Teaching students to think for themselves is not enough

The critical thinking ideal is too individualistic and self-focused − students must learn to help others think well, too, says T. Ryan Byerly

T. Ryan Byerly's avatar
29 April 2021
Sharing knowledge and becoming 'intellectually dependable' are intertwined and should be placed at the forefront of education
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What should we aim for, as university instructors, when it comes to the intellectual development of our students? The reigning view in the philosophy of education is that we should aim for critical thinking. We must teach our students to think for themselves, to retrieve and evaluate various kinds of evidence − and to do so with a spirit for enquiry that prizes getting to the truth and achieving understanding.

If this is our goal, we might think that the past year has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity. Students who have succeeded in their education despite switching to an unfamiliar online format and dealing with persistent uncertainties have had their critical-thinking mettle tested and have had to display greater independence and perseverance than many previous year groups.

Yet I would suggest that the critical-thinking ideal is an incomplete one, and its incompleteness is highlighted by the predicament we’ve faced. The problem with the critical-thinking ideal is that it’s too individualistic and self-focused. Students need not only learn to think well for themselves, you see − they need to learn to help others think well, too. They need to become people who genuinely want others to gain understanding and who are skilled at helping others achieve this goal.

It is this social aspect that has proved especially difficult for instructors to foster during the pandemic. Students watch recorded lectures in privacy at their leisure. They keep their cameras and microphones off during seminars – dedicated times when they are supposed to be critically engaging alongside their peers. They miss out on informally discussing class readings over a beer.

It’s not that students can’t be taught to be intellectually dependable via online learning. I’m optimistic that they can be, and in fact the online medium has made possible unique opportunities for collaborative learning. Rather, what I want to highlight is that there’s much to gain from educating for intellectual dependability and not just critical thinking, whether it’s done online or in person.

There are distinct aims to convey if students are to become intellectually dependable. They need to be taught to genuinely value it when others gain knowledge, and not just when they “win” an argument; to communicate their perspectives precisely and accurately, and not just in a way that will convey a good impression; to fit their communications to the needs and abilities of their audiences, though not in a manipulative way; to be patient and appreciate the complexities of others’ intellectual situations, so they can offer wise advice and not be overeager to step in with a quick “fix”.

When students are taught these virtues of intellectual dependability, the pay-offs are plentiful.

First, intellectually dependable people make better friends. They are more capable of disclosing aspects of themselves transparently, and they are more capable of offering the kind of sound and patient advice people depend on friends to give. So, when we develop students’ intellectual dependability, we enhance their capacities for flourishing in close relationships, increasing their social capital.

Second, teaching students to be intellectually dependable is important if at least some of them are to go on to research or teach the subjects they’re learning about. High-profile cases of fudged and falsified research have highlighted how the absence of intellectual dependability is a cancer for research integrity. It’s even worse when a student’s intellectual development is arrested by an undependable teacher. We train students better as our apprentices by teaching them to be intellectually dependable.

Third, being intellectually dependable is vital for any kind of intellectual cooperation. Whether it’s in the workforce, in volunteer work or even as part of democratic deliberation, intellectual dependability is a boon for group intellectual performance. In fact, the absence of intellectual dependability in these domains has been a major problem in recent years.

In the workplace, tens of billions of dollars are lost every year because employees hide or withhold their knowledge. Fake news swirls on social media, undermining our democratic capabilities. All this goes to show that the kind of person you want on your team when you have a complex task is an intellectually dependable one.

Finally, and somewhat ironically, teaching students to be intellectually dependable also promotes their critical thinking. As John Dewey observed, students learn to think for themselves by thinking together with others. It is the thought they observe in public interaction that they learn to repeat in private reflection. Thus, if the instructors and peers they learn to think with aren’t intellectually dependable, the thinking students will learn to do on their own won’t be very good.

The pandemic and shift online have provided us with a test case for the critical-thinking ideal. If all we want is for students to learn how to think for themselves, the students coasting by in isolation may receive high marks. But there are good reasons to want more for our students, to want them to be intellectually dependable. We may be able to achieve that both online and face to face but, in either case, it will require a deliberate effort and a revisioning of our highest ideals as educators.

T. Ryan Byerly is a senior lecturer in the department of philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

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