Journeying to develop critical thinking: Coda

The tension between facilitating and being more directive is evident not only in my teaching, but in the writing of the essay from which this series of posts has been drawn (see first post). I have tried to evoke a continuing pedagogical journey that “involves risk, opens up questions, creates more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, requires support, and yields personal change.” I decided to tease out multiple strands, rather than hold onto one thread, hoping that each reader will find at least a few of the strands helpful to pull on during their own journeys (see also Taylor 2001c). I have exposed tensions—while not the path of maximum comfort, this is one way to model a process of keeping tensions active and productive. These various attempts to keep matters open, even ambiguous, led me to choose the epigraph about dialogue “that neither party could have imagined before starting.” Yet, as author, I have spoken first and set many terms of any discussion that ensues. Rather than play down this tension, let me present a summary of this essay’s themes in both a didactic and a dialogic spirit. The themes to follow, I would propose, need to be addressed in order to provide space and support for others in their critical thinking journeys. At the same time, I hope readers draw me into discussion that leads to new ways of addressing and conceptualizing the challenges I have been opening up.

The central challenge addressed in the essay is that of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge. Some related challenges for the teacher/facilitator are to:

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. (Support is needed because these journeys involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, and yield personal change.)

f. Encourage students to initiative in and through relationships, which can be thought of in terms of themes that are in some tension with each other: “negotiate power/standards,” “horizontal community,” “develop autonomy,” “acknowledge afftect,” “be here now,” and “explore diference.”

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 heuristics, 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.

k. Be patient and persistent about students taking up the alternatives, opening up heuristics, and other tools and applying them to open up questions in other areas. (Experiment and experience are needed for students 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 or at a larger scale than the local.


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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