Critical Thinking: This One’s Tricky

Ann M. Pearson

Interestingly, I thought, just as I was about to sketch out some notes for this blog entry about critical thinking, the Pavlovian bell chimed on my email, to which I obediently directed my attention, and the message was asking me to take a quiz on Critical Thinking. Ooh—how convenient, my procrastinating angel whispered in one ear as my task-oriented angel rolled her eyes from my other shoulder. I happily clicked down two levels into the site, but I stopped short of actually taking the quiz because I would have had to provide my email and name, and I know from well-honed experience that would provide enough exposure to have ads for this company now flood all my other computer applications. I was rather proud of my critical thinking skills in this situation.

But as with imparting the nuances of social etiquette, I struggle with the challenges of teaching these critical thinking skills to adults in a college classroom in addition to all the tacit requirements of our specific disciplines. I can model, explain, and facilitate, but thinking is individual and must be relevant to the thinker.

Pick up any critique of higher education today and you’ll find some reference to critical thinking, typically along the lines of “kids just can’t think these days” or “I wish they’d teach them how to be critical thinkers.” On both counts, critics have determined that college students aren’t thinkers and that faculty aren’t doing anything about it. I beg to differ.

Our students do think—about a lot of topics—all the time—even if they don’t always choose to exhibit their thinking process in traditional ways (i.e., the way we do). Students make critical decisions daily, from how to plan their work schedule around classes to the best way to maximize their limited study time to, yes, how to make it to the next level on an interactive game, but that is thinking. What may appear to be a gross lack of critical thinking may actually be the lesser of two evils, or exhaustion, or a combination of the two.

Likewise, faculty do offer students plenty of opportunities to think in and out of class, but students are not experts in the disciplines they are exploring in college—yet. They are novice learners. The apprenticeship model is an excellent metaphor for the faculty/student bond that couches critical thinking in a series of increasingly difficult but achievable challenges over an extended period of time. Under the watchful supervision of a master artisan, students take on more and more responsibility for their own work with the ultimate goal being autonomy with little if any reliance on the master. Faculty repeatedly present knowledge-based problems and situations for students to think about and analyze and categorize and assimilate. Students use what experience and knowledge they have at the time to attack these educational challenges and think critically through class discussions, lab practicals, assignments, group projects, and exams. Do students ever make unwise decisions and appear to not think? Of course, but so do most people when faced with unfamiliar material. It’s a part of learning. Most of us have benefited from a wise master who slowly and patiently went back over an idea or task with us until we could do it alone. We’re rather fortunate folks didn’t give us just one shot in any number of new undertakings including walking, reading, formatting a dissertation, and using a fork with grace and dexterity, to name only a few tasks at which we spectacularly fail at first.

Faculty are in the unenviable position of doggedly persisting to help students enter their specific disciplines knowing they will likely never see the fruit of their labor as students eventually gain mastery in biology, history, fine arts, or technical fields. Talk about planting trees under which you won’t enjoy the shade. Especially at community colleges, where faculty have limited time with students just beginning their pursuit of higher education, faculty rarely get to see their students enter their own discipline—that takes years. Every once in a while, a former student writes, calls, or drops by to tell an early faculty member thank you and to share their success stories. Faculty hold onto these moments as the treasures they are. And it puts a spring back in the step of those faculty as they once again face a slew of uninitiated thinkers.

So I boldly claim both that our students think and that our faculty facilitate and guide that thinking. I just also add that thinking isn’t as easy as some critics claim it is. Thinking, like mastery and expertise, takes time, dedication, perseverance, and determination. That critical definition is difficult to boil down into a three-minute email quiz.

Originally published as a Faculty Voices Project blog post on February 23, 2017.