Achieving critical mass

This should be the age of reason but we are failing to foster the intellectual skills that could liberate student minds. Linda Elder argues that we should embed critical thinking at the heart of the curriculum and outlines steps to emancipate the minds of a new generation

November 25, 2010

Studies show that the majority of academic faculty believe critical thinking to be of primary importance in instruction. Yet most of these same studies also show that few faculty can articulate a reasonable conception of critical thinking or show how they try to foster it in their teaching. And contrary to what many believe, there is no historical evidence to suggest that critical thinking has ever been at the heart of teaching and learning in any human society.

Almost 70 years after Edward Glaser conducted the first official study on critical thinking, we are still a long way from realising it in the typical university classroom.

Glaser argued for the importance of critical thinking in education. Critical thinking, according to him, "calls for persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends".

It requires an ability to recognise problems, to find ways to tackle those problems, to gather relevant information, "to recognise unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgements".

If we are ever to become serious about cultivating the skills of mind articulated by Glaser; if we want instructors to teach in such a way that students learn to think their way through content rather than memorise bits and pieces of information for tests; if we want students to embody traits of mind such as intellectual empathy, fair-mindedness and confidence in reason, we must explicitly place critical thinking at the heart of the curriculum.

Doubtless many teachers in many countries are doing what is in their power to foster critical thinking in their classrooms. But this is not enough. We need whole institutions to take critical thinking seriously and to support long-term professional development in it. And although critical thinking must be uniquely contextualised for any given institution and department, the Fellows of the Centre and Foundation for Critical Thinking, drawing on 30 years of experience, have found the following imperatives to be essential:

Choose a substantive conception of critical thinking

Although there are many ways to articulate such a conception, we might start with William Graham Sumner, who argued in his classic sociological text Folkways (1906) that if the habit of critical thought becomes a norm in society, it "will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators. They are slow to believe...They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other.

"They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens."

A substantive conception of critical thinking will enable students to think within the content they are learning, to see subjects and disciplines as modes of thinking to be reasoned through. It will be applicable to all human thought, target both the analysis and assessment of thought and take into account the affective as well as the cognitive dimension of thought. It will emphasise not only intellectual skills and abilities but also intellectual traits; it will draw attention to those workings of the mind that function as barriers to the development of critical thought, such as egocentric and sociocentric thought. It will integrate the creative with the critical and incorporate the ethical dimension of thought. And it will be open to contributions from any field of study as well as continual development.

What must be avoided are simplistic approaches to the development of the mind, such as "1-2-3 step" problem-solving strategies, or fragmented approaches, or approaches that cannot be applied to a full range of real-life problems and issues.

Choose a conception that is systematic, integrated, trans-disciplinary and based in intellectual but non-technical language

It is difficult to teach critical thinking in a tacit way. Therefore we need explicit tools for cultivating the intellect and promoting intellectual standards such as clarity, accuracy, relevance, sufficiency, logic, significance and fairness.

For example, we can teach students to ask relevant questions. To clarify thinking, we can ask students to elaborate a point or exemplify it. To teach students the importance of accuracy, we can ask them to check to see whether something is true. To foster reasonability in thought, we can ask students whether there is a more logical interpretation of the data. To encourage fairness, we can ask whether students have considered all relevant viewpoints in good faith.

A substantive conception of critical thinking will be systematic and integrated, and one whose underlying principles are tied together in a way that makes logical sense and which uses the full range of critical thinking principles. For instance, a framework that integrates tools for the analysis and assessment of thought with the goal of cultivating intellectual virtues and the emancipation of the mind is superior to an approach that merely offers a list of disconnected abilities applied in narrow ways.

A substantive approach will be applicable to all subjects and disciplines, and use ordinary rather than technical language. We want to avoid, for instance, approaches such as formal logic, which is sometimes wrongly taken to be critical thinking. Although formal logic is useful in, say, mathematical thought, it is not typically useful in conceptual or literary thought, or indeed most human-centred thought.

Choose a conception that fosters traits of mind, as well as intellectual abilities

Fostering intellectual skills such as gathering relevant information and making reasonable inferences is important. But our main focus should be the cultivation of intellectual virtues such as intellectual humility, intellectual integrity, intellectual empathy, intellectual courage, intellectual autonomy and fair-mindedness.

When we target intellectual traits or dispositions, we help students develop as independent thinkers, as people who routinely distinguish what they know from what they don't know, as people concerned with the ethical dimension of thought, and with living a life of integrity. When we ignore these traits while teaching intellectual skills, we unwittingly foster sophistic thinking, or the opposites of the intellectual virtues - intellectual arrogance, intellectual hypocrisy, intellectual cowardice, intellectual conformity, narrow-mindedness and the like.

Commit to the very long run

Administrators often expect faculty members to learn enough about critical thinking in a two- or three-day workshop to effectively foster it. They often assume that academics need only a few handy critical-thinking strategies to boost their teaching. Yet critical thinking - a way of approaching all problems, issues and questions - is complex; in essence it represents a virtual field of its own. It takes considerable time to gain command of its most basic foundations. A well-designed professional development programme in critical thinking entails several years of initial workshops and related activities for faculty, and a well-developed plan for sustaining critical thinking over the long run. Think 10 to 15 years ahead, not the characteristic three to five.

Most colleges and universities that take up critical thinking at an institutional level set aside a few years at the most for it, and just when critical thinking is beginning to take root, it is abandoned by administrators for some new fad or trend.

Reach for deep administrative commitment

Administrative support is not enough; an institutional climate that places critical thinking at its heart depends on administrative commitment. Initially, this commitment might come from one or two key administrators. But the commitment must be based on a substantive concept of critical thinking that becomes deeply internalised in the mind of the lead administrators. Unfortunately, too few administrators demonstrate this level of interest.

To become effective educational leaders, administrators must work their way methodically through the theory of critical thinking and apply it in their work and lives. Only then can they assent to it because only then will they grasp it. Only then will they see it as the heart of teaching and learning.

An effective professional development programme cannot be dependent on one or a few persons. It must become a defining concept for the institution.

Establish a leadership team that can move the process forward

Build a team of administrators and key faculty that can lead the process. Make sure they are in a position to positively influence the academics and other staff across the campus. Expect this team to change over time, as some drop out and some new faculty or administrators show deeper interest.

Provide ongoing faculty and staff workshops

An effective professional development programme entails providing critical thinking workshops led by experts. These workshops should be systematically conducted with a clear design in mind, and should continue throughout a five- to seven-year period, if not longer.

Due to cost, this essential element is often given short shrift. It seems clear, however, that if we can spend millions of pounds each year on extracurricular programmes, such as athletics, we can find a way to fund professional development programmes focused on cultivating intellectual skills and traits.

Fund the programme

Early in the process, a budget should be established to fund the programme, which should include costs for the critical thinking workshops, critical thinking materials (books, videos, etc) and release time for the leadership team. It may be necessary to identify grant possibilities.

Be inclusive

One potential danger is the appearance that those heading up the professional development programme are an elite group. When this happens, the rest of the faculty may define themselves in opposition. Therefore, the professional development programme should be, from the beginning, as inclusive as possible. It should encourage and challenge, but not threaten or invalidate.

Tie assessment to critical thinking

Students and faculty are assessed as never before throughout all of higher education. But do today's pervasive assessment tools evaluate the extent to which students are learning to think their way through content? Do they assess the extent to which students are learning to reason within alternative viewpoints empathically and represent them accurately? Do they assess the extent to which students are able to draw important conceptual distinctions? Do they evaluate the extent to which faculty foster these and other essential intellectual skills, abilities and traits?

For the most part, unfortunately, the answer is "no". But this need not be the case. When we focus assessment processes on a substantive conception of critical thinking, faculty are more likely to foster it and students are more likely to learn it.

The cultivation of critical societies, as envisioned by William Graham Sumner in 1906, is perhaps possible. At present we are a long way from this ideal, although there is growing recognition of its importance. But if we are ever to create such societies on a broad scale, the cultures within which schools, colleges and universities function will need both to grasp the idea of critical thinking and to value it. And education will need to take a leading role in cultivating critical thinking abilities and traits. What, after all, is the purpose of education if not to emancipate the mind through critical thought?

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