Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Linda Elder on Critical Thinking

I think critically, therefore I am
Linda Elder

Teaching students to read and understand a text properly is essential to their intellectual survival in a complex world, says Linda Elder

About 15 years ago, while teaching psychology, I happened upon an article on critical thinking. I had long been interested in the workings of the human mind, but I lacked the broader perspective on the mind that a rich conception of critical thinking can offer. What I knew for certain was that I was dissatisfied with my teaching. I felt I had a reasonably sound grasp of psychology, but no clear path for reaching my students. I knew that the art of questioning was an important instructional approach, and that written assignments should be an integral part of teaching. I just didn’t have the tools to serve the purpose.

Once introduced to critical thinking, my perspective broadened dramatically, as tools for developing the mind became much more vivid, accessible and concrete. By studying the theory of critical thinking and tenaciously applying it to classroom practice, I began to see more clearly how to approach content as a mode of thought, rather than as fragmented bits of information. I began to see the intimate connection between thinking and learning, to see how to intervene in thinking deliberately and constructively to deepen one’s understanding, and to interface the content of my subject with the values and motivations of students.

I also began to appreciate the difficulties in cultivating the intellect – both my own and that of students. When deeply understood, critical thinking offers a network of concepts and principles for developing the mind. There are copious effective strategies for fostering critical thinking, but developing the human intellect is a messy process. It is often confusing, both for teacher and student. It isn’t procedural. It can’t be taught through formulas. It isn’t neat and tidy. But it is deeply rewarding when we grasp its significance and begin to work it out for ourselves.

In 1980, Richard Paul, a pre-eminent authority on critical thinking, established the Center for Critical Thinking, and the same year it hosted its first international conference. Since then, the centre has worked towards the cultivation of critical societies through the reform of education. In 1990, in an open letter to educators, Paul summed up the problem that a robust conception of critical thinking addresses.

“Many college and university professors say they have little time to focus on the students’ thinking because of the need to cover content. These professors fail to see that thinking is the only means by which the mind digests content. They fail to see that undigested content is content unlearnt or mislearnt. They fail to see that all content is embedded in ideas, that ideas have logical connections, that logical connections must be thought through to be grasped… Furthermore, though this problem is ancient, the negative consequences are daily becoming more and more significant. The nature of professional and everyday life increasingly demands critical thinking. Indeed the cost of generating a growing mass of uncritical thinkers as workers and citizens is staggering… Intellectually undisciplined, narrow-minded thinking will not solve increasingly complex, multidimensional problems, let alone provide the basis for democratic decision-making.”

Critical thinking forms the heart and soul of every subject because its concepts and principles are presupposed in, and give rise to, the logic of every subject. Accordingly, teachers use critical thinking concepts in approaching their disciplines (albeit often implicitly and subconsciously). If we are to effectively address the challenges facing us as a species, and if we are ever to create truly critical societies, we need to take thinking more seriously in every part of human life, and certainly in teaching. When all is said and done, however highly we may rate our educational programmes, schools, colleges, universities and, yes, even our own classes, students are not developing the intellectual skills and character traits they need to survive in an increasingly complex world.

Thankfully, critical thinking is accessible, to some degree, to all who would enter its doors. From the beginning, the most basic principles are fairly easy to grasp. What is more, the process of translating principles into strategies is reasonably accessible.

Read it all here.

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