Critical thinking has become a catch-all phrase in any education literature that touts the development of 21st century learning. It seems that no matter which instructional model is being used or how the craft of teaching is being applied, as long as the approach claims to be promoting critical thinking, it is assumed to be on the right track.
[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ritical thinking has become a catch-all phrase in any education literature that touts the development of 21st century learning. It seems that no matter which instructional model is being used or how the craft of teaching is being applied, as long as the approach claims to be promoting critical thinking, it is assumed to be on the right track.
The problem is, critical thinking means different things to different people. Advocates of problem-based learning present critical thinking as the ability to develop a problem-solving strategy. Those who support direct instruction perceive critical thinking as thinking about the information being presented. Instructors committed to the integrative model equate critical thinking with categorizing information into new or established taxonomies. Although most of the debate is centered on how to strengthen and improve critical thinking, there is little conceptual clarity concerning what is actually meant by the term. Unfortunately, if one takes a closer look, these varying definitions don’t all align. It is time to begin clearing the fog and clarify what we actually mean when we advocate the development of critical thinking.
As a step in this direction, I want to highlight the importance of reflective thinking as a sub-category of critical thinking and present an example of how the Socratic Seminar model can be used as an effective tool for the development of reflective thinking.
While there is a growing awareness of the importance of considering other points of view, there is little emphasis or time given to reflect on our own assumptions. One problem is that much of formal education is about getting the “correct” answer, but once a teacher moves much beyond the basics, the correct answer gets mixed up with values, interpretations, and may not ever address the logics by which students actually live their lives. This is why I support reflective thinking as a more conceptually clear alternative to the ambivalence in the broad category of critical thinking.
Reflective thinking involves discovering the logic that students use to make decisions as they seek to understand and live in the world. It requires one to take the time to explore how specific ways of seeing the world are similar or different to other perspectives. Two important educational objectives in reflective thinking are consistency and empathy. Instead of looking for the “correct” answer or defaulting to the inaccurate belief that everyone’s point of view represents a consistent and valid way of looking at the world, the emphasis of reflective thinking is to develop consistency in thinking and praxis as well as the willingness to consider and understand other points of view.
Promoting reflective thinking
So how can educators promote reflective thinking? I offer the Socratic Seminar model as a potential way forward. The Socratic Seminar is an instructional model that uses carefully selected content-based materials, structured questioning with debate or dialogue, and an intentional review process to promote learners’ development of analytical, social, and communicative skills as well as the exploration and ownership of ideas. Socratic questioning assumes that learners already possess a way of interpreting the world and it encourages the discovery of our own interpretive paradigms.
Although there are different ways to use the Socratic Seminar, I am proposing its use primarily as a self-diagnostic tool. By limiting the scope in this way, the model can target the difficult skill of identifying and reflecting on the assumptions that shape a student’s worldview. The Socratic Seminar is structured around four activities: First, it involves carefully selected content that targets a chosen set of themes. Second, it requires the facilitation of student engagement with peers based on a set of structured questions and tools that promote participation. Third, and I would argue most importantly, it involves a careful review and summary of what the dialogue has revealed about student understandings and alternative points of view. Finally, it includes an evaluation of the exercise and a discussion about how the result of the dialogue may affect future choices.
Let me give an example. In the Greek historian Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides recounts (or recreates) a dialogue where the Athenians offer the people of Melos the choice to surrender and pay tribute to Athens or be destroyed. The debate goes back and forth with argument and counter argument and ends with Thucydides’ description of Athens destruction of Melos. A number of issues are raised in this exchange including, the trade-off between freedom and survival, the role of hope in life, and whether it is honorable or foolish to fight against overwhelming odds.
One way the Socratic Seminar model could be used with the Melian dialogue to promote reflective thinking is to begin with a student-directed/teacher-facilitated discussion of the above issues but framed in a relevant context. For instance, a teacher may ask the question, “What role does hope play in your life?” Students must then articulate, record, and support their perspectives on why they believe what they believe. This discourse could be followed up with a reading of the Melian dialogue and a student-directed/teacher-facilitated conversation about the arguments and points of view presented by the Athenians and Melians. The exercise might then move on to an examination of how the different student perspectives align with either the arguments of the Athenians or Melians or neither and what this reveals about the different students’ worldview assumptions. The activity concludes with an overall evaluation of the exercise as well as a teacher-led analysis of consistencies and potential inconsistencies in the points of view that have been presented.
In using the Socratic Seminar to promote reflective thinking, the learning process is cumulative. Students’ views of freedom may not be consistent with perspectives on civic law. A belief in a rational universe may not align with perspectives on chance. A commitment to empiricism may not be consistent with the prioritization of societal influences in determining choices. The overall educational objective is the development of the ability to reflect on one’s own worldview assumptions, the ability to understand and respect the assumptions of others, and to develop a consistency of thought and action. The Socratic Seminar model equips students with the skills to probe assumptions, to present evidence and reasons that support their perspective, and to consider the implications and consequences of their own beliefs.
With so much confusion around what it means for critical thinking to serve as a foundation for 21st century learning, it is time to begin clearing the fog. The use of the Socratic Seminar as a way to promote reflective thinking, a sub-category of critical thinking, provides a positive step in the right direction.
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William Merrifield is the leader of Innovative Learning at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and a research affiliate in the Department of Education at the American University of Beirut.