Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Cultivating Critical Thinking: An Interview with Stephen Brookfield

Academic journal article Journal of Developmental Education

Cultivating Critical Thinking: An Interview with Stephen Brookfield

Article excerpt

Dr. Stephen Brookfield is one of the most well known figures in the fields of critical thinking, adult education, and postsecondary teaching. He is a frequent keynote speaker and bestselling author. His writings have been translated into German, Finnish, Korean, and Chinese. The Skillful Teacher, has influenced educators across the world.

He served for 10 years as a professor of Higher and Adult Education at the University of Columbia in New York and for 10 years and as a visiting professor at Harvard University. He now holds the title of Distinguished University Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, MN. Dr. Brookfield has authored 12 books on adult learning, teaching, critical thinking, critical theory, and discussion methods.

Among his numerous awards are the Cyril O. Houle World Award for Literature in Adult Education (1986, 1989, 1996, and 2005), the lmogene Okes Award for Outstanding Research in Adult Education, the Leadership Award from the Association for Continuitig and Higher Education (ACHE), the Morris T. Keeton Award from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning in 2008, the Diversity Leadership Teaching & Research Award, the John Ireland Presidential Award, and the Morris T. Keeton Award of the Council of Adult and Experiential Learning.

James Johanson (J.J.): In a speech you gave in January 2009 at The Teaching Learning Roundtable Fair you talked extensively about how you were not a stellar student in college. Could you describe these experiences and how the developmental educator could benefit from understanding your story?

Stephen Brookfield (S. B.): My own experiences of being labeled as mediocre, of failing exams outright, and of generally doing poorly on standardized tests all framed how I approach my own work as an educator. I really began in adult education, working with courses in basic college skills for students who had not been able to go to college and now wished to re-enter education at the college level. My experiences as a student were helpful in that endeavor; I could empathize with how my own students felt with their fear of examinations, failing, and the kind of panic they felt when they had to take tests. That's why I went into adult education; it's because I had this sympathy for students who had been labeled as not being very smart, since I was one of those students.

Teachers who were good students and go into teaching because they enjoy their own learning and wish to share their own enjoyment with students sometimes find it difficult to understand what their developmental students are facing. A teacher who has had a good experience as a learner never really had to grapple with the kinds of fears, anxieties, and lack of self-confidence that other students have had. Often times I've worked with adults who felt that at some level they didn't really belong in the educational system and were never going to be able to make it, so I couldn't rely on them to have the intrinsic commitment that other students who had done well did.

J.J.: As a student, did you have specific critical thinking instruction and opportunities to practice critical thinking in the classroom, and how does the development of critical thinking skills impact at-risk students?

S.B.: An experience that really helped me understand critical thinking was seeing teachers do this in front of me. One of the things that I've been really interested in is how teachers model for students an engagement in critical thinking and how teachers publically and intentionally describe what they are doing as critical thinkers.

In my own experiences and in data that I've collected through a form called the critical incident questionnaire (CIQ), which I've used for the last 20 years or so, the evidence convinces me that the thing students find most helpful in understanding critical thinking is seeing a teacher do this in front of their eyes and have them explain by saying, "now I'm going to look at my assumptions, now I'm going to view this idea that we've just learned through different perspectives and different lenses, and now I'm going to talk about some of the complexities that happen when you try and employ this skill in a context outside of the classroom. …

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