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Are we really committed to the idea of critical thinking?

16 September 2010
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“Which one do you want?” I asked my 3 and a half year old son as I placed the two fruit smoothies on the kitchen table. Luke approached the glasses, happy to have the choice, but unaware that I had slightly transformed our early morning breakfast ritual. For the past two weeks I had been filling two identical glasses with equal amounts of liquid. Each day he had carefully examined the contents of each glass and made his choice. Today, however, I had switched things up a little by using two new glasses, each the same height, but of different diameters. Not surprisingly, Luke chose the glass that had a higher fill line, He was satisfied with his choice, thinking that he was getting more smoothie; I was satisfied knowing that I was!

A scan of a child psychology text from my teacher education program warns me that I can probably count on just one or two more years of this type of “thinking game” with Luke before he’s on to me. While I expect that there are aspects of thinking that develop quite naturally in most people, there are other more sophisticated forms of cognition that need nurturing, attention and application if they are going to become fully functional and useful in our lives.

I’ve been musing during these waning days of summer about the type of thinking that is most often promoted in our schools. Although our professional development activities, curriculum documents, and even our lesson plans are often peppered with talk of critical thinking, I’m not convinced that our collective hearts are committed to all that this entails. After all, in most of our jurisdictions, teachers are told rather explicitly what to teach, how to teach it, and what students are expected to understand and be able to do once it has been taught. That doesn’t leave much time or space for the exploration of ideas, perspectives and alternative ways of seeing, all of  which form the foundation for  good, honest critical thinking.

So why do we, on the one hand, inscribe the value of critical thought—the desire and ability to seek what it would make sense to believe in a given situation—into our foundational teaching and learning documents, and then fail to nurture the infrastructure to support it in our schools and classrooms. A few possibilities come to mind, and I’ll very briefly outline them here.

First, it’s quite possible that a good number of us (myself included) don’t have a really clear sense of what we mean when we talk about critical thinking. Perhaps it is just one of those terms that is so used that it has lost some of its meaning and, therefore, its power.

Second, while I have met several people who are really trying to transform the learning that goes on in their classroom using the rubric of critical thinking, larger scale implementations are difficult to find and even more difficult, I would imagine, to maintain.

Third, many of us who find a home in this place we call school weren’t raised in critical thinking classrooms. Oh, we may have been exposed to programs involving time set aside each week or month to work on skills related to critical thinking, but most of us weren’t exposed to its subtleties, nuances and the real-world applications that would allow us to become proficient and confident critical thinkers. And to quote the familiar adage, “you can’t give what you don’t have!”

Finally (and this is a little more disturbing), perhaps we really don’t want to nurture a critical stance in our students. Perhaps the conversation and action to which true critical thinking can lead is best left to the edges of our communities. Perhaps we’re a little reluctant to put the powerful tools of critical thinking into the hands of the general population.

So, as a parent, I will likely continue to take advantage of and enjoy the fact that my children are just beginning to think for themselves, but the case for the type of deep, critical thinking that could transform our schools, our communities, and,  indeed our world, extends well beyond my breakfast table manipulation. It is a vision that requires serious, confident and consistent work at all levels of our educational system. We must find a way of nurturing the vision in our policy-makers, supporting it in the professional development work we do with teachers, and making it a viable and vibrant part of the lives of our students!

My role as a parent is to teach my children how to become active thinkers in the world; is my role as a teacher much different?

Lots more to chat about here, but I’ll leave you with some questions.

Where have you seen good work being done in the area of critical thinking? As an educator, what are some of the things that would encourage you to explore critical thinking more in your work with students? What are some of the things that might cause work in this area to be put on the back burner?

In York Region, I see many

In York Region, I see many strides toward critical thinking, particularly in the English departments. students are always encouraged to draw connections between novels and real life or evaluate the effectiveness of how their stories are written. These skills are excellent ways to explore cirtical thinking with students, preparing them for more successful futures. For more information on critical thinking, you can refer to the blog at Thornhill English Tutor for great tips on learning.