Why teach critical thinking even as an entry point?

An earlier post pushed against the teaching of critical thinking as a coherent set of skills and dispositions to be fostered on their own, as in the “teaching of thinking.” Instead, teaching critical thinking could be presented as an opportunity to introduce tools and processes that the student may adapt adopt and adapt in the larger process of developing their capacities to make change in their work, lives, and world. But why teach critical thinking even in this sense of an entry point to change making? Why not pursue “action learning” from the get go?

Wikipedia’s entry on action learning sets the scene well:

action learning process includes (1) a real problem that is important, critical, and usually complex, (2) a diverse problem-solving team or “set”, (3) a process that promotes curiosity, inquiry, and reflection, (4) a requirement that talk be converted into action and, ultimately, a solution, and (5) a commitment to learning.

There are many important, critical, complex real problems that students want to address: shifting US foreign policy from its aggressive history to one of participating in a multi-polar international order; reducing the incidence of rape and sexual violence in college and among young people more generally; facilitating respectful and meaningful dialogue in highly polarized societies (e.g., Venezuela, USA); countering the effects of structural and implicit racism on the education of African-Americans; moving musicians beyond denial or hiding of their work-related injuries to a culture of musicians’ wellness; bringing homeless or marginal veterans back into a place where they can serve society; and so on. (All these examples come from students, past and present, in the CCT graduate program.)

In proposing a focus on action learning, it is assumed that students who pursued action learning would end up with skills, dispositions, and habits that are promoted by texts on critical thinking. They would also need tools and processes to “promote… curiosity, inquiry, and reflection” in themselves and others. We might examine how many of the important tools and processes are ones traditionally included in critical thinking texts or courses. In any case, critical thinking would not be presented as an entry point in the sense of “let’s put the problems you want to address to the side while I (the teacher, coach, etc.) introduces you through activities–not real world problems–various tools and processes you can then adopt or adapt when you move back to making change.

Now “why teach critical thinking even in this sense of an entry point to change making?” was a genuine question. This post invites discussion; it doesn’t come back with an answer (but see a 2014 post for some relevant thoughts about the CCT Program).

The question has affinity with an issue raised in a post earlier this year: “there are facilitators who warn that running workshops to teach or introduce tools and processes for group work without having a task grounded in shared work is unlikely to be to bear fruit, to result in carryover to participants’ work and lives.” Notice, however, the slippery slope here: Why a program of study that promotes action learning—why not simply learn during action? In this vein, Edwards (2001) provides a thoughtful approach to workplace learning and thinking, derived from decades of practice.

Edwards, J. (2001) Learning and thinking in the workplace, pp. 23-28 in Costa, A. L. (ed.) Developing minds: A resource book for teaching thinking. 3rd ed. Alexandria, Va. : Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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).

2 Responses to Why teach critical thinking even as an entry point?

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I hope the CPR model gets revived. There is a tension between action learning and alternatives thinking. What is the balance between skills needed, applications, reflections and ITS CAPL? I am picture the workshop as a more fragmented skills development that is complemented by PBLs that are sometimes “someone else’s problem.” People need objective space as much as passion driven learning so I am looking for that “third or maybe fourth space” like the example given in a post about learning a language, retaining your own and yet seeing yourself somehow from outside the process as well as being aware while in it.

  2. Rhoda Maurer says:

    Teryl, Can you describe the tension you mention between action learning and alternatives thinking? What is the nature of this tension? I appreciate your comment about being able to witness a different kind of space, somehow outside process and at the same time aware of your connection in it. What time during your CCT experience have you witnessed this for yourself?

    For me the idea of “Why a program of study that promotes action learning—why not simply learn during action?” raises the idea of unpacking the process and taking time to learn more about my metacognitive process, assumptions, biases and preferences for learning and doing. And from learning more about myself and this unpacking I learn more about alternative ways of approaching and taking action, building collaborations and processes, and implementing change. For me this has been especially important as I consider leading any kind of change in the workplace; every action needs consideration in context not only of history and dreams but the people who are involved at every connection to the change. Thus my practice is striving to have a disposition that allows me to change my approach as needed to support the work and people. And the outcome may be something none of us saw and could only be built because of the courage to play together.

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