We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking

In the following series of posts, I present five passages in a pedagogical journey that has led from teaching undergraduate science-in-society courses to running a graduate program in critical thinking and reflective practice for teachers and other mid-career professionals. I have shaped these passages to expose some of my struggles—conceptual and practical—in learning to decenter pedagogy and to provide space and support for students to develop as critical thinkers. The key challenge I highlight is of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge. In a self-exemplifying style, each passage raises some questions for further inquiry or discussion. My hope is that the series of posts as a whole stimulates readers to grapple with issues they were not aware they faced and to generate questions beyond those I present.

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The most important parts of any conversation are those that neither party could have imagined before starting. William Isaacs (1999)

In the mid-1980s I was teaching science in its social context as a new faculty member at a non-traditional undergraduate college. I began an ecology course with a brief review of our place in space before I asked students to map their geographical positions and origins. One student, “K,” did not come back to earth with the rest of us, but remained off in her own thoughts. Some minutes later she raised her hand: “I always knew the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system, but do you mean to say…” K paused, then continued. “I’d never thought about the sun not being the center of the universe.” From K’s tone, it was clear that she was not simply rehearsing a new piece of knowledge. She was also observing that she had not thought about the issue but now she saw as obvious that the universe was not sun-centered. What other retrospectively obvious questions had she not been asking? What other reconceptualizations might follow? These questions pointed her along the path I hoped my students would take as critical thinkers—grappling with issues they had not been aware they faced, generating questions beyond those I had presented, becoming open to reconceptualization, and accepting that their teacher should not be at the center of their learning.

My own pedagogical journey has led from teaching these undergraduate science-in-society courses to running a graduate program in critical thinking and reflective practice for teachers and other mid-career professionals. (A parallel journey in ecological and environmental research is described elsewhere, Taylor forthcoming.) In this series of posts I present five passages from this journey. I have shaped these to expose some of my struggles—conceptual and practical—in learning to decenter my pedagogy and provide space and support for students to develop as critical thinkers. Each passage raises some questions that I leave open for further inquiry or discussion. I hope, moreover, that the passages and questions stimulate readers to grapple with issues you were not aware you faced and to generate questions beyond those I present.

Of course, I cannot create for readers the experience of participating in a classroom activity or semester-long process. Nor can you divert me from the steps ahead or inject other considerations. If you could, I expect some readers would slow me down to ask for more detail about the situations I describe or for more explication of my line of thinking in relation to that of other writers. Indeed, it is one of the central tensions of my teaching and writing that I want to open up questions and point to greater complexity of relevant considerations even when I know that some members of my audiences would prefer a tight analysis shaped to address their specific concerns and background. In acknowledgement of these tensions, presenting the passages as blog posts is an invitation to readers to engage or witness the author in conversation. This experiment befits the central pedagogical challenge the essay raises, namely, helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge.

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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).

5 Responses to We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking

  1. Pingback: Journeying to develop critical thinking 1: Becoming aware of the forces that hold us or release us « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  2. Pingback: Journeying to develop critical thinking 2: Critical thinking as journeying « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  3. Pingback: Journeying to develop critical thinking 3: Understanding by placing things in tension with alternatives « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  4. Pingback: Journeying to develop critical thinking: Coda « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

  5. Pingback: Steps in development of a critical thinker | Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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