Critical Thinking for Everyone in the Room: Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Learners We Wish We Had

Student and instructor discuss in classroom

The following article is sponsored by: M. Neil Browne, Question-Based Critical Thinking

Reflecting on my more than five decades of teaching critical thinking, I feel disappointment that I showed so little respect for the multiple pathways to engagement ­­­available to teachers. While I won more than my fair share of university, state, and national teaching awards and had the privilege of being asked to enhance the critical thinking of numerous governmental agencies and corporations, my teaching was based far too much on projection. I designed my teacher development around what had been optimal pedagogical strategies for me.

I wish on behalf of my former students that someone had pulled me aside and persuaded me to do the following:

1. Talk less, listen more.

We are all familiar with the often-irresistible lecturing that captures most classroom time. I’ve gained substantial knowledge from lectures where questions were as rare as the Florida black panther.

I teach economics, law, and critical thinking, none of which is known for humility in its assertions.  Yet, these are among the most complex and multi-perspectival areas of learning that should compel each of us to ask more questions. The Dunning-Kruger Effect, along with Charles Munger’s The Psychology of Human Misjudgment, and numerous cognitive biases rooted in excessive self-regard, each warn us to hold our views with a light grip. Once we tolerate our own fallibility, we activate questions that uncover nuance, complexity, opportunity costs, diverse interpretations, and reconstruct the exciting world of questions modeled by our favorite four-year old.

Because questions can be learned and enjoyed by everyone, some colleagues and I are creating a series of books, a YouTube channel, blog, and Instagram celebrating questions probing the strengths and weaknesses of the various ways humans reach beliefs, conclusions, and decisions (BCDs). In other words, we want to share our excitement about the rewarding application of critical thinking to our search for identity and meaning.

2. As much as possible, teach with questions.

To do so is to, inter alia, model inquiry that invites a cooperative search for better answers. An important component of this advice is recognition that question-asking often needs active rebranding on the part of the teacher. Questions and the exchanges they encourage enhance freedom from the toxicity of shielding ourselves from what we do not know. Once we explicitly brand question-asking as courageous and growth-oriented, we build tolerance for questions and delight in their productivity.

Importantly, questions signal that the teacher realizes we always answer questions with missing information. This deficit can be addressed by listening to the understanding and confusion of one another. While the certitude permitted by a world where some know everything and others do not might promise stability and dependability, that image of reality is not only inaccurate, but it cuts us off from a growth mindset that drives us to fill in the blanks of that missing information that haunts and taunts us.

Questions enhance decisions by placing cautionary markers between our initial perspective and the stance we ultimately adopt as our own. In the absence of these markers, it becomes tempting to readily concur, and our yearning for approval and acceptance only accelerates our inclination to agree.

3. Realize the mental strain on learners when their views are being interviewed by other students, a teacher, friend, or family member.

We naturally prefer affirmation, to hear that our perspectives are right and deserving of warm applause. Our BCDs are, in a sense, who we are. Our views about geography, rocket fuel, or the nutritional value of bananas can be comfortably questioned. We shrug off critical thinking questions about those topics. Such discussion is not life-shaping. That I, the teacher, get excited by any question, even if highlighting my vulnerability, is not relevant to the shaping of constructive critical thinking pedagogy.

But when we teach critical thinking, we enter a psychological danger zone for most. My experience with students who have advanced in their critical thinking to scoring in the 95th percentile or better on the nationally normed California Test of Critical Thinking was instructive to me. After the coursework, they would thank me for teaching them critical thinking but confess that they would probably never use it in conversations with others. I would hear versions of “It just seems mean.” Consequently, the deployment of critical thinking should be enriched with the body language and interviewing skills of a master clinician.

See our book forthcoming in the spring 2024 called Friendly Critical Thinking: Creating a Conversational Environment That Enhances Learning and Teaching.

4. Design teaching that fulfills your objective in multiple alternative ways.

Our mission is to encourage critical thinking. But the lessons we think we have learned from experience and reading apply to teaching at any level and in any area. We have all experienced teaching approaches we consider effective for us. But assuming that those approaches are universally effective is disrespectful of the variety of students we teach.

  1. Some students are inspired by critical thinking pedagogy that speaks to their concern about existential problems. Demonstrating the usefulness of critical thinking about climate change, nuclear weapons, and artificial intelligence is what we attempted in A Healthy Democracy’s Best Hope: Developing the Habit of Critical Thinking.
  2. Others flourish with critical thinking pedagogy that demonstrates relevance to the day-to-day problems that have their attention. They see critical thinking as valuable when it addresses issues such as “How much sleep should I get?” or “Should we have children?” In early 2024 we will publish Critical Thinking for Every Classroom, emphasizing the practicality of critical thinking.
  3. Recent research touts visual stimuli for productive pedagogies. In late 2024, we will publish Visual Windows to Critical Thinking: A Guidebook for Separating Sense from Nonsense to provide teaching materials with vibrant visuals.

I can only guess whether I would have listened to my imaginary advisor’s wisdom.