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Unpacking the Critical Thinking Conundrum

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Unpacking the Critical Thinking Conundrum

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unpacking the critical thinking conundrum
When I was an undergraduate, I distinctly remember my political science professor informing the class, “If you take one thing away from your education, learn how to think critically by the time you leave here.” At that point in my life, his sage wisdom went in one ear and out the other — much like the admonitions to not start the paper the night before and to ensure my thesis statement was “argumentative.” The phrase “critical thinking” continued to appear in various essay assignments, its persistence indicating an implicit assumption that its meaning was self-explanatory. To be perfectly honest, I had not the slightest idea of what it meant at the time and I’m not sure many of my peers did either. As I remember, I was well into my master’s program before the light bulb went off.

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[dropcap]When[/dropcap] I was an undergraduate, I distinctly remember my political science professor informing the class, “If you take one thing away from your education, learn how to think critically by the time you leave here.” At that point in my life, his sage wisdom went in one ear and out the other — much like the admonitions to not start the paper the night before and to ensure my thesis statement was “argumentative.” The phrase “critical thinking” continued to appear in various essay assignments, its persistence indicating an implicit assumption that its meaning was self-explanatory. To be perfectly honest, I had not the slightest idea of what it meant at the time and I’m not sure many of my peers did either. As I remember, I was well into my master’s program before the light bulb went off. Today, as both a college English lecturer and professional tutor, I see that longtime lack of understanding as an issue worth examining. For some anecdotal support, I polled a few of my high school (soon-to-be college) students, whom I tutor privately, to hear their thoughts on critical thinking. One, a high-achieving senior who takes multiple AP classes, told me she could not formulate a definition in her own words, and that, when it was called for on a project or paper, it did not change how she approached the assignment. She called the concept “super murky” and she admitted she really had “no idea.” Another senior, headed to a prestigious Boston university in the fall, said that he thinks he “kind of” gets it and believes it means being “efficient and effective” with your thinking. Not bad, but there’s definitely more to it than that. My final student told me the phrase makes her nervous: “I don’t know what it means. Never have. I always just feel like it means they are really testing me. But I hate when teachers say that and don’t explain.” I’ll concede that critical thinking is paradoxical; it cannot be fully understood until you know how to do it. And even when you know what it is and how to do it, the learning doesn’t stop. Much like writing, we can all continue to sharpen the skill indefinitely.  [perfectpullquote align="right" bordertop="false" size="24'']Since critical thinking encompasses a number of complementary skills, I think we need to be clearer about what we are envisioning before we can expect students to grasp the concept.[/perfectpullquote] Of course a quick explanation or example will never fully encapsulate such a multifaceted and nuanced life skill; however, I argue we can start by no longer assuming our students know what we mean when we weave it into an essay prompt or toss it out during a lecture. The first step is to question ourselves: what are we asking for in the deliverable when we place critical thinking into the picture? Are we expecting students to be more evaluative with the sources they are using? Do we want them to critique the material and find inconsistencies? Place an issue in the broader context of world issues? Do we even know what we are asking for?  Since critical thinking encompasses a number of complementary skills, I think we need to be clearer about what we are envisioning before we can expect students to grasp the concept. When I ask for critical thinking in my course assignments, I usually mean that I want students to take more authority with the subject matter. Tell me the limitations of the source material; make the sources “talk” to each other; figure out an interdisciplinary, creative solution to a problem — even if it’s idealistic; come up with an argument that considers multiple perspectives and transcends surface-level quoting and black-and-white thesis statements. With all that said, I’ve still caught myself throwing out the nebulous phrase on a number of occasions without detailing any of the above. Colleagues in other disciplines prompt students to develop and demonstrate the skill in other ways, but their thoughts still suggest some cognitive dissonance. When I questioned a chemistry professor about how she incorporates critical thinking in the classroom, she responded, “In the context of experiments, for example, I ask students to think critically about their hypotheses and predictions and then the results and discussion portions of their lab reports. I also include critical thinking as a learning objective within the syllabi of my intro courses.” Next, I asked how confident she feels that students know what she means when she demands the skill. With a smile, she stated that the hope is they become familiar with such “critical scientific inquiry” through lessons and activities leading up to the various experiments. But what happens if they don’t put it all together and fail to recognize the logic that should link hypotheses and predictions with results? The reality is that critical thinking remains an abstraction, and a confusing one that depends on both the scenario and who you ask. We might know it when we see it, but it’s certainly hard to define. The Foundation of Critical Thinking uses more than a page to try and explain the concept fully, but in short decides upon: “Critical thinking is that mode of thinking — about any subject, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing it.” This model looks different in every discipline, though. The Oxford Living Dictionary defines it as “The objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment,” but that’s not tangible either. Such obscurity leads to what we need to do next: model for students, in an explicit way, precisely what critical thinking means in our given discipline. Committing to do the hard work of ensuring students are “getting it” prompts us to perform some healthy evaluation of our own curriculum and methods. We need to ask whether we are providing concrete examples of what we are asking of them or merely expecting that somewhere along the line students magically see it, recognize it, and emulate it—even though we only hint at it. To ensure clarity, carry students through the process in a more step-by-step way than what might be comfortable. For example, if your political science students are reading the famous “The Clash of Civilizations?” by Samuel Huntington, present them with another critical essay that challenges Huntington’s thesis, pointing out how the author evaluates Huntington’s bold claim. As a class, brainstorm what the author is assuming, presupposing, and ignoring; decide what interesting points the author was able to tease out from Huntington’s article; then, maybe have students look up the author and see what might inform his/her potential bias on the topic. Conclude by reflecting together and (this last bit is crucial) informing them how each step taken exhibits a different form of critical thinking. It might be tempting to revert to the “They should know how to do this. This is college!” mentality; indeed, to our eye, this kind of exercise might seem unnecessarily laborious and rather elementary. However, more guidance up front is necessary, as students are missing the crux of our lessons more often than we realize. The point is, we need to spell it out more regularly. Some meta-critical thinking on our end offers a sober reminder: we are consistently assuming students have knowledge and skills that they may not yet possess. After modeling, the final step is to explicate what you want. If you want students to think critically about, say, why Hamlet takes so long to act, maybe spell out what it looks like in this scenario: ask them to think about why they sometimes drag their feet on tough issues, whether they’ve encountered a parallel situation in a recent current event, and maybe to consider in their heart about what they feel he is actually going through and why. If you are trying to get students to critically think and evaluate a business case study of a pasta sauce company having difficulty sourcing raw materials, tell them that it’s okay to view the company’s situation as gray and confusing at first—in fact, that’s a good thing—and inform them of all the variables in the situation, such as differences in growing seasons across regions. The good news is that once the essence of what you want students to do is clear, it can be as simple as creating a bulleted list on your assignment sheets titled “ways to incorporate and demonstrate critical thinking in this project.” At the very least, with such guidance, students will know what type of mental exercises they can do to match what is being asked. Without that little extra bit, assignments can remain one-dimensional with the critical thinking piece at risk of being ignored, resulting in a lower quality deliverable than we may have hoped. We all know that deflating feeling when projects and papers come in and disappoint. While unclear assignment prompts in general are a story for another day, defining critical thinking — in the way we want students to use it — can help us to cultivate higher level papers and projects. Really, good students just want to deliver what their teachers ask of them. More than anything, working as a private tutor on the other side of the academic equation has demonstrated to me the tremendous frustration students endure when they can’t decipher what their teachers want. This sentiment leads to a pivotal final point: in the process of focusing on critical thinking, we, as instructors, must remain truly open to unexpected, out-of-the-box ideas from students. After all, we can’t ask for critical analysis and then squash what it produces. We have to restrain that reflex to always correct and impose our own way, and instead provide gentle guidance to set their thinking in directions that lead to deep understanding. The 21st century workplace needs graduates who can problem-solve, who can evaluate the increasingly complex issues of our world. If we can work toward providing a clearer understanding of what we mean by the across-the-disciplines demand of critical thinking, we can better guide students toward fully grasping the somewhat “murky” concept in totality someday. By teaching students how to think, we are laying the groundwork for a richer, more promising future; no matter how your discipline incorporates critical thinking, this objective is one under which we can all unite. Brett Murphy Hunt is a lecturer at Northeastern University, a professional tutor at Framingham State University, and the owner of her own tutoring and consulting company in Boston.