Journeying to develop critical thinking 3: Understanding by placing things in tension with alternatives

A colleague recently challenged me by asking why, although the critical thinking course ended positively, the student had been afraid in the first place. The force of this question led me to another: Had I been scared about my ability to bridge the gaps between my own thought processes and those of different students? Had I composed mini-lectures and handouts as if to say to students, “I have written down the lessons clearly, now it is your responsibility to understand the material”? Once fear was raised as an issue that teachers should consider, I am beginning to realize that it is a deep one. However, I want to leave that issue hovering in the background and instead take up the other thought about making lessons explicit.

Whatever I say about the power of students coming to their own reconceptualizations, I am still tempted by the more conventional approach for inducing re-seeing, namely, to spell out critiques of dominant views. I have written, for example, about the consequences of using natural selection to explain the evolution of organisms’ adaptations to the environment. One consequence has been that the dynamics of the development and ecology of organisms get squeezed out (Taylor 1998). When I taught undergraduates in a program on biology in its social context, I led them through this and other critiques. (This was in the 1990s before I moved into the graduate education program, so I am going backwards in time here.) The first few times around there would be a few evaluations that claimed my course required students to accept the “dogma according to Taylor.” These accusations disappeared, however, when I reframed the purpose of raising alternative ideas. I started to ask students not to accept the alternative ideas, but to consider them in contrast to standard ideas so as to check that they understood those ideas clearly (Taylor 2002a). For example, people often talk about DNA as a “blueprint” “coding for” an organism’s traits. I would ask students to explore metaphors for the development of organisms that do not assume some central controlling molecule. After playing around with ideas such as improvisional dance, cheese making, and a casual conversation in an elevator, they saw the need to be more careful or precise about the biology of DNA.

The pedagogical shift—from critiquing dominant views to raising alternatives—led me in 1995 to compose the following view of students’ developing as critical thinkers:

In a sense subscribed to by all teachers, critical thinking means that students are bright and engaged, ask questions, and think about the course materials until they understand well established knowledge and competing approaches. This becomes more significant when students develop their own processes of active inquiry, which they can employ in new situations, beyond the bounds of our particular classes, indeed, beyond their time as students. My sense of critical thinking is, however, more specific; it depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. I want students to see that they understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives (Taylor 1995a).

The pivotal role of reframing the pedagogical role of alternatives is evident in the way this paragraph continued:

Critical thinking at this level should not depend on students rejecting conventional accounts, but they do have to move through uncertainty. Their knowledge is, at least for a time, destabilized; what has been established cannot be taken for granted. Students can no longer expect that if they just wait long enough the teacher will provide complete and tidy conclusions; instead they have to take a great deal of responsibility for their own learning. Anxieties inevitably arise for students when they have to respond to new situations knowing that the teacher will not act as the final arbiter of their success. A high level of critical thinking is possible when students explore such anxieties and gain the confidence to face uncertainty and ambiguity.

Let me make some observations about my own journey before returning to the idea of understanding ideas by placing them in tension with alternatives. Retrospectively, I can see that the journeying metaphor for critical thinking was already forming four years before it occurred to me. It seems that reconceptualization is preceded by a phase in which the person on the journey has, so to speak, shot rolls of film, but the photos have not yet been processed and printed. The next paragraph of the 1995 account of critical thinking began:

There are few models for teaching critical thinking, especially about science… Just as I expect of my students, I have experimented, taken risks, and through experience am building up a set of tools that work for me. Moreover, I have adapted these teaching tools to cope with the different ways that students in each class respond when I invite them to address alternatives and uncertainty, and when I require them to take more responsibility for learning (Taylor 1995a).

Indeed looking back, I see that writing the statement of my teaching philosophy from which these excerpts have been drawn precipitated a phase of self-conscious pedagogical exploration and identity formation. This exploration led three years ago to my moving to a graduate education program and has continued in this new position (Taylor 2001b). In 1999, as a participant in a faculty seminar on “Becoming a teacher-researcher,” I focused on a graduate course in which students undertake their own research projects, usually directed towards some educational change. Let me describe this because it extends the idea of understanding by placing in tension with alternatives.

I encourage considerable intra- and interpersonal exploration in defining and refining research direction and questions. An important part of this exploration comes through written and spoken dialogue around written work and successive revisions. For many students, such dialogue and revision are fraught; some strongly resist being weaned away from the familiar system of “produce a product and receive a grade.” The specific teacher research began a month into the course with students writing their expectations and concerns in working under the “revise and resubmit” process. In the faculty seminar we digested the students’ responses and used them as a basis for brainstorming about qualities of an improved system and experience. We clustered the large post-its on which we had written suggestions and ended up with five themes: “negotiate power/standards,” “horizontal community,” “develop autonomy,” “acknowledge afftect,” and “be here now.”

Back in class I discussed the students’ responses with them and drew attention to the tension among the different themes (see Figure 1). “Develop autonomy” stood for digesting comments and making something for oneself, neither treating comments as dictates nor keeping one’s work to oneself to insulate oneself. “Negotiate power/standards,” on the other hand, recognized that students made assumptions about my ultimate power over grades translating into expectations that students would take up my suggestions. “Horizontal community” stood for building relationships other than the “vertical” one between professor and student.

Figure 1. Five themes about improving the experience of dialogue around written work

We continued to refer to these themes and tensions during the course. A substitute was needed for “autonomy” (or, equivalently, “independence”) because some students construed this as going their own way and not responding to comments of others, including those of professors. “Taking initiative” was suggested to me by my wife, but I realized that it applied to all five themes. I emailed my students: “[The challenge is to] take initiative in building horizontal relationships, in negotiating power/standards, in acknowledging that affect is involved in what you’re doing and not doing (and in how others respond to that), in clearing away distractions from other sources (present & past) so you can be here now.” A longer title soon emerged: “Taking initiative in and through relationships.” That is, don’t expect to learn or change on one’s own. Build relationships with others. Don’t expect to learn or change without jostling among the five aspects.

Of course, the “mandala” of themes-in-tension had not specified how to teach and support students to take progressively more initiative. Nevertheless, I believe that it helped the students in that course recognize themselves and take more initiative in their learning relationships (Taylor 1999a). I expect, however, if it would be helpful for each new cohort to create their own mandala. I would like to present the insights from the original group (perhaps adding “explore difference” as a sixth aspect), but I also know that part of the power of any summary lies in creating it oneself.

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


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, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

One Response to Journeying to develop critical thinking 3: Understanding by placing things in tension with alternatives

  1. Pingback: Journeying to develop critical thinking 4: Opening up questions « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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