November 30th, 2011

Teaching Critical Thinking: Are We Clear?


I’ve been thinking about critical thinking. I just finished reading Stephen Brookfield’s new book on the topic, Teaching for Critical Thinking. (Side note: Stephen is a prolific author, writing on a variety of teaching-learning topics and his work has generated a number of classics including The Skillful Teacher, Discussion as a Way of Teaching, co-authored with Stephen Preskill, and Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. If you don’t know his work, by all means add it to your reading list). My recent journal reading contained a couple of interesting articles on critical thinking as well.

Critical thinking seems like such an abstract, even elusive, concept to me. I know, there are all sorts of concrete definitions for it, but the way it influences our pedagogical thinking and classroom practice is not very precise. Part of the problem may be all those different definitions. As the authors of one of the articles note, “critical thinking can include the thinker’s dispositions and orientations; a range of specific analytical, evaluative, and problem-solving skills, contextual influences; use of multiple perspectives; awareness of one’s own assumptions, capacities for metacognition; or a specific set of thinking processes or tasks.” (Stassen, Herrington, and Henderson, p. 127)

The second article points out that many political science faculty (I think this could be said of most faculty in general) offer pretty generic advice on assignments where students are expected to show evidence of critical thinking. “Most suggestions for critical thinking assignments offer vague advice: allow students to discuss matters, tell students they need to think critically, ask them to rewrite.” (Fitzgerald and Baird, p. 624) The article then proposes a variety of assignment designs that promote the development of critical thinking skills related to evidence assessment. Most of the designs are pretty discipline-specific, but I thought several points in the article were excellent. We aren’t as purposeful as we should be in designing assignments that promote critical thinking, however we define it, and if we have come up with creative activities and assignments that are effective (meaning we have assessed how well they work), we don’t share those much beyond a few favorite colleagues.

Brookfield offers something useful in his book that I hadn’t seen before—a list of times in a course when critical thinking (defined as “clarifying and checking assumptions by viewing material from different perspectives” p. 79) is particularly important.

  • When skills and knowledge have to be applied in the real world
  • When independent judgment is needed
  • When alternative interpretations and perspectives are possible
  • When actions and decisions need to be informed
  • When rapid judgments are called for
  • When students are encouraged to see themselves as knowledge generators

The various points made in these articles and by Brookfield reminded me of a metaphor offered by Tim van Gelder in a highly useful article that offers six cognitive science lessons for teaching critical thinking. His first lesson is that critical thinking is hard. “Humans are not naturally critical. Indeed, like ballet, critical thinking is a highly contrived activity … ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution did not intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle might have said, we were not designed to be all that critical either.” (p. 42)

Despite being hard, critical thinking is terribly important. The political science authors wonder if it isn’t even so more today in “an information environment characterized by a fragmented media establishment, blurb-driven news coverage, and an increasingly polarized political system.” (p. 619) We can’t leave the development of critical thinking skills to chance, hoping students will pick them up by virtue of being around folks who are good thinkers and who assign them logically coherent things to read. We must be clear about what we mean by critical thinking and purposeful in the activities and assignments we use to promote its development.

Critical Thinking in your Courses

Brookfield, S. D. Teaching for Critical Thinking. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Fitzgerald, J. and Baird, V. A. (2011). Taking a step back: Teaching critical thinking by distinguishing appropriate type of evidence. PS, Political Science and Politics, (July), 619-624.

Stassen, M. L., Herrington, A., and Henderson, L. Defining Thinking in Higher Education. In Miller, J. E. and Groccia, J. E., eds. To Improve the Academy, 30. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Van Gelder, T. (2005). Teaching critical thinking: Some lessons from cognitive science. College Teaching, 35 (1), 41-46.

  • Robert H Holden

    There are at least 3 objections to the way that the "critical thinking" mantra has overtaken pedagogy in the U.S. university. Since the commenting program didn't acccept this because it was too long, I have split it into 4 separate messages. Each of the following 3 will cover a separate objection.

  • Robert H Holden

    The first is that its essential meaning as rational inquiry has been with us for millennia. It is absurd to argue that thinking critically is somehow unnatural, or that Aristotle would have thought it unnatural. In Aristotle and certainly up through the entire pre-modern philosophical tradition, "critical thinking" was understood to be precisely a natural inclination of the human person, whose essence consisted in his or her capacity to reason

    • Marae Bailey, ECPI

      Until they're told by teachers and administrators, "Shh! We don't talk about things like that in this class." Years and years of "We don't talk about things like that in this class" become "We don't talk about things like that in this country." People who have forgotten to ask questions have to be re-taught it, which is why critical thinking is so much needed.

  • Robert H Holden

    Second, "critical thinking" is understood in the academy today in a way that is actually destructive of thinking because its aim typically isn't to find the truth but to reject the very idea of truth. Relativism reigns. In the dictatorship of relativism, critical thinking is meaningless because it is designed only to play a destructive role

    • Marae Bailey, ECPI

      Ah, yes, relativism. "I heard it on the internet, so it must be true." People don't have any way to judge what's false and what's real if everything can be true, depending on whether you believe it or not. They haven't been taught to ask the right questions. In the most basic English classes, the questions are there: Why do we use a comma here but not there? Why is spelling so varied in the English language? What do you know about the reliability of the source in your research paper? Why is MLA formatting set up the way it is? Only by asking the right questions can they learn and understand the answers. Questions often lead you back to absolutes and away from relativism.

  • Robert H Holden

    Third, in the typical U.S. university, the concept is applied in a highly selective way. All sorts of essentially ideological claims are simply off limits to "critical thinking" even as understood in the academy . I'll give you 5 seconds to come up with 5 untouchable "truths" which are never allowed to be subjected to rational inquiry. Funny how the university is about the only place where they are not open to debate of any kind.

    • Marae Bailey, ECPI

      Unfortunately, this is very true. The main skill in critical thinking is learning to ask the right questions–about everything. Students are intrigued by class discussions on legal issues, censorship, racism, political correctness, etc., and are usually amazed to hear me toss out questions that they've always wanted to ask but have been told repeatedly that it's "not nice." Some of them tell me they have even had writing and critical thinking teachers fail them because they came to conclusions the teacher did not agree with, even though their logic was valid. How is this critical thinking? Critical thinking should be figuring out what they believe and why, not what their teacher wants to hear.

  • Suzanne Shaffer

    I just finished taking a course on CT at – it was very well done and rigorous! The Van Gelder article was one of our texts discussed – We also used Paul and Elder and Nosich.

    I will add to Maryellen's comments about why ct is so difficult for human brains… In addition to the point she makes, Van Gelder also talks about the tendency of human brains to fit new info into existing patterns – so looking at things in a new way runs against the stream in a sense – no wonder cognitive dissonance is no fun!

    Most other research that we read also supported embedding CT skills within existing content courses – not as a stand alone. – transfer most often did not happen – as student need background knowledge and a knowledge of surface and deep structures in important course concepts in order to think critically about them… One thing is for sure- across all the research we read – CT does NOT happen simply by osmosis or by watching an expert "do it" – sage on the stage – Students need practice (well sequenced) in authentic contexts with constant feedback from masterful thinkers…. Thanks for the opportunity to think about this again!