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Feature Essay 3.1 - Using thought experiments to strengthen critical thinking at universities

By Hank Greenway, School of Agriculture and Environment, The University of Western Australia, in collaboration with Jane Gibbs, David Turner and Brian Atwell.

An approach to strengthening critical thinking in university students and young researchers by using ‘thought experiments’. It includes an example of a ‘thought experiment’ using principles of membrane transport of ions (see Plants in Action Chapter 3.6) and pH regulation in plant cells as the background material necessary to ‘solve’ the experiment.

‘Fundamentally, university teaching is there for people to take ownership of their own learning’

– Frank Carrigan, Macquarie Law School, Sydney

This paper is based on my experience running University undergraduate courses in environmental plant biology at 3rd - 4th year level. A similar approach might well be possible in the last two years of secondary school and as coursework modules throughout postgraduate research degrees. While this is written as a reflection on teaching in my own field of research, this approach has not been intrinsically geared to plant biology; it can just as well be applied to any area of experimental research. Indeed, mathematics and theoretical physics rely overwhelmingly on thought experiments. This approach builds upon the innate curiosity of many students and the assumption that if provided with sufficient knowledge, they will become innovators. Critical thinking and innovation are listed as key criteria for decisions on acceptance or rejection in a comprehensive survey of requirements for scientific publication (Setter et al. 2020).

My specific purpose was to foster the intellectual independence that comes with putting the principles of the ‘scientific method’ into practice. The overarching principle is the ability to think critically. The development of critical thinking needs a theme as a framework for discussions. I chose aspects of environmental plant biology, my area of expertise; another lecturer might focus, for example, on organic chemistry. Not surprisingly, I personally think that environmental plant biology provides themes particularly suited for this mode of University education.

Most students need substantial preparation in the subject matter chosen for the course before practising their critical thinking skills in applying the scientific method. This preparation can begin to foster a student’s independence by encouraging questions and answers in tutorials, so allowing the student to take ‘ownership of their own learning’. Once students had sufficiently mastered the background to the topic, the key component of my courses consisted of students formulating and solving thought experiments to test hypotheses set by the academic and by the students themselves.

My courses focused on mechanisms of acclimation and adaptation of plants to adverse environments, such as high salinity and waterlogging. These events will be major determinants of food security as saline soils and floods have ever greater impact on crops. By the same token, a better understanding of the scientific method should substantially benefit our world, which now is so dependent on the technologies arising from scientific inquiry. Tangible examples include a deeper critical evaluation of the arguments around immunisation or climate change, and the most efficient ways to mitigate their severity and ameliorate their consequences. So, thought experiments build valuable intellectual skills as well as confronting real problems for humanity.

The themes of my courses, regulation of solute fluxes and cytoplasmic pH in plants, are key components of acclimation and adaptation to high salinity and flooding. Sufficient background material on these themes is provided in this paper to illustrate the principles of a thought experiment. This material would be suitable as a base for academics and students to formulate many further thought experiments.