Teaching How to Teach Critical Thinking

Article excerpt

College students develop the skills and attitudes that faculty encourage. Critical thinking is perhaps the most oft-cited post-secondary learning objective, although common classroom practice belies its importance. Based on 25 years of conducting critical thinking faculty development programs on dozens of campuses, the authors suggest ways by which instructional development workshops can reduce the gap between aspirations to teach critical thinking and effective critical thinking pedagogy. The suggestions are separated logically into the steps of preparation, delivery of the workshop, and post-workshop follow up. The critical roles played by campus administrators, key faculty, and post-workshop mentors are highlighted as vital partners enhancing the actual workshop.

Curriculum proposals and postsecondary mission statements pay homage to the importance of critical thinking (Arons, 1985,6). On behalf of students, those efforts tout the value of reasoned evaluation skills for future citizens (Shaw, 1996). But how do we intend to move from the call to encourage critical thinking to the integrated classroom effort required to implement critical thinking into our pedagogy?

A common strategy is to hold a workshop in the hope that teachers can be sold on the need for critical thinking and then taught enough about it such that at least a few more classrooms will serve as developmental sites enlarging the base of appreciation for the virtue and efficacy of critical thinking. A certain desperation activates these desires for we are all too aware of the extent to which our culture discourages critical thinking (Esterle and Clunnan 1993). Consumerist inclinations encourage resistance to the disciplined reflectiveness required for critical thinking.

But just holding an instructional workshop is by itself of little worth. Faculty have an understandably jaundiced view of the counsel of outsiders with little knowledge of the local context, including the special merits and demerits of the institution where the workshop is being held. They have probably attended workshops before and have been less than impressed. So, if a workshop is to hold promise as a stimulus for student learning of critical thinking, it must be crafted with unusual care to avoid its becoming part of a litany of similar failed efforts where any immediate adrenaline rush is not followed by consonant educational improvement.

This article draws on some 25 years of experience as a workshop facilitator for critical thinking. The experiential base consists of failures and successes, all deceptively applauded at the time of the workshop itself. An important point lies therein: the success of an instructional development workshop resides in its impact on student learning weeks after the workshop, rather than on the immediate reactions of workshop participants.

Many campuses continue permanent instructional development programs; the personnel responsible for these efforts recognize quite correctly that the workshops sometimes effect change (Rutherford and Grana, 1995). But what factors increase the likelihood that a particular workshop will encourage learning growth? While this article attempts to answer that question as it applies specifically to critical thinking, the suggestions herein are, mutatis mutandis, applicable to instructional workshops of other kinds as well. The structure of the suggestions will be based on the temporal steps that comprise an instructional workshop.

I. Preparing For The Workshop

Even the best critical thinking workshop will fail to change faculty behavior if certain preparatory steps are not taken. The administration, the faculty, and the workshop facilitators must all possess specific attributes if the program is to be optimal. The administration at any institution of higher learning plays a major role in determining whether professional development programs are in place, how much funding they receive, and the degree of their effectiveness. …