Teaching for Critical Thinking

Teaching for Critical Thinking

Stephen Brookfield (University of St. Thomas, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0929-5.ch001

Abstract

This article reviews the core process of critical thinking – hunting assumptions – and explains how this process differs according to the context of what is being taught and the different intellectual traditions that inform teachers' own backgrounds. It outlines a basic protocol of critical thinking as a learning process that focuses on uncovering and checking assumptions, exploring alternative perspectives, and taking informed actions as a result. Three different categories of assumptions – paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal – are defined, and the teaching methods and approaches that most help students to think critically are explored. The article examines in detail the fact that critical thinking is best experienced as a social learning process, and how important it is for teachers to model the process for students.
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Introduction

In this article I review the core process of critical thinking – hunting assumptions – and I try to explain how this process differs according to the context of what is being taught and the different intellectual traditions that inform teachers’ own backgrounds. I outline a basic protocol of critical thinking as a learning process that focuses on uncovering and checking assumptions, exploring alternative perspectives, and taking informed actions as a result. I explain three different categories of assumptions – paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal – and I argue that assumptions are rarely universally right or wrong, but that they are more or less contextually appropriate.

One of the problems in holding conversations with colleagues about how to get students to think more critically, is that different conceptions of what critical thinking looks like are held by teachers in different disciplines. I explore four different interpretations of this idea framed by, in turn, analytic philosophy and logic, the hypothetical-deductive method in the natural sciences, pragmatism, and critical theory. Where possible, I try to show connections between these traditions, and to argue that aspects of the basic protocol outlined earlier can be found in all of them.

I then turn my attention to a crucial question: what do students say are the teaching methods and approaches that most help them learn to think critically? Two of these I examine in detail are:

  • 1.

    That critical thinking is best experienced as a social learning process, and

  • 2.

    That it is important for teachers to model the process for students.

I explore teaching approaches suggested by these insights and suggest some specific exercises. My objectives for this article are that readers will be able to apply the critical thinking protocol I advance to a number of classroom contexts, and that they will be able to design a sequence of activities to help students think more critically about ideas and actions.

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Background

Although I use the term critical thinking to refer to the general process of hunting and checking assumptions it is not an unequivocal concept, understood in the same way by all who speak or write the term. In fact it is a contested idea. How the term is used reflects the ideology of the user and her disciplinary background. In fact there are at least four distinct intellectual traditions shaping understandings of critical thinking and these differ substantially, perhaps explaining why so many efforts to teach critical thinking across the curriculum fail so dismally. In rough order of their prominence in the discourse of critical thinking these traditions are:

  • 1.

    Analytic philosophy and logic,

  • 2.

    Natural science,

  • 3.

    Pragmatism, and

  • 4.

    Critical theory.

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