Saturday, January 8, 2011

Critical of thinking

Wikipedia photo of Rodin sculpture

I teach a good deal of critical thinking.

Which is to say, I am responsible for teaching a lot of classes in which critical thinking, as generally defined in academia, is the primary outcome, and so, if I'm a responsible academic and teacher, my students' abilities in critical thought at the end of the class should be measurably greater than they were at the beginning.

This is a fairly tall order, given the natural tendencies of the average American college student, indeed of any young person, and given the difficulty of measuring the quality of thought.

Take the first of these: If I consider my own life, I'm not sure I stopped to think until I was around, oh, 35 years old, or so, and my level of testosterone poisoning had eased somewhat.

I was more of a perpetual motion machine than a critical thinker at that age.

I was in the military and so my perpetual motion was channeled in ways that were more or less useful to society, so this wasn't a great problem. But that was what I was like. Always hiking, always on the move, up hill, down dale.

I generally teach at the junior and senior level, and these days I have more women in my classes than men, so the natural tendency for my students to be in motion rather than thought is reduced a little, but still, thinking, per se, is not quite what students, what young people, are about, not at core, is it?

And measuring improvement in critical thinking is probably possible, but difficult. Especially when you are busy enough trying to teach it.

Besides, how can you teach what is actually a fairly rare habit of mind, even among older adults? Let's just fess up to it. Faced with a new problem, most people don't actually think their way out. It would be nice if we did. Politics would be transformed, for starters.

But unless you're a habitual and well-trained critical thinker, the average person's response to a new problem is to try again whatever worked with old problems, not to think, not hardly at all. The main reason, I think, is that we carry around with us a lot of very powerful mental models of the social or other context in which problems occur, and we tend not to be able to question those models and that context very well, and so we take the new problem and force-fit it into the context of old problems we know and love, and so fail to see that it's a new problem at all.

Context, especially social context, is deeply rooted in the psyche. Static ideas about context are easier to handle, psychologically, than shifting ones. It's very hard for people to re-adjust their ideas of how the world works around them without encountering existential doubt, which doubt can be fairly crippling in all kinds of difficult ways. Asking adults to reconsider and re-frame their ideas of how the world works is difficult enough. Asking teenagers, or youths just leaving the teenage years, who have just spent several years testing out and trying on personality traits that are independent of their parents, and are still trying and testing as they come to your class...

...well, like I said, it's a tall order.

If we were smarter as a society we'd acknowledge this and delay college until students are in their thirties or forties. Those few students I get that are this age are generally wonderful to teach.

A well-trained, well-practiced critical thinker, faced with a new problem, should be able to frame the the problem into its context carefully and if necessarily differently, perhaps even changing the context, and see that the problem is in fact new and different, without experiencing any of this self-doubt and worry about identity.

But that ability really only comes with improving social, psychological and mental stability, which, I tend to think, only comes with age.


But with advancing age comes stability, possibly complacency, and in many cases even though a person may be more secure in their identity, they are less likely to want to deeply rethink context that might then require them to reappraise and, heaven forbid, change, that identity.



How do we get out of this?

I think the tendency or habit to frequently and consistently re-frame context can be taught by practice. Possibly the best kinds of initial practice include those kinds of experiences in which we have to re-frame context just because, like traveling to another country. And I don't mean cruise-line, mainstream hotel-type traveling. I mean real, down and dirty, mixing with the natives traveling.

I like travel courses for this reason. Taking students to a different country, which I've done several times in my teaching career, can be very effective, and in my experience you see a very great improvement in critical thinking abilities among nearly all students who travel with you. In a different country it's obvious that the context has changed, and only the dullest of students is unaffected by this. A little de-briefing, some encounter-group type activities during and at the end of the trip, and you can get students to talk about what they see and hear and give them practice in context and re-framing.

I've had students come up to me weeks and months after a travel course with a question or problem they first encountered on the course, and you can see they've been cogitating and reflecting on it ever since. And reflection, the experts tell us, is key to critical thinking.

If you can't go to another country, you can go to a different social setting or context within the country you're in. Field trips, conference attendance, internships, volunteering, alternative spring breaks, all of these are very good, and I like to get my advisees and mentees turned on to these opportunities as soon as possible.

But how can you do any of this in a regular classroom, in a regular, three-times-a-week, fifty minute lecture class?

First up, let me say I hate the fifty-minute, lecture-class format with a vengeance. It seems to me to be the perfect excuse for lazy professors to have nice lazy professorial lives, going from class to class, looking busy, while at the same time being as perfectly well stuck in that context as any of their charges are stuck in their dorm-room, just-out-of-high-school mentality. It's the academic equivalent of walking around the base with a clipboard.

(If you want to have an easy time in the military, you wear a clean, pressed uniform and clean shiny shoes, keep a short haircut, and stroll around the base with a clipboard. No-one ever asks a soldier with a clipboard what he's doing, as long as the soldier is well-enough turned out so as not to attract attention.)

So I do everything I can not to get stuck in fifty-minute lectures. And Unity College is especially good at affording me these kinds of opportunities. If I taught at East Overshoe State, I'd have pretty much nothing but fifty-minute classes and hardly every get to go on a field trip or to a conference with students, let alone on an overseas trip.

But like most academics, I can't change everything about college, and a lot of teachers prefer the fifty minute class, and it is useful for some topics and some kinds of students, like first-year science lectures, for instance, where students can't handle the complexity of what is taught if classes are very much longer, but this means that that the rest of us have to fit in with this, and just because, and before you know it, the whole schedule is pretty much nothing but fifty-minute lecture classes.

So much for critical thinking in academia...

So you do what you can in fifty minutes. Striking images and movies that help jar students out of the context they're in work well sometimes. The Internet has transformed my classroom because there is so much of this kind of good material available. You can virtually travel to any place or any setting in the world on the Internet.

Getting students to move around the classroom and do different work in different groups works well, since this changes the context a little, especially if some of the people in the class are new to some of the other people. Although the slowest students will just sit there in any group and let the others do the work.

Asking provocative Socratic questions works very well, especially if they're slightly uncomfortable questions that push the boundaries of the students' social context. You need a sense of humor to pull this off, and sometimes it backfires, but if you can ask edgy questions without getting students too uncomfortable, and keep them on edge just long enough, you can begin to get them thinking.

It's a little insecure personally to do this, especially if the students are in majors where they take most of their classes with faculty who don't challenge them with these kinds of awkward, hard-minded questions.

The soft-cushion majors.

These students will give you bad evaluations if you keep them on edge like this for any length of time. But the science majors, and we have mostly science majors at Unity College, are usually more welcoming of being made to think, as are the better students in any of the liberal studies majors.

It's the c-plus and b-minus students in the easier, mostly professionally-oriented programs, the ones that are just there to get a nice middle-class job in Blah Management, and are willing to admit it, that will react most poorly to being made to think by a provocative teacher.

Sometimes, when I'm standing in line at the DMV watching how badly the system works, or when I encounter some item of bureaucratic nonsense in the news, I get to thinking that these are the kinds of students who need to be made to think the most.

After all, society is run, at least at the middling level, by former b-minus students in Blah Management, isn't it?

How can we get them thinking better?

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