July 24th, 2008

Melander on Critical Thinking


I am lucky to have my mentor (who still mentors me, despite our shared retirement status) reading this blog. His name is Gene Melander, and he addresses higher education with keen insights and heartfelt passion. Here’s what he wrote in response to the July 2 blog on critical thinking.

“The notion of developing critical thinking capacities is often considered the fundamental aim of education. It teaches students to question, probe, analyze, explain and evaluate. It’s central in the sciences where the emphasis is on analysis, description, and abstractions, but equally crucial in the humanities where it links analysis with synthesis, description with evaluation and abstractions with feelings.

“Critical thinking requires not only skills in inquiry and reasoning, but also judgment. It rests on an understanding of the context in the domain of application; be that the discipline, a problem-setting arena or phenomenon of interest. The practice of critical thinking is an art form rather than the mere application of rules of reasoning, logic or methodologies.

“Developing critical thinking is not simply a matter of an integrative capstone experience provided by a single course or even in the curriculum as a whole. Rather, it is a lifelong journey with many of the most meaningful experiences and reflection occurring after leaving the formal educational environment. However, higher education has the responsibility to set students off in the right direction by providing actual experiences (internships, clinical experiences) in which students can practice the artful application of critical thinking. We can walk beside students as they start the journey by including opportunities for critical thinking everywhere in the undergraduate experience—critical thinking across the curriculum if you will.

“Does higher education offer students enough experiences to practice and develop their critical thinking abilities? Not if the sole emphasis is on disciplinary content. Not if we assume these skills develop by virtue of being in the presence of rigorous academic content. Not if students have no opportunities to practice. The notion of honing critical thinking capabilities as a lifelong journey and the sense that higher education sets the course points to what is probably the most significant reform needed in higher education—far more important than gaining political points by transforming education into one grand experiment for measuring, testing and accounting for educational outcomes.

“Here’s one of my favorite resources for expanding our thinking about the role of critical thinking in the curriculum. It offers conference experiences, books and other resources, articles and research reports, plus tests for assessing critical thinking. The Center for Critical Thinking at: www.criticalthinking.org”

—Maryellen Weimer