Like many university teachers, I have had numerous students asking me what critical thinking is, or how they can become better critical thinkers. We do workshops and lectures on this, and there is a healthy cottage industry in “teach yourself critical thinking” books. Still, in a recent survey at my institution, critical thinking came up as one of the top skills that students feel they struggle to acquire.
So we in learning development and academic skills must try harder. Or must we? As I struggled to satisfactorily answer the latest student to ask me what critical thinking was, I was suddenly minded to subject critical thinking to some…well, critical thinking. And it occurs to me that, perhaps, there is no such thing as critical thinking at all: that the concept is just a tautology.
It’s a tautology because, to my mind, thinking encapsulates being critical. Otherwise it’s not thinking. So, in a sense, you can’t teach critical thinking because it doesn’t really exist as a distinct entity.
Most sentient human beings think well enough, and our students are (mostly) no exception. They “think critically” all the time. Last term, I was standing in the queue at a college cafe (where an awful lot of my undercover ethnography is conducted), and I overheard a discussion between three newly arrived 18-year-olds on the best method of commuting to and from the nearby town. The conversation was, in effect, a cogent cost-benefit analysis of various possible forms of transport. Evidence was weighed against evidence, conclusions were drawn and a consensus was reached that the humble bicycle, would, all things considered, represent the most cost-effective form of conveyance over the longer term. Hurrah, I thought – here’s an informed exegesis to challenge our car-obsessed society: bring in the political advisers!
If these students are doing such a good job of thinking “critically”, why do they feel the need to ask me what critical thinking is? Why do they need workshops and self-help books? I think the answer is that they struggle to express their critical thinking in accordance with academic conventions. In other words, they can walk the walk but not, alas, talk the talk. This is what we need to teach them, and it means paying explicit attention to writing at university, and being prepared to talk about that writing.
As is well attested in the pedagogical literature, talking ideas through and writing them down helps to foster clear and logical thinking. Writing is a powerful tool for developing sharp arguments. Yet, in the UK at least, it is woefully underused. Unlike in the US, little overt attention has been historically dedicated to “teaching” writing; all too often, essays are written with little or no feedback between drafts, and with detailed comments given only when it is too late for students to act on them. This is both ironic and puzzling considering the sheer quantity of written work produced by the average degree student.
When undergraduates start talking about their writing, they start thinking better, often with startling results. In my own work in one-to-one writing tutorials, I know that such discussions can lead to palpable improvements, not just in a student’s writing for a particular module or course, but in their longer-term effectiveness as learners. I make sure that the student leaves with a concrete sense of how they can improve their writing. And I like to think that they thereby leave as better thinkers.
So let’s consign the term “critical thinking” to the dustbin of buzzwords and focus instead on challenging students simply to think, by providing them with gripping content and teaching them the power of effective written and oral communication. This surely is something truly transformative that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Stuart Wrigley is a teaching fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London’s Centre for the Development of Academic Skills.