Journeying to develop critical thinking 4: Opening up questions

The research project course [see previous post] was a suitable venue for encouraging students to be more self-conscious about learning relationships. In other critical thinking courses I have had less time to explore the tensions captured by the mandala. Like most teachers, I feel the pressure of “content,” that is, of moving through the relevant body of material. (This is true, even though the content of my current courses involves activities that place ideas in tension with alternatives, not pre-formulated critiques.) Let me introduce a tension in the content side of my teaching (one I also wrestle with in my contributions to environmental research Taylor 1999b ) that extends the theme of the previous passage that understanding comes by placing things in tension with alternatives.

The tension I have in mind is between presenting simple accounts versus attending to complexity and particularity. On the complex side, in the early 1980s I adopted the anthropologist Eric Wolf’s image of structures—in his case, societies or cultures—as contingent outcomes of “intersecting processes” that involve diverse components and span a range of spatial and temporal scales (Wolf 1982, 385-391). Not surprisingly, I was attracted to the research emerging in the late 1980s that explained cases of environmental degradation, such as soil erosion or deforestation, in terms of processes that linked changes in local agro-ecologies, labor supply and the organization of production, and wider political-economic conditions (Watts and Peet 1993). During the same period I was stimulated by sociologists of science who highlighted scientists’ “heterogeneous resources” and encompassed many activities within the concept of scientific work (Latour 1987; see also citations in Taylor 1995b). On the “simple” side, however, I was impressed by the rhetorical impact of simple environmental themes, such as “Natural resources need to be privatized, because resources held incommon are inevitably degraded” and “Population growth will lead to environmental degradation.” Similarly, simple themes about the process of science, such as “Convince others of what is really going on” have more impact than, say, “Unpack the heterogeneity of resources that different researchers, oneself included, mobilize to establish and apply knowledge.”

My current response to this simple-complex tension has emerged from developing activities for interdisciplinary courses in which material must be accessible to a wide range of students. For example, in environmental courses I have students play out a scenario involving two countries. Each country has the same amount and quality of arable land, population size, level of technical capacity, and 3% annual population growth rate. I ask students to look ahead at the declining land area per household and decide what they would do in that situation. Their answers usually revolve around reducing consumption or using contraception. Then I tell them that country A has a relatively equal land distribution, while country B has a typical 1970s Central American land distribution: 2% of the people own 60% of the land; 28% own 38%, which leaves just 2% of the land for the poorest 70%. Five generations before anyone is malnourished in A, all of the poorest class in B would already be—unless they act to change their situation. I divide the students into the wealthy, middle, and poor classes of country B and ask them again what they would do. Linking their impending food shortages to inequity in land distribution, the poor often propose taking over the underutilized land of the wealthy. The wealthy, anticipating this possibility, sometimes propose paramilitary operations that target leaders of campaigns for land reform. The middle class suggest investing in factories that employ the land-starved poor, or promoting population control policies for the poor. And so on. Although students do not learn the details of political, economic, or sociological analysis, the activity teaches them that the crises to which actual people have to respond come well before and in different forms from the crises predicted on the basis of aggregate population growth rates (Taylor 1997).

This simple, two countries scenario points to the need for more complex analyses of the dynamics among particular people who contribute differentially to environmental problems. As I make explicit to students, the scenario invites us to consider that the analysis of causes and the implications of the analysis would change if uniform units were replaced by unequal units, subject to further differentiation as a result of their linked economic, social, and political dynamics. I call this kind of proposition an “opening up heuristic”—simple to convey, but always pointing to the greater complexity of particular cases and to further work needed to study them. Instead of resolving the simple-complex tension, it seeks to render it productive (Taylor 1999b).

Opening up heuristics are simple to dictate to students and to demonstrate to other teachers. However, I am not sure how readily students and teachers add the heuristics to their tool-box and apply them to open up questions in other areas. I used to fret about this, but now see that I should not expect fast-track reconceptualization. My current, more modest pedagogical rationale is that tools placed in a tool box may get buried for some time, but can eventually be reached for. Helping this happen I suspect is a matter of patience and persistence—listening to, acknowledging, and supporting the diversity of students’ thinking about particularity and complexity.


Latour 1987

Taylor 1995b

Taylor 1997

Taylor 1999b

Watts and Peet 1993

Wolf 1982


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,

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