An education term that’s often used, rarely explored

graph-crashFacilitators use it in workshops.  Job candidates say it during interviews.  Administrators use it in meetings.  Students even mention it in their course evaluations.  When I heard the words “critical thinking” (click here for a definition) again this week during a workshop, some important questions echoed in my mind: What does it really mean in this context?  Why don’t people share concrete examples to illustrate the concept?  Practitioners should be able to do that.  As I reflect upon my career, I can’t recall the last time someone explained what they meant when they said it.  This is as ironic as it is troubling to me.

So, I propose that we avoid using the term because it has become empty shorthand.  While that might sound a bit drastic, we need to change direction.  Our focus should be on sharing specific lessons or components of lessons with our colleagues as part of a best practices discussion.  Examples matter.  How did we lose sight of this?  Conversations about our craft should generate new ideas that contribute to professional growth.  The more ideas that you’re exposed to, the more opportunities you have to innovate as your methods continue to evolve.

In the courses I teach, I ask my students to do the following:

  • Interpret primary source materials such as documents, speeches, interviews, and political cartoons;
  • Assess the arguments and evidence in secondary materials such as articles and books;
  • Offer potential explanations for specific survey data figures in tables and graphs;
  • Differentiate between work that seeks to advance knowledge and work that seeks to advance an ideological position;
  • Distinguish between facts and opinions;
  • Detect an author’s tone and bias;
  • Examine footnotes (or endnotes) and references.

I’m trying to help them develop specific skills that have applications outside of the classroom.  For example, when a candidate for public office makes a claim on the campaign trail or in a debate, our students should be prepared to deconstruct it to determine its validity (e.g. conduct a simple ‘fact check’ using credible sources such as a trusted newspaper of record or watchdog site).  They should also be aware of how their own internal biases (e.g. personal likes and dislikes, ideology) influence their perceptions and behavior.  We hope that individuals make informed decisions in the voting booth, but when people lack certain skills they’re operating without meaningful tools to navigate the political process.  Now, I teach government courses, but my point applies to every discipline in the social sciences.

Consequently, I challenge educators to forget the aforementioned term and move right to examples that demonstrate what they’re asking their students to do and why.  This helps us build our curriculum and helps students learn better.  Perhaps consulting the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy might be useful. That’s where I start whenever I’m developing assignments.  It all begins with an idea that could be totally original or slightly adapted from somewhere else.  Which level of the taxonomy do you want to focus on (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create), and where do you want to go from there?  You see, the more you do that, the more you grow because you’re exploring the depths of teaching as you sort through content and fine tune your approach.

Click here for image source.

%d bloggers like this: