A reflection on teaching critical thinking
After reading the text, I now agree with the author’s opinion. This paraphrased quote, so common among my EAP students, establishes how critical thinking is not obviously innate when it comes to the materials used in class. Critically evaluating materials varies depending on cultural background and previous exposure to the tools, but I’ve largely found that like blank slates, my students tend to take information at face value rather than deeply considering its validity and reliability. On top of that, teaching critical analysis isn’t simply about relaying the tools with which to help evaluate these factors either. Just as being blindly influenced by the materials, our lessons on critical thinking themselves can result in a simple regurgitation or misinterpretation of validity and reliability if students don’t actively participate in the discussion of how to evaluate these factors. Critical thinking is an essential skill to develop with our students when it comes to their learning. I’d like to emphasise the with and not the in regarding how to encourage this skill.
Karenne Sylvester asks of teachers in her Dogme Challenge #9, “Should we be teaching our students to think critically about the materials/opinions/news items we bring in to class with us? That they bring in?” In a word–yes. Stop here if you just want the simple answer. Otherwise, to begin a more convoluted answer–yes, but. Without the tools and practice of assessing reliability and validity, everyone would change their opinions a million times depending on what information they were exposed to. Luckily or not, many of us stubbornly stick to opinions we’ve held for years and years either because of experience, restriction or ignorance. Students, on the other hand, especially those entering the post-secondary phase of their lives, lack one, two or all three of these qualities, causing them to be willing receptacles for the wisdom bestowed upon them by their teachers. With this, teachers hold in the hands a huge responsibility in the transfer of not only information but tools for skill development. Even with the best of intentions, lessons on critical thinking can quickly spiral students into both ‘tape recorded versions’ of what we’ve taught them or ‘blenders’ that mix up what was taught with what was meant. One example is a red flag I’d suggested students look out for in a lesson about reliability: lack of referencing information. The point was that if you take statistics or summaries at face value, you may be misled into believing inaccuracies (ie. An Open Letter to Educators video – historical inaccuracies about medieval ownership of information), embellishments (ie. Marco Polo’s description of Hangzhou – unfounded city statistics) or just plain misinformation (ie. Life in the 1500s – completely made up information) is true. After a class of looking for this reference absenteeism, I was confronted with an abundance of assignments that used a ‘tape recorded version’ of this red flag (ie. “Nicholas Kristoff’s 1492: The Prequel is not reliable because he did not reference his historical facts, like on Page 2″ – he didn’t need to; he’s an historian and his facts are easily checked or common knowledge to other historians) or the ‘blender’ version (ie. Wikipedia ends up being one of the most reliable sources of information out there because of the amount of footnotes it has) . With simply relaying the tools to students and without an active student hand in discussing what these tools are and how they’re used, assessment of readings, videos and even lessons becomes less of a critical thinking exercise and more of a memorisation exercise.
This lack of active student involvement in determining how to think critically is a fallacy and one that a Dogme approach may counter. Students need to be involved in their learning in order to feel more invested in and related to it. The role of teacher, as with many topics, needs to be facilitator for the emergent ideas that arise when discussing how reliable materials provided and information read or watched are. As a class, discuss what types of questions should be considered when approaching a reading or video. Discuss why we should or shouldn’t believe the author to be a reliable source of information. Evaluate together the circumstances and context under which the material was written. Through this will students have a better understanding of not only how to but also why we should think critically. Difficult themes and topics, whether they are current (eg. the Wikileaks, the governmental restrictions in Venezuala, the student riots in England, etc.) or historical, shouldn’t be avoided as they provide a more relevant platform for assessing ideas critically. It all comes down to critical thinking being an essential skill to develop with not in our students.