Critical Thinking in the Introductory Sociology Classroom: Some Teaching Techniques

Article excerpt


Critical thinking, as a challenging, questioning, and testing practice, helps us to understand our actions as a reflection of underlying realities. These forces may have long since passed as historical events. However, what critical thinking demands is that we perceive, trace, challenge, sustain, or reject the social arrangements in which we find ourselves based upon their enduring effects on our social lives. Set in an Introductory Sociology class, the overall objective of techniques is to engender critical thinking so that students can become empowered to query the discipline, the text, the instructors, and the "rules of the game." Having the capacity to question the repressive power that structures the existence of our classroom also makes critical thinking a liberating experience. Anderson's (1996:10) insightful view explains:

   Becoming a critical thinker can help you take fresh approaches to familiar,
   taken-for-granted beliefs and understandings. It allows you to cast your
   explanatory net widely. Yet there are some shortcomings and pitfalls to be
   aware of. By its very nature, all of critical thinking produces tentative
   and temporary solutions and explanations. Here lies both its greatest
   strength and weakness. Taking a critical perspective and engaging in
   critical thinking can be a liberating experience. It can also be marked by
   an all-dissolving destructiveness (Bauman, 1992, viii). In becoming
   critical thinkers, we come face to face with Dostoyevsky's warning that if
   there is no God, everything is permissible, Emile Durkheim, one of the
   nineteenth-century founders of sociology secularized Dostoyevsky's warning
   by replacing "God" with "society." For Durkheim, if the controlling grip of
   widely accepted social customs, beliefs, and values are to be undermined,
   then the entire moral order of society would collapse (ibid: xvii).

Formulating critical thinking as "education for liberation and empowerment" (Siegel, 1988:76) comes down to students gaining skills engendered by an intellectual orientation that challenges faulty premises about the social world. For example, understanding how seeing "others" as different from, and less desirable than "insiders," and everything is a "naturally occurring" but seriously flawed human quality that is derived from our need to reduce uncertainty by producing categories and their attendant concepts. To employ critical thinking means to practice personal freedom, means asking why we see "others" as different from, and less desirable than ourselves by connecting sociological concepts to one another and to the larger categories that inform them (Hooks, 1994:13).

In sum: as an intellectual orientation, critical thinking embraces the possibility for liberation and empowerment by coalescing learning and experiencing, being and becoming. The point is that sociology is a process and, therefore, initial learning about sociology demands constant substantiation of existing knowledge in the context of incorporating new ideas. Our responsibility, as instructors in the Introductory Sociology classroom, is to undertake two tasks. This first is to outline to our students the procedures by which knowledge has been produced in the text. The second is to make transparent the means by which the everyday speech and actions of others is transformed into data by emptying academic concepts of some of their unnecessary distance and power.

In this paper we offer some clues as to what can be done in the Introductory Sociology classroom to teach critical thinking. In doing so we take the position that critical thinking cannot start being enacted by either the acquisition of a body of knowledge that reflects the content of a discipline or by having the text merely pay passing homage to Mills's concept of sociological imagination. Rather, critical thinking must enhance liberation through self-expression and understanding (Bell and McGrane, 1999:68-84), what might be better explained as self-reflection and empowerment principles of critical thinking. …