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Let's Think about "Thinking" Before We Teach "Critical Thinking"

Advocates for the liberal arts often emphasize their role in fostering critical thinking. But how often do we think critically about how we hope to achieve that? Certain subjects obviously emphasize critical thinking very explicitly, but in other courses instructors often count on critical thinking to develop somewhat organically. And critical thinking does emerge fairly naturally in courses that are not about logic or statistics. However, many faculty can do more to consider the relationship between methods of teaching and the development of critical thinking.

The liberal arts tradition has drawn on critical thinking since its start. Socrates has long been an animating influence. But apart from the Socratic method, liberal arts professors sometimes struggle to explain the connections between their approach to teaching and the outcome of critical thinking. The paucity of terminology and explicit method does not mean that nothing is happening, but it does mean that it can be hard to identify what specifically needs improvement and very difficult to instruct others well in the arts of instruction.

A whole host of recent findings and books from psychology offer an opportunity to expand our vocabulary and approach to thinking about thinking in the classroom. In particular, the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, which has done so much to shake up economics, can also knock some dust off approaches to education. In particular, Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow identifies ways that humans think and the shortcuts we use in thinking (heuristics), which sometimes get us into trouble. Having a better sense of these heuristics and how judgment can be deceived can be very useful in the classroom. Thinking explicitly about the anchoring effect, which reflects our use of even irrelevant reference points, can make instructors more aware of what reference points we’re providing and also give us the opportunity to teach students about other biases. Teaching students how to reason and judge well is enhanced by having a better understanding of how human judgment works.

Together Kahneman and Tversky have contributed a great deal to our understanding of human understanding. Professors from many different fields should be reading their work, because all of our fields involve understanding. Another introduction to their work and their working relationship is available in Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project, which offers a more narrative approach and also highlights the role of collaboration in the advancement of knowledge. Kahneman and Tversky’s continuous experimentation and reflection is a helpful example.

Another recent work that has insights for the liberal arts project is Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by performance expert David Epstein. The book itself is a strong argument for the liberal arts. The “general education” of a liberal arts degree is, in a sense, the broad sampling period that so many high performers benefit from having and helps create the kind of generalists that can succeed in various fields. Range explicitly takes on the subject of thinking, emphasizing the importance of thinking with analogies and the ability to think outside of a single discipline. It also explicitly takes on the subject of student learning, drawing on various studies to emphasize the importance of student struggle in comprehension and the ways that teachers can accidently circumvent that struggle. A book like Range is not about teaching, but it can help us reinvigorate our approaches to sharing material in the classroom by reminding us what leads to excellence in outcomes. 

Another way that new insights from psychology and performance studies can enhance our approach to education is through making us reconsider the contexts for learning that we create. Are our classrooms settings that truly encourage critical thinking or do they reward simple recall? Do our syllabi and assignments point people toward the outcomes we hope to achieve? A book like Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, can help us think through these things. Nudge borrows from the insights of Kahneman and Tversky to recommend use of heuristics and patterns in human judgment, like the availability bias, to “nudge” people in the right direction. The authors argue that things can be structured in such a way as to make people more likely to default to better choices. Professors already do some things like this—like requiring a first draft so that people turn in better final work—and we can all be encouraged to think more about how our coursework and classrooms already “nudge” people in certain directions. Once we identify more of what we are doing, we can make more conscious choices about where we want to go.

A very tangible way to integrate some of these insights from psychology and other fields is to consider something we almost all work with: learning outcomes. Learning outcomes help tell students what courses are about and they help satisfy accreditation requirements. They are also often quite dry. Students will learn how to “assess” something or “identify” or “distinguish” or “demonstrate competence,” etc., and these outcomes will be measured through “quizzes, tests, written assignments, a presentation,” etc. But learning outcomes are also an opportunity for us to engage and require critical thinking in more direct ways.

Learning outcomes are tied explicitly to subject matter, but they can also be used to integrate critical thinking goals which are implicitly associated with the liberal arts subjects. As faculty formulate the assignments that are used to measure learning outcomes, they can keep in mind aspects of critical thinking or even specific heuristics. For example, history students already need to be aware of hindsight bias in order to succeed in the discipline, but professors can do more to make that an aspect of assignments. Again, these things are already happening, but not often enough in ways that faculty openly describe and discuss. If faculty are more conscious and communicative of how we integrate critical thinking, we can improve our approaches.

Those who love the liberal arts are fully aware of their benefits outside specific knowledge, but we are not often specific enough about how those benefits are achieved in explaining our disciplines to the rest of the world. We know that classrooms are somewhat organic spaces and that critical thinking is not achieved through a formulaic set of learning outcomes. But failure to talk about method can lead to failure to think enough about method. Thinking through these things not only helps us communicate better with others, it helps us consider what it is we may want to integrate.

Thinking about what will be implicit in our teaching approaches is not about forwarding agendas, but about educating the whole person. In a 2011 New York Times op-ed, David Brooks wrote that the “unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place.” In that essay, Brooks advocated a healthy reunion of reason and emotion, arguing that society had become over reliant on reason and therefore was often at the mercy of undereducated emotions. Instead, he suggested that we educate our emotions and integrate them well into decision-making, emphasizing qualities like attunement, equipoise, metis, sympathy, and limerence. These are also things worth considering. How do our classrooms portray the relationship between reason and emotion?

In truth, whatever ways we are teaching are already encouraging certain ways of thinking and discouraging others. Investigating new research about thinking and making our own approaches more intentional can be of great benefit. Have we crafted assignments that reward critical thinking or those that reward mimesis and recall? Have we created a classroom environment that fosters reasoning or one which fosters shallow thinking? If the liberal arts is, in part, about critical thinking, having a conscious approach to it is essential. We can all benefit from new ways to think about thinking when we’re teaching.