Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey

One course I taught for the first time soon after I joined the UMass Graduate Program in Critical and Creative Thinking was “Critical Thinking.” Mid-way through the first semester, when the topic was revising lesson plans, we revisited a demonstration I had done in the first class. The details are not important here, except to say that some students had interpreted the demonstration as a science lesson while the science aspect seemed unimportant to me. Discussion of the discrepancy led me to articulate my primary goal, namely, the students would puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occurred to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations.

The image that occurred to me was that development as a critical thinker is like undertaking a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yield personal change, and so on. This journeying metaphor differs markedly from the conventional philosophical view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims (Ennis 1987, Critical Thinking Across The Curriculum Project 1996). Instead of the usual connotations of “critical” with judgement and finding fault according to some standards (Williams 1983, 84ff), journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking and practice.

The image of critical thinking as journeying gave me a hook to make sense of my development as a teacher. In narrating my own journey, I attempted to expose conceptual and practical struggles in learning to decenter pedagogy even as I provided space and support for students’ development as critical thinkers (written circa 2000, published several years later as Taylor 2008). The central challenge I identified was that of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge—something that seems relevant to teaching research and engagement as well as critical thinking. Several related challenges for the teacher or facilitator emerged:

Helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge
Teacher-facilitators should:

    a) Help students to generate questions about issues they were not aware they faced.
    b) Acknowledge and mobilize the diversity inherent in any group, including the diversity of mental, emotional, situational, and relational factors that people identify as making re-seeing possible.
    c) Help students clear mental space so that thoughts about an issue in question can emerge that had been below the surface of their attention.
    d) Teach students to listen well. (Listening well seemed to help students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind scrutiny of one’s own evidence, assumptions and logic, or of those of others is difficult to motivate or carry out; see also point i, below. Being listened to, in turn, seems to help students access their intelligence—to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense.)
    e) Support students on their journeys into unfamiliar or unknown areas (see paragraph above).
    f) Encourage students to take initiative in and through relationships.
    g) Address fear felt by students and by oneself as their teacher.
    h) Have confidence and patience that students will become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves.
    i) Raise alternatives. (Critical thinking depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. People understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives.)
    j) Introduce and motivate “opening up themes,” that is, propositions that are simple to convey, but always point to the greater complexity of particular cases and to further work needed to study those cases (Taylor 2005).
    k) Be patient and persistent about students taking up the alternatives, themes, and other tools and applying them to open up questions in new areas. (Experiment and experience are needed for students—and for teachers—to build up a set of tools that work for them.)
    l) Take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation, while still allowing space for researchers to insert the “translocal,” that is, their analysis of changes that arise beyond the local region and span a larger scale than the local.

References

Critical Thinking Across The Curriculum Project (1996). “Definitions of Critical Thinking.”http://www.kcmetro.cc.mo.us/longview/ctac/definitions.htm (viewed 18 Feb 2001)
Ennis, R. H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. J. B. Baron and R. J. Sternberg. New York, W. H. Freeman: 9-26.
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2008). Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey. Teachers and Teaching Strategies, Problems and Innovations. G. F. Ollington. Hauppauge, NY, Nova Science Publishers.
Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York, Oxford University Press.

(Extracted from “Teaching/Learning for Reflective Practice,” a section of a book manuscript, Taking Yourself Seriously: A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement, also on the web.)

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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