarly Seyla BenHabib criticises Habermas’s stress on legalistic rules and what she calls the reduction of the concrete other in a dialogue to an abstract other, however, nonetheless, she agrees with Habermas that, if we are to bring up children in peace we need some sort of ideal of reason or at least an ideal of ‘being reasonable’. This ideal is, she argues, about how real people solve their problems without resorting to violence through engaging in dialogues informed by an attitude of care and respect.
Bruner defends cultural psychology against the charge of relativism by firstly pointing out that values are not freely chosen but inhere in cultures and then arguing that his constructivism is an expression of pluralist values inhering in a democratic culture, which is the most appropriate culture for modern conditions where there is both rapid change and the clash of many different claims to validity (Bruner 1986, p24 - 30). Faith in absolutes is no longer adequate, he writes:
All one can hope for is a viable pluralism backed by a willingness to negotiate differences in world view.
Where there is a need for coordinated action, inhabitants of different cultural perspectives must seek mutual understanding. This requires that the habitual assumptions of each culture must be bracketed while a new, mutually acceptable, version of reality is worked out. In this process of reaching understanding across different perspectives we have a situated yet transcendent rationality. It is not transcendent in the static, a priori, sense of Kant's categories but in the historically situated and fallible sense of constantly going beyond the given context in the search for a broader consensus. This bridging of barriers to create a framework for mutual understanding is always situated historically and socially. It is an aspect of the evolution of cultures and may involve the creation of new communities.
A similar argument applies to issue of reflexivity in sociocultural research. The charge of operating double-standards leading to an incoherent relativism is applicable where the truth claims of the subjects studied are bracketed out or ‘ironised’ (Edwards, 1997) and their rationality described only in the objectified form of a set of genre conventions while the rationality of the researcher remains unexamined and unsituated. On the alternative dialogical reason model, inspired by Habermas, it is not possible to describe claims to rationality without engaging with them and thereby being part of a historically and socially situated dialogue (see Habermas, 1984 p130).
Habermas’s claim to overcome the problem of relativity through a model of communicative rationality can be criticised. Habermas brings in an important new social dimension to the definition of reason by pointing out that reason occurs in contexts structured by orientations and ground rules which can be more or less reasonable. However some would argue that there is more to the idea of reason than reasonable social orientations and ground rules. Habermas’s appeal to ‘the unforced force of the better argument’, for example, appears to assume a trans-cultural framework from which the quality of arguments can be assessed. If there is no such trans-cultural framework than the shared way forward that emerges from dialogue might be described as a negotiated consensus rather than the product of critical reasoning. Relativity is a complex problem in philosophy which Habermas does not completely resolve. However, while characterising reason in terms of descriptions of concrete dialogues might not be the whole story it does appear to be a significant part of the story and a valuable way forward beyond some of the more obvious problems of relativism in contemporary social science.
The sociocultural perspective has been characterised as tending to situate thought in discourse genres, a term first applied in this context by Bakhtin (Volosinov, 1986 p20 and Bakhtin, 1981). Bakhtin described discourse genres as ‘typical situations of speech communication’ (quoted in Wertsch 1991 p 61) and mentions examples such as military commands, everyday narration and intimate chats. Fairclough’s more recent definition of genre seems similar:
I shall use the term ‘genre’ for a relatively stable set of conventions that is associated with, and partly enacts, a socially ratified type of activity, such as informal chat, buying goods in a shop, a job interview, a television documentary, a poem, or a scientific article. ... (Fairclough 1992 )
On the model of discourse bounded by genre conventions it is difficult to conceptualise the basis for that critical discourse which seems to transcend its context in order to reflect back on it. What is required is the characterisation in discourse terms of the meta-discourse invoked when genre conventions are challenged and changed.
Instead of an inevitably backward looking characterisation of speech genres we need to characterise those social situations which open up the possibility of creative reflection that transcends its context to create new understandings. These descriptions of situated dialogue require two levels: a characterisation of intersubjective orientations and a specification of the social ground rules.
a) Intersubjective orientations
begins his account of communicative rationality by drawing a distinction
between ‘a success-oriented attitude’ and ‘an attitude oriented to reaching
understanding’ (Habermas 1991, p 286). While he does not dismiss the strategic
or profit-maximising rationality that issues from a success-oriented attitude
he argues that this kind of rationality is parasitic on a more fundamental
communicative rationality issuing from an attitude oriented to reaching
Habermas's claim about the centrality of intersubjective orientations connects his later work to the very different tradition of Jewish writer and theologian, Martin Buber. In his seminal work, 'I and Thou', (Buber, 1923/70) Buber draws a distinction between the 'I-thou' type of relationship, characterised by mutual responsiveness, and 'I-it' relationships in which an active subject confronts and dominates a passive object.
A similar distinction is found later in the work of Bakhtin who contrasts the 'authoritative' voice, that demands that we either accept or reject it to the 'persuasive' voice (Bakhtin, 1934/81 p343) that enters into us and stimulates our own answering words.
b) social ground rules
Buber's 'I-thou' relationship might be a pre-condition for the emergence of reason but it is not, in itself, reasoning. In Habermas’s account of communicative rationality a second level of description of reason is often referred to as the social rules governing what he calls an ‘ideal speech situation’. These are rules are of the kind that every participant has an equal right to participate and to question claims (Habermas, 1990 p 92). These particular rules have been criticised by Seyla BenHabib and others as being too formal. Benhabib’s claim is that reasonableness stems not from the abstract rights of a universal other but from recognising the needs of a concrete other (BenHabib, 1992) which presupposes an attitude of care not mentioned by Habermas. But while Habermas can be challenged on the details his important insight here is that we need shared social rules to open up a space for thinking between the Scylla of coercion on the one side and the Charybdis of unreflective consensus on the other.
If general thinking skills are embodied in a type of dialogue that can be characterised by intersubjective orientations and social ground rules and that can be supported by social contexts this provides a basis for understanding how general thinking skills can be taught and learnt. On the sociocultural model of learning thinking skills this model of reason naturally suggests an approach to teaching and learning general thinking skills as induction into full participation into a discourse practice structured by the ground rules of dialogical reason. Vygotsky has been quoted claiming that the higher mental functions are all originally found externally in social interaction before being internalised by individuals. On this model general thinking skills, viewed as the property of an individual, could be seen as an internalisation of an external communicative rationality viewed as the property of a sociocultural system. Experimental evidence, as well as Vygotskian theory, suggests that the quality of individual thinking reflects the quality of collective thinking and vice versa (Wegerif, Mercer and Dawes, 1999).
While cognitive psychology has tended to characterise thinking skills in abstract and formal terms educational practitioners often take a more situated approach. Richard Paul, sometimes described as the leading proponent of teaching critical thinking skills (e.g. Weinstein, 1993) emphasises the importance of promoting dialogues in which participants are lead to question their own assumptions (Paul, 1987). Mathew Lipman, founder of the popular Philosophy for Children approach, similarly advocates drawing children into dialogues within a ‘community of inquiry in the classroom’ (Lipman, 1991). ‘Thinking Together’ lessons used in the UK to promote ‘Exploratory Talk’ focus explicit on teaching certain communicative ground rules that include responding to challenges with reasons (Dawes, Mercer and Wegerif, 2000). However many programmes to teach thinking skills are not informed by a dialogic approach and those that are often base themselves more on intuitions than on theory (Murris, 1993, Segal et al, 1985). The value of the framework for understanding the teaching and learning of thinking skills as induction into dialogues characterised by particular orientations and ground rules, is that it can form a basis for design studies in which the consequences of promoting particular orientations and ground rules can be explored (see for example Wegerif, Mercer and Dawes, 1999).
One of the consequences of the success of the socio-cultural perspective in education has been a widespread mistrust of the enterprise of teaching general thinking skills. Many do not see the idea of general thinking skills as compatible with the assumptions of socio-cultural theory that thought is always embodied in practices in social contexts. In this paper I have argued, following insights from Habermas, BenHabid, and others, that general thinking skills are embodied in a situated type of dialogue, dialogical reason, that can be characterised in terms of intersubjective orientations and social ground rules. Although such dialogues are always historically and socially situated they are self-reflectively able to transcend that context in order to forge new shared understandings. According to this model teaching general thinking skills involves a combination of inducting children to participate in such dialogical reason and structuring social environments to support dialogical reason.
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