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On Teaching
Sheila Nair, PhD

Reflections on Critical Thinking


For many faculty, producing critical thinkers—a core objective of our classes—is often a challenge:
  • How do we best engage students in critical thinking?
  • What are the best and most effective course tools and methods for fostering critical thinking and developing students’ analytical skills, thereby promoting critical learning?
  • And finally, how should we creatively conceptualize critical thinking and learning in complex and multifaceted classroom environments where students’ histories, aptitudes, and interests not only reflect personal and life experiences but are also mediated by social class, gender, ethnicity, race, and other variables?

In this essay I reflect on the implications of this concept for effective pedagogy.

So what constitutes critical thinking? While not everyone will agree on every element of a definition, there is general consensus that critical thinking involves an ability to question, reason, actively listen, and apply sound judgment and evidence while recognizing "logical fallacies." Paul et al, for example, define critical thinking as "thinking that explicitly aims at well-founded judgment and hence utilizes appropriate evaluative standards in the attempt to determine the true worth, merit, or value of something." There is widespread acceptance in academia that critical thinking should be fostered in the classroom as a key first step in producing thoughtful and informed students. Critical thinking may also be a precondition for being able to successfully navigate the transition from college to the world beyond and the development of a cosmopolitan worldview.

A range of views exist on how best to foster critical thinking, including some debate over what it means and how it translates in specific classroom contexts. I will briefly touch on some of these concerns. For example, the question of whether critical thinking can be a universal model in education has been highlighted in the literature. Here we find the assumption of universality being challenged by cultural bias. For instance, critical thinking is widely seen as originating in Western philosophy and thought and as being centered round its core beliefs on the development of reason and rationality. Ideas about an intrinsic relationship between notions of rationality and critical thought may thus be challenged by the existence of alternative cultural understandings of what constitutes human nature that contradict notions of "rational man."

So if reason and rationalism are core assumptions in Western pedagogical approaches to critical thinking, is critical thinking a limited concept? This question is reflected in the arguments of some scholars such as Broom (2011) who call for a more expansive conception of critical thinking that accommodates "critical being" and integrates emotive, physical, and intellectual capacities without privileging one over the others. This idea may be provocative; it involves a more radical rethinking of how institutions of higher learning have historically coped with and approached critical thinking.

However, we should also draw a distinction between critical thinking approaches as reflected in the academic literature and critical pedagogy, which carries with it an entirely different set of assumptions about the relationship between teaching and social change and the normative commitments embedded in that relationship. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss Broom’s concept or delve into critical pedagogy at length, but readers may consult some of the works cited at the end of this short essay for a deeper understanding of the issues.

Notwithstanding some of the detractors mentioned above, critical thinking is still largely understood as being consistent with developing the "life of the mind." Yet there is seldom a clear road map for helping students develop skills that are consistent with critical thinking and intellectual growth. Even without the challenges of incorporating a more "holistic" conception into course content and delivery, there may not be universal consensus on best practices for engaging students in critical thinking in the classroom. In short, the relationship between an intellectual process involving critical thought and the achievement of core learning objectives are subject to institutional expectations, interpretation, course content, and context.

That being said, we should still strive to outline as clearly as possible what we mean by critical thinking. Since this may vary somewhat by course and instructor, clarifying and defining concepts such as critical thinking makes it easier for students to grasp what the instructor’s expectations are for the course. The instructor should also explain how core learning outcomes may be realized through critical thinking.

For example, if a key learning outcome is the development of critical writing skills, a part of which may involve a literature review, how does one encourage students to engage with and reflect upon works without merely picking an argument with the literature? Instructors may need to draw a distinction between mere criticism, opinionated "arguments," and critical thought or reflection. If students disagree with an idea, they should learn how to express that disagreement in terms that reflect at minimum the following criteria:

  • knowledge and understanding of the point(s) being disputed (i.e., the literature),
  • framing a position in relation to the debate or the points being disputed, and
  • logical and complex reasoning.

Over the years, I have worked on developing best practices around critical thinking in my classes. But time and again I am reminded that students are not served well by a “one size fits all” model. Awareness of context and a flexible and adaptive approach are related to effectiveness. In other words, the same tools don’t always work well in each classroom even if one holds all other things constant, such as the size of the class and topics being covered. Despite this realization of complexity, certain core precepts or principles of critical thinking can be consistent across a range of classroom environments or contexts and make for better learning outcomes.

Critical thinking is linked not only to instructional effectiveness but also, significantly, by institutional commitments to fostering it. In other words, faculty can be effective in promoting critical thinking in the classroom but their efforts may be for naught if there is no corresponding institutional investment in teaching such skills. Thankfully, NAU, like many institutions of higher learning is in principle committed to the promotion of critical thinking, and faculty are expected to incorporate language to that effect.

But principled commitments to the promotion of critical thinking should also be accompanied by a corresponding investment in instructors’ creative use of critical thinking tools. Since critical thinking does not easily lend itself to quantifiable or easily measurable markers of student learning and success, the assessment of whether students are developing critical thinking skills then becomes a more subjective and qualitative task. The responsibility ultimately lies with individual instructors to ensure that the pursuit of critical thinking in the classroom is not sacrificed to expediency.


References

Sheila Nair

Broom, Catherine, "From Critical Thinking to Critical Being," ENCOUNTER: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, Volume 24, Number 2 (Summer 2011): 16-27. Accessed at http://ojs.great-ideas.org/index.php/ENC/article/download/672/800

Burbules, Nicholas C. and Rupert Berk, "Critical Thinking and Critical Pedagogy: Relations, Differences, and Limits," Critical Theories in Education, Thomas S. Popkewitz and Lynn Fendler, eds. (NY: Routledge, 1999).

Richard Paul, Linda Elder, and Ted Bartell, "Study of 38 Public Universities and 28 Private Universities to Determine Faculty Emphasis on Critical Thinking in Instruction" (1997). Accessed at http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/center-for-critical-thinking/401.


—Sheila Nair, Professor of Politics and International Affairs and President's Distinguished Teaching Fellow