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Would Teaching “Critical Thinking” Help Both Students and Politicians?

Critical thinking: good for students and politicians

Would Teaching "Critical Thinking" Help Both Students and Politicians?

Obama Boehner

The current political climate in America highlights the need for a stronger emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving in American schools. Wouldn't our political culture be more civil if we were taught to examine competing ideas and work together toward solutions? Might our students be better prepared to find their way in a changing and unpredictable economy if they were taught to be creative thinkers, cooperative group members and problem-solvers? What about politicians?

Leading edge educators like Dr. Charles Temple and the Critical Thinking International (CTI) group are showing how young people can be psychologically healthier if they are taught to be less intellectually passive and to have a stronger sense of their own agency. Charlie, my friend and colleague for thirty years and today's guest blogger, shares success stories from teachers around the globe and valuable tips for teaching critical thinking in schools. Readers may also find some advice for politicians about thinking grounded in intellectual integrity and fair-mindedness. Let's hear from Dr. Temple:

Lifting the Political and Economic Fog-Seeing Two Sides of an Issue

By guest blogger, Dr. Charles Temple

Charles Temple jpeg

Fifteen years ago the Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking Project (RWCT), which I co-founded with three friends, two professional organizations, and 30 more volunteers, sent trainers to Eastern Europe to work with teachers. The assignment? To promote critical thinking. In the mid-1990's people in Eastern Europe lived in a political and economic fog between the communist era that had ended almost without warning and the new state of affairs that was slow to come into focus. During an RWCT workshop in a southern Balkan country in 1997, teachers considered a controversial issue and then were asked to list reasons to support positions on both sides of it before reaching a consensus response. A group of men finished early. "Why so soon?" they were asked. Their response was shocking:

"Simple. There are no reasons on the other side." Fists banged the table.

We were dealing with people who truly believed there was only one side to an issue.

Elsewhere in the region, we asked teachers why training in critical thinking was important to them. One truly recognized the RWCT agenda:

"Because we don't want to keep passing on this dictatorship of 'I have the right answer and you must learn it' that we were raised with."

Learning to Think For Oneself

In a village school in the Tatra Mountains, a fourth grade teacher had her students working in groups to tease out positions on an issue, then going to opposite side of the room and debating each other-with some of them playfully moving to the other side when they heard an especially persuasive argument. Asked to explain why she decided to teach this way, the teacher gave a long and thoughtful answer:

"After the collapse of the communist system, the brief moment of euphoria was followed by anxious uncertainty: if nobody was planning the economy, how would teachers prepare students for life? How would students know what to do so they would have a job, a place to live, a role in society, food on the table? Then a high school student was invited for a year's study in England, and when the girl returned, I remember her being asked: "How do they do it in the West? How do they prepare themselves for an unpredictable future?" The girl's response was "They learn to think for themselves." When I heard this from a high school student, I knew the direction in which I wanted my own teaching to change.

Fourth-grade Teacher, Tatra Mountains, Slovakia

From Victim to Problem Solver

More recently, critical thinking came up as a remedy in a very different context: a West African country just emerging from a genocidal civil war. Our partners at that RWCT location specialized in teaching children in post-conflict areas, children who had been traumatized by the atrocities of village-to-village fighting in which civilians-often families-were the targets. They had found that children could benefit from teaching that helped them think critically, and they asked us to help. It was not just the ends of critical thinking they were after, but the instruction that encouraged it. They wanted children to interact with each other as they thought deeply about interesting ideas. They wanted children to feel free to talk about things that were important to them and have someone listen and respond, because in these ways children might rediscover a sense of connection to others. They wanted children to become problems-solvers, because problem-solvers feel they are not just victims but have some control over their lives.

Critical Thinking in Far-Flung Places

Many activities fly under the banner of "critical thinking." Since our first trips to Eastern Europe fifteen years ago the Reading and Writing for Critical Thinking project has fielded volunteer teacher trainers to promote critical thinking in primary and secondary schools and universities in forty countries on five continents. In so many different places-from high Andes Mountains to old European cities to the African bush to the Burmese border-we have come to use a broad conception of critical thinking. Our conception has five defining features, best articulated by volunteer trainer David Klooster (2001) of Hope College in Michigan:

  • Critical thinking is independent thinking. When critical thinking is encouraged in a classroom, inquiries raise open questions with more than one possible answer, and students are expected to take their own perspectives and make their own interpretations.
  • Information is the starting point for critical thinking, not the end point. Classrooms should be intellectually rich places that expose students to interesting ideas to think about.
  • Critical thinking begins with questions, with problems to be solved. The material is presented to students with invitations to inquire, interpret, synthesize, apply, and invent, and not simply to learn and recall. Learning takes place when knowledge is used.
  • Critical thinking seeks reasoned arguments. Simply put, teachers invite students to make claims (or offer interpretations, or venture solutions to problems), support those claims with reasons, and base the reasons on evidence.
  • Critical thinking is social thinking. The philosopher Karl Popper argued that the truth comes not from philosopher kings, but from open societies where ideas can freely be tested against each other. Here, then, is a place where good philosophy and good pedagogy come together, because classrooms are more interesting places when students can take different perspectives and ideas can compete. At its best, social and critical thinking often seek the betterment of society.

A host of teaching strategies flow from these statements. Many can be gleaned from Teaching and Learning Strategies for the Thinking Classroom (Crawford, et. al., 2005). The RWCT project has found the following strategies to be effective. Maybe we should share these with our current politicians:

  • Encourage debate.
  • Ask deep and engaging questions.
  • Encourage cooperative learning.
  • Use diagrams and graphic organizers for complex ideas.
  • Role play-then switch roles.
  • Incorporate "writing to learn." (Have students write about topics creates deeper understanding.)
  • Learn the value of compromise.

Charles Temple, PhD, is Professor of Education at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York USA (www.hws.edu), and a director of Critical Thinking International (www.criticalthinkinginternational.org). He volunteers on teacher education projects in Liberia and Sierra Leone for CODE (www.Codecan.org) and in Zambia for the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (www.osisa.org).

References
Crawford, A., W. Saul, S. Mathews, and J. MaKinster (2005). Teaching and Learning Strategies for the Thinking Classroom. International Debate Education Association.
Klooster, D.(2001). What is Critical Thinking? Thinking Classroom/Peremena Spring 2001 (4): 36-40.

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