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.