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Improving personal learning through critical thinking scaffolds

Steven Coombs
School of Education, Bath Spa University College

Rosie Penny
School of Education, St. Mary's College, University of Surrey

Ian Smith
Faculty of Education, University of Sydney, Australia.

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh,
11-13 September 2003


Managing, focusing and eliciting reflection as a method of personal learning forms the basis of what we propose as a critical thinking scaffold. The philosophical basis and pedagogy of using critical thinking scaffolds to improve personal learning is derived from the conversational science merged theories of 'systems thinking' and |Self-organised-Learning (S-o-L). This paper aims to explain the pedagogical foundation of critical thinking scaffolds in terms of conversational learning theory and will share some practical examples in the form of generic case study templates used to support postgraduate teacher professional development.


This paper considers the theory of systems thinking conversational tools that can be designed to support action research fieldwork. The systems thinking pedagogical framework of a critical thinking scaffold is derived from the conversational science paradigm of Self-organised Learning (S-o-L) proposed by Harri-Augstein and Thomas (1985, 1991). The concept of a critical thinking scaffold was first proposed by Coombs (2000) and was developed as a resource to assist action researchers involved in work-based project management. Several generic template conversational tools developed from this pedagogical theory will be shared as exemplar exhibits within this paper. The deeper philosophical basis and pedagogical rationale of 'critical thinking scaffolds' and the linked concept of a knowledge elicitation system (KES) (Coombs 1995, 2000 & 2001) are together explained. This paper also overviews the systems thinking conversational paradigm of self-organised learning and the related psychological model of Kelly's (1955) Personal Construct Theory (PCT), which provides a pedagogical rationale that helps to explain the relationships between critical reflection and knowledge construction. The consequent theory of conversational constructivism (Coombs & Smith, 1998) is then related to the pedagogy of critical thinking scaffolds from which emerges a systems-thinking S-o-L design template and instructional design criteria from which one can develop an action research toolkit that supports the qualitative project management tasks of action researchers within their real-life social learning environment. This action research toolkit application of critical thinking scaffolds is further elaborated in the associated BERA 2003 paper "Design and Evaluation of an action research toolkit for teacher professional development".

What is a critical thinking scaffold?

A critical thinking scaffold (Coombs, 2000) is a tool, device or procedure that enables a learner to be able to focus and relate meaningful experiences and ideas to a specific learning objective goal. As such, a critical thinking scaffold operates as a knowledge elicitation system (KES), which Coombs (2000) describes as:

"...the quality of critical thinking interaction via IT software depends on both humanistic and technical design considerations which affect the system's ability to operate as an efficient reflective learning interface with a person. IT software learning systems that enable the user to transfer ideas and experiences into new conceptual knowledge is proposed by the author to be a knowledge elicitation system (KES)."

A KES is underpinned by Harri-Augstein's & Thomas' (1991) notion of a Learning Conversation in which they have proposed the following self-organized thinking steps in order to achieve higher-order critical reflection and knowledge elicitation:

  1. elicitation of items of meaning;
  2. sorting of their relationships; and,
  3. display of the final pattern.

Well-designed and effective Knowledge Elicitation Systems follow the above 3-step reflective learning design criteria and then operate as a critical thinking scaffold.

The conversational science paradigm of self-organised learning (S-o-L) requires such reflective scaffold tools to increase a learner's capacity to learn. Coombs (1995) maintains that S-o-L is not:

" unsupported discovery learning paradigm: To leave each person to discover how to become a S-O-Ler without support takes too long, many do not succeed and many only acquire a small part of their real capacity for learning" p.95.

Thus, supporting learners to reflect meaningfully and construct new knowledge requires intervention. We propose that learner intervention and the pedagogical support resources deployed should be made in the form of critical thinking scaffolds based upon the design theory of S-o-L Knowledge Elicitation Systems that follow the above 3-step reflective learning design criteria. Conventional learner 'scaffolding' techniques tend to adopt a passive role, where the teacher only facilitates the learning process, as required, on an ad hoc coaching basis. This is to be compared to S-o-L conversational scaffolding that defines this coaching role in a more proactive fashion, by enabling the learning process with the use of appropriate reflective tools. Conversational scaffolding by a learning coach working in an S-o-L environment consists of helping the learner to ladder-up and elicit new meaning from a task-oriented learning activity, thereby enabling the construction of new knowledge. This S-o-L systems-thinking approach towards reflective learning underpins the assumption of how a critical thinking scaffold operates.

Self-organised Learning and the conversational science paradigm

The pedagogical benefit of reflective practice to support professional development learning is generally well known (Elliot, 1991, McKernon, 1996 and Schön, 1987) and the psychological theory of reflective learning can be usefully understood from the conversational learning paradigm perspective of Laurie Thomas and Sheila Harri-Augstein (1985). They define human learning as "...the construction and reconstruction, exchange and negotiation of significant, relevant and viable meanings" (p.2). The theory of self-organised learning (S-o-L) is based upon Kelly's (1955) personal construct theory (PCT), which explains human learning through the construction and reconstruction of meaningful reflective experiences: "A person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events" (Bannister, citing Kelly, 1970 & 1981 ).

From this PCT postulate eleven corollaries are stated:

"1. Construction Corollary: A person anticipates events by construing their replications.

2. Individuality Corollary: Persons differ from each other in their construction of events.

3. Organization Corollary: Each person characteristically evolves, for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs.

4. Dichotomy Corollary: A person's construction system is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs.

5. Choice Corollary: A person chooses for himself that alternative in a dichotomized construct which he anticipates the greater possibility for the elaboration of his system.

6. Range Corollary: A construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only.

7. Experience Corollary: A person's construction system varies as he successively construes the replications of events.

8. Modulation Corollary: The variation in a person's construction system is limited by the permeability of the constructs within whose ranges of convenience the variants lie.

9. Fragmentation Corollary: A person may successively employ a variety of construction subsystems which are inferentially incompatible with each other.

10. Commonality Corollary: To the extent that one person employs a construction of experience which is similar to that employed by another, his processes are psychologically similar to those of the other person.

11. Sociality Corollary: To the extent that one person construes the construction processes of another, he may play a role in a social process involving the other person." (Bannister, 1981, p.11-24).

Kelly's theory of personal constructs adopts the central idea that each of us lives and experience life as if we were personal scientists, whereby we each gain our personal knowledge through a life-long continual process of comparing and contrasting our experiential learning events (Coombs, 1995). Kelly's philosophical assumption is that each person construes his or her existence in a unique way - comparing and constructing meaningful hypotheses as an inner experience. Kelly describes this process of construing as constructive alternativism. Indeed, Kelly uses his own concept of constructive alternativism to both propose and validate the paradigm of 'man' acting as a personal scientist.

People as 'personal scientists' therefore make sense of the world by living life in the personal action research mode, that is, constructing hypotheses from their own living experiences and then re-testing and revising these personal conceptual 'models' against future experience. An individual revises his/her personal meaning system as a consequence of self-generated feedback. This type of constructivist knowledge construction based upon the construing of meaningful experiences can therefore be understood as a form of experiential critical reflection. The systems-thinking conversational science paradigm of S-o-L adopts Kelly's psychological model of PCT as a means of designing reflective learning procedures and tools that align to this pedagogical philosophy of knowledge construction. Indeed, Coombs & Smith (1998) describe knowledge building as a form of 'conversational constructivism' and maintain that: "conversational tools serve as reflective templates from which we personally scaffold and construct experiential events from within a socially situated conversational learning environment."

Conversational constructivism provides a new insight into understanding the relationship between critical thinking and learning based upon the combined psychological pedagogy of PCT and S-o-L. Harri-Augstein & Thomas' S-o-L conversational paradigm (1985, 1991) can be explained in terms of the following three core principles:

1. real personal learning depends on self-assessment and reflective evaluation and analysis through the conversational construction of internal referents;

2. S-o-L practice depends on scaffolding the ability of each learner to critically self-monitor and control the learning process whilst developing appropriate psychological models and repertoires of understanding; and,

3. shared meaning is negotiated conversationally from social networks. Social networks can be understood of as conversational team-learning environments that construct their own viability and validity, resulting in a capacity for creative and flexible thinking.

The internal psychological construction of experientially-derived knowledge as a critical reflective learning event is illustrated in figure 1, which has been reproduced from Coombs & Smith's (1998) article in Educational Technology. This paper describes the pedagogy of conversational constructivism and explains the psychological modelling process of experiential knowledge construction with the aid of figure 1. Conversational tools that operate as knowledge elicitation and personal management devices therefore aid and abet this learner-learning process and can therefore be described of as a critical thinking scaffold operating within the S-o-L paradigm.

Conversational tools operating as critical thinking scaffolds therefore adopt the following generic PCT design criteria taken from Bannister's (1981) interpretation of Kelly's three-phase creativity cycle of managed ideas:

1. "initial brainstorming as a loose construing process - idea capture phase;

2. key issues focused into an operation strategy as a tight construing process - idea development phase;

3. project control through a "recursive-cycle" - operational management phase" p. 191-199.

These three phases represent a personal project management approach for the action researcher and can be designed as a core principle into any critical thinking scaffolds to be used as part of any S-o-L action research toolkit.

Figure 1 (reproduced from Educational Technology 38(3), 17-28)

The 'personal paradigm shift' of a conversational constructivist learning event :
A systems-based metaphor to describe the inner conversational Learning Organization.

Examples of Critical Thinking Scaffold Templates

The following exhibits illustrate some of the S-o-L critical thinking scaffolds that operate as project management tools/templates for professional development teachers acting as action researchers within their schools as learning organisations.

It is to be noted that each conversational template operates as a Knowledge Elicitation Systems and follows the 3-step reflective learning design criteria and three-phase project management creativity cycle outlined in this paper. Exhibit 1 is the Purpose-Strategy-Review-Outcome (P-S-O-R) conversational template developed by Coombs (1995) and derived from the standard S-o-L conversational learning procedure (Harri-Augstein & Thomas, 1991). The P-S-O-R critical thinking scaffold can be applied as a generic systems-thinking analysis template to solve any project management problem and has been adapted by the authors of this paper as a tool to support educational action research - see the associated parallel BERA 2003 paper "Design and evaluation of an action research toolkit for teacher professional development". Likewise, exhibit 2, the Spidergram, was developed by Coombs (1995) as a critical thinking scaffold from which to elicit any focus question/idea from which to then construct, organise and connect to prior experiential knowledge, thus satisfying Kelly's (1955) PCT corollaries for construction, organisation, choice and experience. The Spidergram can be used as initial brainstorming tool to organise related experience prior to constructing new themes and understanding, i.e. PCT-based knowledge construction. Thus, critical thinking scaffolds provide an experiential-free psychological prompt and repertoire from which the user, as learner, can spool their experiences into and construct new knowledge and understanding. The conversational tool also provides a qualitative data record that captures this unique authoring process.

Exhibit 1: P-S-O-R Conversational Template for Project Management Systems Analysis

Exhibit 2: Example of a Project Management Spidergram Template to support focused elicitation of themes

Conclusions and future development

This paper has introduced the philosophical and pedagogical framework of a critical thinking scaffold and has highlighted the potential benefits it represents for the professional development of teachers as action researchers. Also overviewed is the conversational paradigm of self-organised learning, which is related to the concept and design of a KES that is underpinned by Kelly's PCT. The core theory of conversational constructivism is then explained in terms of how knowledge can be both elicited and managed as experiential learning events from which critical thinking tools can be designed and developed to take advantage of this reflective learning process. Several generic conversational templates have been exhibited and discussed as qualitative project management scaffolds. These working exhibits have been trialled in a wide range of diverse educational professional development projects, which has been explored in the related BERA 2003 paper "Design and evaluation of an action research toolkit for teacher professional development".

Future work will concentrate on the development of user-friendly ICT support systems that can operate as critical thinking scaffolds (Coombs, 2000) that teachers can professionally develop and easily recruit within their repertoire of teaching skills and methods. This critical thinking design and authoring approach by teachers then empowers their pupils/students to adopt appropriate ICT-based KES tools and integrate them as learning coach assistants into their reflexive and reflective thinking systems with the consequent transfer of learning and knowledge (Coombs & Smith, 1998). It is, therefore, the integration of using critical thinking scaffold tools and procedures generically across the entire content-based curriculum of all educational and training establishments that is the key pedagogical challenge for the twenty-first century.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 24 September 2003