Assumptions, evidence, and reasoning underlying a picture of the development of a student’s critical thinking?

Students were asked to raise questions about the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning underlying the statements in something I wrote about critical thinking in 1995 (see below).  Some of them liked particular statements, but questioned others.  Yet, questioning the assumptions, evidence, and reasoning was harder for them.  Moreover, as I tried to do the activity, I saw something I hadn’t noted before, namely, that my picture of the development of a student’s critical thinking–which I still find very insightful–was not explicit about its assumptions, provided no evidence, and did not follow a sequence of reasoning! This invites further thinking…

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.
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 (Taylor 1995, cited in 2002).

Reference

Taylor, P. J. (2002), “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking,” Working Papers in Critical, Creative, and Reflective Practice, http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cct_ccrp/1/

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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).

One Response to Assumptions, evidence, and reasoning underlying a picture of the development of a student’s critical thinking?

  1. Here’s a first attempt at unpacking my statement in terms of assumptions, evidence, reasoning:
    1. It is difficult for people to question assumptions, evidence, reasoning when they do not see alternatives.
    2. A person does not become a critical thinker by adopting an alternative proposed by a teacher or other authority.
    3. 1+2 is why I promote holding ideas and practices in tension with alternatives.
    4. Given 3, a teacher can introduce alternatives that overcome 1 without succumbing to 2.
    5. When a person sees that there are alternatives they hadn’t considered before, it follows, by extension, that there may be alternatives they hadn’t considered to other ideas and alternatives.
    6. 5 introduces an atmosphere of uncertainty.
    7. 4 is limited in that a person needs to be able to seek alternatives and then hold ideas and practices in tension with them without waiting for a teacher to introduce them (especially when the person is not a student any more).
    8. 6+7 -> need to “take a great deal of responsibility for their own learning, “explore… anxieties and [eventually] gain the confidence to face uncertainty and ambiguity.”

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