It's now no longer critical and nor is it thinking

September 24, 2004

There are some things that can't be reduced to measurable skills, argues Frank Furedi

Rather unexpectedly, I become weary when I hear someone promoting the virtues of critical thinking. My reaction is prompted by the realisation that the term has been turned into an empty formula that has little to do with being genuinely critical and even less with thinking.

It's bad enough when we use the term rhetorically. What's worse is when critical thinking is routinely inserted into the aims and objectives of every course outline and benchmark description. The demand for its inclusion indicates that the term has become an integral part of the vocabulary of higher education audit-speak.

Predictably, the auditing imperative has transformed critical thinking into a skill. It has become a learning outcome that can be assessed and even measured. According to one definition, this skill is "the disciplined ability and willingness to assess evidence and claims, to seek a breadth of contradicting as well as confirming information, to make objective judgements on the basis of well-supported reasons as a guide to belief and action, and to monitor one's thinking while doing so". Quite a skill. Few can object to the aspiration for students to be more reflective in their logical thought. But the ability to evaluate and reason with objectivity is neither a skill nor necessarily a form of critical thinking, and it should not be reduced to a learning outcome.

I take the view that critical thinking stands directly opposed to conformist thought. It involves an openness to new ideas, a genuine commitment to free thinking and an ability to question what passes for the norm. It is not a skill like riding a bicycle, which one learns and then possesses for all time. Rather it is a disposition that grips the mind in certain circumstances. People I know who are critical thinkers have the odd good days when they are genuinely able to think critically and also many off-days when the ability to question evades their imagination. Thinking critically is an exhausting enterprise, and only those who are experts in the invention of learning outcomes could imagine that it is a skill.

Learning outcomes communicate expectations of what a student should acquire as a result of an educational experience. The acquisition of such outcomes is what they need to do if they are to conform to the expectations of the course objectives. In other words, "you will have critical thinking skills" if you want to succeed in this course. However, the demand to conform to a pre-given set of outcomes is unlikely to help breed a new generation of critical thinkers. It will merely lead to an extravagant use of the word "critical" in assessments and to the adoption of a rhetoric that is consistent with the expectations of course conveners. Use words such as "reflexivity" and "reflection" and you are likely to score well in the soon-to-be-devised multiple choice test on critical thinking. "People ask for criticism but they only want praise," noted Somerset Maugham. In the same vein, the learning outcome experts demand critical thinking, but what they really want is conformist rhetoric.

In the real world, students are far more likely to learn to think critically by engaging with their experience of everyday life or by becoming passionate about a book or a subject than by scrupulously attempting to achieve learning outcomes. Most students who attempt to think critically have reacted against some of the practices that prevail in their institutions and often against their lecturers. That is why lecturers who are genuinely interested in encouraging an atmosphere of intellectual experimentation will try to liberate their classroom from the tyranny of anticipated outcomes by encouraging open-ended discussion. Predictable and measurable outcomes have no place in an intellectually engaged environment.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, Kent University.

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