Field of Science

Critical Thinking: Can It Be Taught?

Rodin's The Thinker
This represents that last and a long time coming post on 'critical thinking' that derived for a number of reasons. I previously discussed 'what is critical thinking?' and 'is critical thinking worth teaching?' In those posts I suggested that critical thinking is a skill set that allows one to establish the veracity of an idea, data-set, etc. and to develop logically cohesive ideas, hypotheses, etc. and Yes, it is worth teaching. In this post, I want to hit on the questions 'Is it possible to teach critical thinking?' and 'If so, how does one teach critical thinking?'

The first question is easily answered 'yes'. The second question is generally avoided usually with some muttering and lack of eye contact. Teaching is hard. Teaching a skill is harder. One thing that makes teaching 'critical thinking' to college seniors difficult for me is that these students have done relatively little of it. Period. On those few occasions when they were doing it, it happened almost by chance, there was no instruction into the process. How many essays have students written? lab reports? compare-contrast assignments? These are all easily 'critical thinking' activities. However, if the critical thinking aspects are not taught in a useful context, it makes little sense and does not stick.

I recall being taught the philosophy behind different types of writing styles. I also remember being taught some extremely basic philosophy of science. But these activities were done in high school, without any context! In college, when it came time to write lab reports, the focus was on the formatting, the style. Does the report have an abstract? Are the results in the past tense. When I had to write a report on Russian Foreign Policy in Afghanistan compared to US foreign policy in Vietnam the focus was on the formatting. Is there a clear comparison or contrast statement? Were the references formatted correctly? We have a disconnect in our teaching. We teach things piecemeal. I learned about compare-contrast essays in English, there was no connection to these types of assignments in history or math. I am not suggesting changing entire curricula, but once students start going to different teachers for different subjects, there needs to be some overlap in the instruction. Math is important to science, science is important to history, history is important to health, health is important to art, art is important to english. What we currently teach is that once you leave class A, you enter a completely different silo called class B. After several years of this kind of training, we can not teach logic in 10th grade english and expect it to carry over to chemistry.

So how does that relate to 'critical thinking'? Well the answer goes back to my definition of 'critical thinking' as a skill set that allows one to establish the veracity of an idea, data-set, etc. and to develop logically cohesive ideas, hypotheses, etc. The point is that we, as teachers/parents/adults can teach 'critical thinking' in all of our classes, during our day-to- day interactions, and even in the car. It's actually quite easy in principle, you need to ask questions. The hard part is asking the 'right' questions. In my primary teaching assignment, I have incorporated some socratic teaching methods. I ask questions, get responses, ask more questions, get more responses, and we move forward together. It can be as simple as asking how do the authors (of this paper) know that? or how would you test this hypothesis? Students will frequently and spontaneously engage in mini-debates when discussing some issue. To teach 'critical thinking' is to teach students to ask questions. When we teach high school students about various logical fallacies in sophomore English class, other teachers need to use some of those fallacies in their history, music, and physics classes. All teachers should be asking their students to think, to come up with their own ideas, to follow a thought process to its end regardless of whether you know the end is futile.

I remember one of my high school english teachers. She was not the most pleasant teacher in the school and ultimately became the assistant principal (if that provides any insights into her personality). It was the first year we had summer readings and many of the books became some of my favorites: Exodus, 1984, and Anthem to name a few (others sucked like Fountainhead, I never did finish that one). When we were discussing 1984, Ms. Teacher, who I don't think cared for my casual approach to school much, asked me what happened at the end of the book. My guess is she assumed I hadn't read it (a la Fountainhead), and she could use this as a way to take me down a peg. I told her Winston gets killed by the state. She told me I was wrong, big brother only killed him metaphorically. The person he was was dead, but the human was still a living breathing entity. I disagreed and she asked me to back up my opinion. So I went to the passage near the end about the bullet entering his head and argued that the passage made no sense as a metaphor. I also noted that earlier in the book, Winston notes another character that big brother had 'enlightened' who was soon to be killed because that was what happened. Big brother tortures you into believing in big brother, releases you for others to see, and then kills you when it no longer matters. She still said I was wrong, but she backed the fuck off after that. As much as I thought said teacher was basically a troll (in the pre-interent sense), I appreciated the fact that she challenged us, or at least me. She is the only teacher I asked to sign my high school yearbook.

So how does one teach critical thinking? I don't know, but I know what I do. I ask questions. I'll take just about any response and go with it. Even a piss poor response that is fatally flawed because of confusion over transcription versus translation can be a teaching tool. You know who I do think teaches 'critical thinking' by demonstrating it?

Jon Stewart.

Watch The Daily Show for a week. Virtually all of the first two segments every night is an exercise in critical thinking. Stewart and team take something said by a politician or seven or some big issue and asks questions about it. The questions are tacit, but they are there.

For example, one of the most poignant segments ever deals with the taxes and poverty.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
World of Class Warfare - The Poor's Free Ride Is Over
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook
The questions that were tacitly asked and addressed are plentiful. 

As another example we could ask some critical thinking questions about the uproar over Chaz Bono on the all important show Dancing with the Stars (really? stars?). Thankfully, we don't have to, Lewis Black already did (plus he hit on apple juice too).

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Threats to America's Children

Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

I think this is one of the main reasons The Daily Show has done so well over the years, they ask the questions we do not take the time to ask or do not know how to ask. And since not everyone gets Comedy Central, we need to take the time to ensure we truly do teach critical thinking skills to as many people as possible.
Plus, we already have too many damn sheeple.


Rosie Redfield said...

An essential prerequisite to successfully teaching anything is having tools to assess whether the teaching has been successful.

So, what (classroom-usable) tests can we use to evaluate whether our teaching has improved our students' critical thinking skills?

The Lorax said...

Every class is different and I would not suggest that there is one way to do this. But, I have had pretty good success using essay examinations. I tend to ask fairly open-ended questions that do not have a specific correct answer (although I have a specific answer in mind).

This year I have started having short weekly writing assignments one part of which is to identify and justify a potential limitation with an experiment or data set. This helps the students look at things more critically and not simply be following along.

Not sure if this answers your question, but I do think it's important we, as teachers, try. One can always experiment with some small credit or no credit assignments. Add an exam question, you think might work. The approaches I use, have evolved over the last 10 years through the 2 courses I had primary responsibilities. If I am doing anything right, Ill continue to modify (and hopefully improve) during the next 10 years.

EarthGirl said...

Come join the conversation: God, evolution and creation, etc.
This girl is a Christian and can't think well at all. Right now she's got us stumped...

TheBrummell said...

I came to this blog through Mike The Mad Biologist, and suddenly I'm not procrastinating anymore, I'm preparing for my teaching next semester. Sneaky!

Critical thinking, teaching critical thinking, evaluating student performance and learning, and related topics have been much on my mind lately largely because of a class I am taking at my university's centre for teaching effectiveness. One of the more tangible end results of this class will be a teaching portfolio that I will write and assemble - in addition to an essay that basically describes my teaching philosophy, I will include student evaluations from my previous teaching, letters from colleagues and supervisors, and other documents that contribute to my assertion that "I like teaching, and here is how I do it".

My teaching philosophy, as it currently exists, is built around questions, both from the students and from me; basically, Socratic questions. Your description of critical thinking as being essentially a process of questioning struck a chord. Would you mind if I reference this blog post in my next draft of my teaching philosophy, in a section describing the importance I see in teaching critical thinking, and methods to do so?

Thanks, sorry for the long-winded comment.


The Lorax said...

TheBrummel (not to be confused with ABrummel) Sweet to hear I warranted a link from MtMB, I enjoy his blog.

Feel free to reference this or any other post if it will help you out. Best of luck next semester and thanks for commenting.