What is Critical Thinking?

I’ve been a teacher of one sort or another for nearly 15 years, first as a high school teacher and now, after the grueling experience of graduate school, a university professor.

Should I admit that most of this time I had no philosophy guiding my teaching? It’s not that I thought that I didn’t need one. It’s that teaching came easy and the idea of a teaching philosophy simply hadn’t occurred to me. I was charismatic, demanding but fair, with outstanding student evaluations. If anybody asked, I said a few words about critical thinking and went on my way.

And then I had a problem. A crisis. One day I realized my university students were simply not picking up on key recurring images in The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ debut novel.

I was puzzled and frustrated. I had intelligent, articulate, sensitive students in my class. Why was I seeing these patterns and my students were not? And how long had this been going on?

I now know the reason was because my students, however bright, were novice learners of literature, whereas I was an expert. The gap between novice and expert learners is vast, but substantial research demonstrates there are several essential differences: expert learners notice meaningful information overlooked by novices; experts organize their knowledge associatively rather than sequentially; and experts recognize that the applicability of their skills and knowledge depends on circumstances, while novices bluntly apply their smaller skill set to every problem, even when profoundly inappropriate.

Of course, I didn’t know all of this back in the spring of 2000, when my crisis occurred. What I did know, though, was that I had to do something I had never done before: consciously design an assignment to address a particular problem in my students’ learning habits.

Since that day I have become much more reflective and intentional in my teaching — all with the goal of fostering that most talismanic of buzzwords, critical thinking.

I have read reams of studies about critical thinking, participated in research groups on the subject, and of course, feigned enough expertise to judge the critical thinking of others. But I have to admit that I still do not know exactly what counts as critical thinking.

I believe, however, that critical thinking stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty. And this is something else that separates the expert learner from the novice learner: experts are at ease with uncertainty, while novices are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand, and they struggle to come up with answers — and quickly come up with answers — that eliminate complexity and ambiguity. The historian and cognitive psychologist Samuel Wineburg calls this tendency to seek answers over questions “schoolish” behavior, because it is exactly the kind of behavior most schools reward.

I want my students to break out of this schoolish mode of behavior. Instead of thinking like students — like novices, I want them to think more like experts, and I must coach them to do so. It requires intellectual risk-taking on their part, and on my part, it requires mindfulness, patience, and risk-taking as well.

The next few posts to Sample Reality will elaborate upon these thoughts, and I will begin in a few days describing how, much to the chagrin of my English Department colleagues, I am moving increasingly away from the traditional student essay as a means for evaluating (much less fostering) critical thinking.

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