Contents pages for: <--Previous Course | All courses | the Next Course-->

Critical Thinking

(CCT601, Sp 99[taught with A. Millman], F15, F17)


Initial Goals
This is a required CCT course and is also taken by many M.Ed. and doctoral students as an elective in critical and creative thinking. I had not taught a course like this and expected this would be an opportunity for me to learn from my co-teacher approaches to critical thinking established in philosophy and, to a lesser extent, in psychology. I expected to insert only one or two new classes based on my personal approach to critical thinking, which is to place established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives so one can see how things could be otherwise. However, my interest in students learning through activities, not only through discussion, led me to invent activities for many of the classes, especially when I discovered I was familiar from other contexts with the author or their themes. Arthur Millman was willing to try out other changes I suggested for the course, such the "revise and resubmit" assessment system, the manifesto assignment, the critical incident questionnaires, think-pieces extracted from students's journal, and the "Notes on teaching/learning interactions" I had prepared after teaching the fall courses.

As a result of our pre-semester discussions, we defined the following overall goals, which had not been expressed in quite this way before. We wanted course participants to:
1. appreciate and reflect on the range of views on critical thinking, contrasts and tensions among those views, and the evolution of the field toward increasing attention to the social context in which thinking takes place;
2. work new views, skills, and model lessons/group activities into practices of thinking, learning, teaching critical thinking to others, and finding support for change (see 3);
3. develop support to understand 1 and sustain 2 beyond this course, especially the support that derives from having active conversants, appreciative listeners, and dialoguing around written work.

Challenges and Responses
Early on some students raised their misgivings about working in small groups--could they trust others; was this an exercise in "mutually shared ignorance? Some students wanted the class to be smaller so they could have more direct interaction with the professors and whole class discussions. Cutting the class size was not an option and in "whole class discussions," of which we had some, fewer voices are heard. Instead, I reviewed other people's guidelines for small group discussions and developed ones for the course based around four roles (facilitator, initiator, timer, and reporter). These roles were not always well followed. In the future, we should model and give explicit training at the start of the semester.

As the course developed, however, listening became a significant theme. Classes 7, 8, 9 and 11, which introduced various approaches to listening, were very popular. During this phase of the course students who had been quiet or lacked confidence in their ability to think critically started to articulate connections between critical thinking and their work as teachers and professionals. On an intellectual level, it appeared that listening well allows one better to tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind there is little motivation to question the support for one own view, and to follow critical thinking dictates to examine evidence, hidden assumptions and logic.

Dialogue also became a recurrent theme of the course. Several times Arthur Millman and I exposed and explored different perespectives through dialogue in front of the class. Some students were disconcerted by our apparent differences; others valued them. More generally, we noticed that some students wanted us to provide clear definitions of and procedures for critical thinking and for particular assignments and activities, while others were more comfortable grappling with the tensions among different approaches. We responded at times to anxieties by preparing mini-lectures and handouts, but we also persisted in conducting activities and promoting journaling through which students might develop their own working approaches to critical thinking. This tension was most evident around the manifesto assignment, which asked for a "synthesis of elements from the course selected and organized so as to inspire and inform your efforts in extending critical thinking beyond the course." This was a new assignment so we could not provide examples from previous classes. I responded to students queries about the assignment by distributing my draft manifesto. Eventually, however, almost all the students had become confident enough to compose their own, often quite personal, syntheses. In future years, we will be able both to provide examples and to convince students that they'll see how they want to compose their manifesto by the time it is due at the end of the semester.

In the class on remodeling lesson plans, we reviewed the first class of the course. This helped me to articulate the primary message of a story and demonstration I had presented, namely, that the development of critical thinking is like a journey. I went on to use this metaphor in a faculty development workshop last June, and would do so in future offerings of this course. It corresponds well to the three goals we defined for the course (see above) and would allow us to further develop the intra- and inter-personal dimensions that have been insufficiently explored in critical thinking texts and courses.

Several other items to address emerged during the course and from the course evaluations. These are summarized in my "to do" list.

Future Plans
Unfortunately, scheduling considerations may mean that I will not teach this course again in the next few years. In the meantime, however, I am collecting material on current controversies to develop into critical thinking activities and am looking for opportunities to synthesize and publish something about the role of listening, dialogue, intra-personal reflection, and the journey metaphor in fostering critical thinking.
(9/15) The course is being reworked to bring up to date, to accommodate students from a distance as well as face-to-face students, and to highlight the role of "indirect" approaches to critical thinking (in contrast to the traditional direct approach of teaching thinking).
The course format will have two strands:
1) 4-week "collaborative explorations" (CEs), a variant of project-based learning that begin from a scenario or case in which the issues are real but the problems are not well defined, which leads participants to shape their own directions of inquiry and develop their skills as investigators and teachers. The CE format is designed to allow each student to:
a) undertake intensive reading in the area of critical thinking, with students sharing annotated bibliography entries from which others can learn;
b) shape a path and final products for each CE that link closely with their personal interests; and
c) see themselves as contributors to ongoing development of the field through sharing of their products.
2) activities each week for students to experience themes and tools related to fostering critical thinking in themselves and others, with special attention to Causality, Complexity, and Context. Plus-Delta feedback at end of most activities fosters the formation of insights about one's thinking as well as future improvements of the activity for future offerings of the course.
I hope that the experience teaching the course in this admittedly experimental format will help me clarify his dissatisfaction with the received views about the "teaching of thinking."
This 53-minute video describes a proposal for a new graduate-level course on Critical Thinking (based on the rethinking done during the Fall 2015 semester).
The syllabus has been revised, with many new activities, in line with the video, that is, to extend the emphasis on indirect ways--in contrast to direct instruction--to foster critical thinking. The parallel strands of 4-week "Collaborative explorations" (a form of Project-Based Learning) and activities for each session is preserved.
(8/18) Based on my experience in Fall 2017, when I teach this next (Fall 2019?) I would use the same structure.

Contents pages for: <--Previous Course | this Course | All courses | the Next Course-->