Journeying to develop critical thinking 2: Critical thinking as journeying

A few years ago I taught for the first time a general course on critical thinking. The students were mostly mid-career teachers and other professionals. This was also the occasion of my first telling the place in space story and running the re-seeing activity. Some of the students construed the story as a science lesson; evidently, I had to clarify the delivery and message. Later in the semester I had a chance to do this when we revisited the activity to practice lesson-plan remodeling. What emerged from the class discussion was that it mattered little to me whether students understood my weightlessness explanation. I only wanted them to puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occured to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations. During this clarification process the image occurred to me that when one’s development as a critical thinker is like a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yields personal change, and so on. This journeying metaphor differs markedly from the conventional philosophical view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims (Ennis 1987, Anon, n.d.). Instead of the usual connotations of “critical” with judgement and finding fault according to some standards (Williams 1983, 84ff), journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking.

In retrospect, the immediate impetus for my re-seeing critical thinking as journeying seemed to have been the “life-course” of students during that fifteen-week semester. Early in the course many students expressed dependency on my co-instructor and me: “Aren’t small group discussions an exercise in ‘mutually shared ignorance’?” “Could the class be smaller?—we want more direct interaction with you.” “I was never taught this at college—I’m not a critical thinking kind of person.” Some students were uncomfortable with dialogues their two instructors would have in front of the class in order to expose tensions among different perspectives. They asked for clear definitions of and procedures for critical thinking and for particular assignments and activities. Their anxieties were most evident when they looked ahead to a new end-of-semester “manifesto” assignment, in which we asked for “a synthesis of elements from the course selected and organized so as to inspire and inform your efforts in extending critical thinking beyond the course.” We responded to students’ concerns with some mini-lectures, handouts, and a sample manifesto. Yet we also persisted in conducting activities, promoting journaling, and assigning thought-pieces through which students might develop their own working approaches to critical thinking. By mid-semester students who had been quiet or lacked confidence in their critical-thinking abilities started to articulate connections with their work as teachers and professionals.

We had reassured those who worried about the manifesto assignment that they would have something to say, but we were surprised by how true that turned out to be. For example, the student who was not the “critical thinking kind” began her manifesto with perceptive advice:

“If there is one basic rule to critical thinking that I, as a novice, have learned it is
DON’T BE AFRAID!”
She continued: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and test ideas, ponder and wonder… Don’t be afraid to have a voice and use it!… Don’t be afraid to consider other perspectives… Don’t be afraid to utilize help…” She finished, “Above all, approach life as an explorer looking to capture all the information possible about the well known, little known and unknown and keep an open mind to what you uncover.” Another student wrote a long letter to her seven year old: “To give you a few words of advice, yes, but mostly to remind me of what I believe I should practice in order to assist you with your growth.” These manifestos displayed admirable self-awareness. To arrive there the students had taken risks and opened up questions, had experienced more than they were able at first to integrate and had sought support, and ended up seeing themselves differently (Taylor 2001a).

In retrospect, the students’ confidence had begun to rise during classes involving various approaches to empathy and listening (Elbow 1986, Gallo 1994, Ross 1994, Stanfield 1997). I suspect that listening well helps students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind, it is difficult to motivate and undertake scrutiny of one’s own evidence, assumptions, and logic, or of those of others. Being listened to seems to help students access their intelligence (in a broad sense of the term)—to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense (Weissglass 1990). The resulting knowledge seems all the more powerful because it is not externally dictated (Friere 1970, Weissglass 1990). These are conjectures—I look forward to opportunities for more systematic exploration of the ways different people experience listening and being listened to in relation to their critical thinking.

(The third in a series of posts; see first post.)

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Guided tour of my teaching ’98-’01: Teaching portfolio, critical thinking journey, etc.

1998-2001

In the statement for the tenure review in 2001, I discussed my teaching under the headings:

  • A. Wide Scope of My Teaching and its Active, Ongoing Development
  • B. The Philosophy of Teaching Critical Thinking I Brought to UMB
  • C. Teaching Critical Thinking about Science in its Social Context
  • D. Leading Students from Critical Thinking to Taking Initiative
  • E. Learning from Difficult Courses in a Thoughtful, Respectful, and Professional Manner
  • F. Learning from Educators beyond CCT
  • G. Promoting Collegial Interaction Around Innovation in Teaching

(Discussion of related themes and exhibits from a 1999 review can be viewed at http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/portfolio99exhibits.html.)
The last heading points the sharing of work I pursue in a number of ways:

  • documentation of process and outcomes, evident in my Practitioner’s Portfolio;
  • regular presentations and workshops, both at UMB (under the auspices of CIT) and outside; and
  • posting on my website of teaching and learning thought-pieces, tools, and activities (linked to each syllabus) [supplemented in recent years on wikis, such as this page].

Creating and maintaining a web presence for my work is one way my teaching is also characterized by

  • H. Making educationally justified and sustainable choices of when and how to integrate technologies

Related thought-pieces and compilations of exhibits
Guidelines about specific situations and specific ways in which specific technologies are of significant pedagogical benefit. (With case studies from science education)

“We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking”

  • “five passages in a pedagogical journey that has led from teaching undergraduate science-in-society courses to running a graduate program in critical thinking and reflective practice for teachers and other mid-career professionals”

Review of Courses, aka Practitioner’s Portfolio.

  • For each course taught at UMB since 1998 I include a review of:
    • the original objectives for the course (which should be read together with the description and goals stated in the syllabi);
    • challenges encountered and my responses; and
    • future plans.
  • Each review is followed by:
    • the syllabi;
    • summaries of the GCoE evaluations;
    • summaries from the written course evaluations I designed; and/or the originals of those evaluations.

Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey

One course I taught for the first time soon after I joined the UMass Graduate Program in Critical and Creative Thinking was “Critical Thinking.” Mid-way through the first semester, when the topic was revising lesson plans, we revisited a demonstration I had done in the first class. The details are not important here, except to say that some students had interpreted the demonstration as a science lesson while the science aspect seemed unimportant to me. Discussion of the discrepancy led me to articulate my primary goal, namely, the students would puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occurred to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations. Read more of this post

Critical thinking, Creative thinking & Reflective practice

As a young environmental and political activist in Australia in the 1970s I was involved in a wide range of actions—from working with trade unionists to oppose the construction of an inner city power plant through campaigning against excess packaging to establishing a natural foods co-operative.  However, when someone asked me: “If you could wish for one thing to be changed when you wake up tomorrow, what would it be?” my answer was not a concrete political success or environmental improvement.  I replied simply: “I would want everyone to question,” by which I meant not to be merely sceptical, but to consider alternatives to accepted views and practices.  This interest in critical thinking led, eventually, to my teaching science students to examine the social influences on knowledge-making.  Addressing the challenges of this kind of teaching led, in turn, to my applying for the second full-time faculty position in the Critical & Creative Thinking (CCT) Graduate Program at UMass Boston in 1998.

When I look back at the path from Australia in the 1970s to CCT, I see that I was also moving in the direction of creative thinking.  Where, we can ask, do a critical thinker’s ideas about alternatives come from?  Not out of individual inspiration, but from borrowing and connecting.  The more items in your tool box—the more themes, heuristics (rules of thumb), and open questions you are working with—the more likely you are to make a new connection and see how things could be otherwise, that is, to be creative.  Yet, in order to build up a set of tools that works for you, it is necessary to experiment, take risks, and reflect on the outcomes.  Such “reflective practice” is like a journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas—it involves risk, opens up questions, creates more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, requires support, and yields personal change.[1]

Traditionally exponents of critical thinking have emphasized the teaching of skills and dispositions for scrutinizing the assumptions, reasoning, and evidence brought to bear on an issue by others and by oneself.  In short, they promote thinking about thinking.  But how do students come to see where there are issues to be opened up and identify those issues without relying on some authority?  The current form of my evolving “answer” is that people can understand things better if they place them in tension with alternatives, but, in order to encourage them to do so, they also need support as they grapple with inevitable tensions in personal and intellectual development.

This picture of critical and creative thinking and reflective practice makes a virtue of my personal history of chewing on many questions, exploring alternative practices, and accumulating diverse tools; of relying less than many of my peers on established intellectual positions and institutional arrangements; and of not following well-intentioned advice to get established in one discipline and use that as a base to seek a wider impact.  My continued journeying prepared me to present myself as a “work in progress” once I joined the CCT community, in which we are engaged in learning how to support others to “develop reflective practice and change their schools, workplaces, and lives”—and to keep journeying.

(Excerpt from Preamble to 2003 Self-study by CCT Program, http://www.cct.umb.edu/aquad02report.pdf


[1] Peter Taylor, “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking,” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/journey.html.

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