Think critically about the approach of someone else before working to improve one’s own critical thinking practices?

I am questioning an assumption I made in creating the sequence of three cases in my experimental version of teaching critical thinking at a graduate-level. This assumption was that it is easier to think critically about the approach of someone else before working to improve one’s own critical thinking practices. Based on this assumption, the first case asked students to take an established approach (an approach to what I will describe shortly) and scrutinize how well it is supported. The second case asked students to learn as much as possible about how critical thinking is presented and promoted by published authors and established teachers. Having the second case before the first meant that there would be some edge to the way students took in the authors and teachers they were learning from. it also meant that students would find themes that were important to them personally and use these to chart a coherent path which in the vast arena of critical thinking and its teaching.The third case would build on the first two, asking students to formulate specific plans for how to continue their own development as a critical thinker and, as a result, to be able to foster the same among colleagues or students in their work or life or teaching situations. If the second case had come first, students might have been first overwhelmed by how much to try to take in and second been overly subservient to the authors and teachers given that they would not have developed their favorite themes to guide their reading.

Why I am questioning my assumption is that many of the students undertaking the first case described or even promoted approaches that they are somewhat committed to. In other words, it was not easier to think critically about the approach of someone else, because it was also the approach, in some sense, of the student as well. Now, the approaches I asked them to consider in case one were teaching, coaching, and related efforts to change people’s thinking. I thought (another assumption) that there was economy in having these approaches scrutinized—economy in the sense of keeping discussion circulating around the course topic. An alternative would have been to ask them to examine approaches to, say, welfare policy, military intervention in the Middle East, treatment of refugees and unauthorized immigrants, reduction of gun violence, and so on. Given the heated online exchanges on such topics, students would surely (another assumption) be able to detect, at least on one side, arguments made with weak evidence, assumptions, and reasoning.

Now that I’m aware that students—even in critical thinking course, and even in a case where they are asked to scrutinize the approach of others—may choose approaches they like and then protect them from scrutiny, I can build this into my instructions and coaching if I were to use the first case again as the first case. I may, however, try the alternative approach in full knowledge that students might find it hard to, and get emotional about, scrutinizing the positions they hold on the various controversial topics.

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 Think critically about the approach of someone else before working to improve one’s own critical thinking practices?

  1. Earlier thinking behind the sequence of cases was that a course on critical thinking would need to work through four phases: being able to think critically about what others say and do; being able to do this about oneself; being able to improve one’s own thinking; being able to help improve the thinking of others.

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