Journeying to develop critical thinking 2: Critical thinking as journeying

A few years ago I taught for the first time a general course on critical thinking. The students were mostly mid-career teachers and other professionals. This was also the occasion of my first telling the place in space story and running the re-seeing activity. Some of the students construed the story as a science lesson; evidently, I had to clarify the delivery and message. Later in the semester I had a chance to do this when we revisited the activity to practice lesson-plan remodeling. What emerged from the class discussion was that it mattered little to me whether students understood my weightlessness explanation. I only wanted them to puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occured to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations. During this clarification process the image occurred to me that when one’s development as a critical thinker is like 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, yields 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, Anon, n.d.). 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.

In retrospect, the immediate impetus for my re-seeing critical thinking as journeying seemed to have been the “life-course” of students during that fifteen-week semester. Early in the course many students expressed dependency on my co-instructor and me: “Aren’t small group discussions an exercise in ‘mutually shared ignorance’?” “Could the class be smaller?—we want more direct interaction with you.” “I was never taught this at college—I’m not a critical thinking kind of person.” Some students were uncomfortable with dialogues their two instructors would have in front of the class in order to expose tensions among different perspectives. They asked for clear definitions of and procedures for critical thinking and for particular assignments and activities. Their anxieties were most evident when they looked ahead to a new end-of-semester “manifesto” assignment, in which we asked for “a synthesis of elements from the course selected and organized so as to inspire and inform your efforts in extending critical thinking beyond the course.” We responded to students’ concerns with some mini-lectures, handouts, and a sample manifesto. Yet we also persisted in conducting activities, promoting journaling, and assigning thought-pieces through which students might develop their own working approaches to critical thinking. By mid-semester students who had been quiet or lacked confidence in their critical-thinking abilities started to articulate connections with their work as teachers and professionals.

We had reassured those who worried about the manifesto assignment that they would have something to say, but we were surprised by how true that turned out to be. For example, the student who was not the “critical thinking kind” began her manifesto with perceptive advice:

“If there is one basic rule to critical thinking that I, as a novice, have learned it is
DON’T BE AFRAID!”
She continued: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and test ideas, ponder and wonder… Don’t be afraid to have a voice and use it!… Don’t be afraid to consider other perspectives… Don’t be afraid to utilize help…” She finished, “Above all, approach life as an explorer looking to capture all the information possible about the well known, little known and unknown and keep an open mind to what you uncover.” Another student wrote a long letter to her seven year old: “To give you a few words of advice, yes, but mostly to remind me of what I believe I should practice in order to assist you with your growth.” These manifestos displayed admirable self-awareness. To arrive there the students had taken risks and opened up questions, had experienced more than they were able at first to integrate and had sought support, and ended up seeing themselves differently (Taylor 2001a).

In retrospect, the students’ confidence had begun to rise during classes involving various approaches to empathy and listening (Elbow 1986, Gallo 1994, Ross 1994, Stanfield 1997). I suspect that listening well helps students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind, it is difficult to motivate and undertake scrutiny of one’s own evidence, assumptions, and logic, or of those of others. Being listened to seems to help students access their intelligence (in a broad sense of the term)—to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense (Weissglass 1990). The resulting knowledge seems all the more powerful because it is not externally dictated (Friere 1970, Weissglass 1990). These are conjectures—I look forward to opportunities for more systematic exploration of the ways different people experience listening and being listened to in relation to their critical thinking.

(The third in a series of posts; see first post.)

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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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