On Critical Thinking


When was the last time you thought about critical thinking? I know as a graduate student, I strive to think critically about my work and that of others, but I don’t often take the time to think about what “critical thinking” actually means. Thinking about the qualities of critical thinking is how Phil Edwards, an instructional consultant at the UNC Center for Faculty Excellence, started a teaching workshop sponsored by the UNC Geography Department that I was able to attend last week.

We started by breaking down the term “critical thinking,” with Phil asking participants of the workshop what qualities we could identify in the performance of a student thinking critically. Answers included contextual awareness, the ability to give support and counter-arguments for a stance, and the ability to identify assumptions in a given argument. Phil finished this exercise by listing the four things that happen when we think critically as defined by Stephen Brookfield in his 2012 book Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions:

  1. Hunting assumptions
  2. Checking assumptions
  3. Seeing things from different viewpoints
  4. Taking informed action

With our ideas pretty in line with those put forth by Brookfield, we were then asked to give examples from courses of how students demonstrate abilities to think critically. I was really impressed with the ideas of my peers and how they have challenged their students to do more than just memorize facts. Some had their students read current news from different outlets to look for differences in perspectives on the same topic. Others had taught their students analytical tools throughout a course and assigned a final project in which they had to apply those tools to a question of interest.

Phil proceeded to show us a figure of a model of how scientific knowledge is produced, circulated, and applied. The full model contained the entities doing each activity…for example, academics producing knowledge, and educators circulating knowledge. He then presented us with the same model, except he had pulled all of the entities off the model, and instead put them in a word bank. After having us discuss where in the model we thought each entity belonged, Phil demonstrated the quality of conversation and learning that can accompany such an activity. Instead of memorizing where all the players belonged, we came up with our own assignments and more importantly, reasoning behind them. Of course, we want students to understand terms correctly, but I think exercises such as this challenge students to provide their own thoughts and support for a concept.

We ended the workshop by working through ideas of our own. Phil gave us a list of teaching methods that could help students think critically, such as a categorizing grid or a concept map, and gave us time to talk through our ideas with those around us. He did urge us to not let a fascination of an innovative teaching tool or method make us lose sight of the purpose of these tools–to have our students come to a comprehensive understanding of the material. With that in mind, I tried to think about what methods might work to teach about population growth, a topic I had guest lectured on in an ecology and evolution course last semester. I think a great way to end a topic like this within a course that gives an overview of some of the many topics within ecology could be with a model like the one above. Students could take into consideration how different things like predation, competition, or nutrient availability might affect population growth. Of course, I didn’t come up with a whole lesson plan in the final 15 minutes of this workshop, but I am excited to continue developing methods to get students thinking critically about ecology.

Further Reading:

Brookfield, Stephen D. Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012.



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