Foundations of critical thinking as processes-in-context 3

Pass D
This post sketches a dominant view of education, thereby serving as a contrast to the schema of the previous post, in which a person “bootstrap[s] the structures of wider support for the vertical [identifying alternative ideas & practices] and horizontal [constituency-building] processes in the schema and further develop them.”
In the dominant view, education in its various forms seeks to move a person to a state (1 in the schema to follow) in which they are ready to play a role in the wider society (2).

What constitutes this readiness may be many different things: having acquired the necessary knowledge, skills, dispositions, ways of thinking, and values. It may also involve having undergone a personal transformation to see the word with a new frame of reference, awareness, or spirituality. This readiness may be certified by an educational program or take the form of the person becoming clear on their vocation (Palmer 2000). Once ready, the person engages and collaborates with others in real-world situations.

The development of this readiness is facilitated by teachers, coaches, and other guides who introduce the person to the necessary knowledge, skills, etc., moving them up the more-or-less-direct path to the desired state. “Good” students or apprentices are those able to take in what is offered to them; some students, however, fall behind and are seem as deficient or in need of remediation by subsequent teachers. The emphasis lies on up and down along the vertical path.

Of course, teachers, coaches, and other guides know that they often have to provide other support, from breakfast at school for students who would otherwise start the school day hungry to mentoring and out-of-school-time attention and advice. But these are not essential aspects of the development; rather, they can be seen as changing the speed at which the person moves along the same path.

The separation and sequencing of the two parts may be readily called into question. In studio education, Project-Based Learning, most apprenticeships, and so on, students tackle some real-world problem (or a stripped down version of one) and, in that context, acquire knowledge, skills, dispositions, ways of thinking, and values. Eventually, however, the person graduates to operating on the right-hand side.

Yet, a deeper crack can be opened up in this picture. Consider when teachers provide customized interventions to move the person from an idiosyncratic “private universe” (Schneps and Sadler 2010) to the established and socially accepted knowledge, skills, etc. (The society implied by “socially” may be a specific community, not the whole of Society.) In one sense, such conceptual change teaching moves the person back on the path (as evident in the schema if you can see the deviation and return under the word “awareness”). In another sense, however, it implies that there is some process through which a person composes a private universe, which is not covered by moving up the developmental path. We could discount this last process, especially in science–the private universes are something to be moved beyond once the person comes to understand the established and correct knowledge. We could, however, assume that the person whose thinking we want to influence always has their private universe, especially when we are in a realm, such as critical thinking, for which there is no established and correct knowledge that the teacher, coach, etc. can use as the place the person needs to be moved towards. The challenge then– and that is what the previous post tried to sketch is for a teacher, coach, etc. to understand each private universe well enough to “introduce… you to new knowledge, perspectives, or practices” that are more likely to result in your “tak[ing] yourself seriously in the sense of putting them into practice in the wider world.” The emphasis shifts from up and down along the vertical path and onto “improving, extending, or expanding the platform that supports your ongoing development, moreover, your self-directed–not other-directed–development.”

A further contrast is worth mentioning. In the traditional view schematized above, the starting point is a less-well-developed version of what is seen later. The infant already has a self that then gets developed (in the now archaic sense of a film being developed) provided the environment is conducive. In contrast, the existence of private universes and the emphasis on each person’s platform is consistent with Hendriks-Jansen’s (1996) view of early development, in which a human being’s very sense of having a self emerges in the infant through a reciprocal dynamic of fixed action patterns given to the infant through evolutionary heritage and the caregivers responding systematically from a view that ascribes intentionality to the infant’s actions. Moreover, the development of self emerges in stages that build on what is achieved or realized in the previous stage. In other words, there does not have to be a proto-self for a self to develop, or, even deeper, a soul to ensure that development can begin and proceed in the right direction.

A future post will bring us back to the subject of critical thinking and the idea of “processes-in-context.”

Hendriks-Jansen, H. (1996). Catching Ourselves in the Act. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Palmer, P. J. (2000). Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Schneps, M. J. and P. M. Sadler (2010) A Private Universe online resources (viewed 26 Oct 15)


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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