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On Critical Thinking

This article was originally published in the Fall 1999 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

By Christine K. Dungan

Few tenets have been as widely embraced as the notion that higher-order thinking skills are necessary to the development of the fully realized individual. The difficulty comes in translating that conviction to specific strategies for the classroom. In this issue, three Vanderbilt professors engage the questions surrounding the value and application of critical thinking. They are Rebecca L. Brown, Professor of Law, Richard E. Speece, Centennial Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Jeffrey S. Tlumak, Associate Professor of Philosophy.

CFT: Why is critical thinking important?

Brown: I think the greatest challenge for a teacher is to battle complacency. Everyone has a desire to accept what we read or to believe what we are told, especially if it’s written by a court or a well-known scholar. But good lawyer skills are built around questioning the status quo, making a creative argument, explaining why something which may appear one way shouldn’t be that way. Thinking critically is a very big part of teaching students to stand back from what may appear to be a clear rule and argue that maybe it ought to be the opposite.

Speece: Students bring so much baggage that isn’t true; I would hope we could cut through what purports to be fact and is really fiction. The objective is to get them to ask, “But is it true? Do you accept what you read?” For example, the notion that lemmings throw themselves into the sea was started in a Walt Disney movie, but it’s been repeated enough by authority figures that everyone accepts it as true, when in fact, there is no animal that commits suicide. Another example is the cliché that “speed kills” on the highways. There is data that contradicts that, but we believe it because we want it to be true.

I want my students to understand that every time we solve a problem, we create another one: air bags have saved about 1,500 lives, but 69 babies and short women have been killed. Public pressure forced manufacturers to produce fireproof pajamas for infants, but in order to make them flameproof, a carcinogenic compound was used.

I don’t want my students to lead unexamined lives. Regardless of how much baggage has to be jettisoned, there is something in there worth identifying and preserving. If something is true, then scrutiny is not a threat.

Tlumak: Given my conceptions of the nature of my field of philosophy, practically everything I do in the classroom seems to promote critical thinking. Although I can give lots of reasons for its value, from not being manipulated by other people to making rational choices, I don’t want to suggest that it’s exclusively valuable in all contexts, though certainly in a very wide range of contexts. So my answers would range from the traditional ancient answers, like living the good life, to more modern ones, like buying a better car–from the concretely practical to the life-transforming.

CFT: What are some of the specific strategies you use to promote critical thinking in the classroom?

Brown: Begin by establishing a comfortable environment for speaking. Critical thinking is hard and scary enough without feeling that one’s emotional reputation is also on the line. I try to create safe space by asking questions. If I get an answer that isn’t particularly helpful, I push further: “Why do you say that?” “Is there anyone else who had a different perspective?” The idea is that you’re intellectually on the line, but not personally so. Ultimately, the goal is to ask the person to confront the implications of his or her own position.

Speece: On the first day, I put students in groups of four and assign each an issue. They have to take a position in class, and it breaks the ice for the entire semester. It gives them ownership of the issues and empathy with the professor, and has a therapeutic effect on the classroom.

In my freshman course on “Environment and Technology,” I immediately raise the question of how these two interact. Is conventional wisdom based on actual fact? I encourage students to try to find a middle ground between tyranny and anarchy, the common good lies between “environment-only” and “people-only.” I would ask them in this case, who is harder on the environment, nature of humanity? Is the environment fragile? Very early in my class, they are conditioned to ask the question, “But is it true?” I don’t care what students’ personal beliefs are, but I want them to ask the question, and then to apply it to all disciplines they study.

Tlumak: Students tend to learn what they learn effectively based in part on what they bring to the course, that is, background beliefs, cognitive and affective dispositions and so on, and so I always try, early on in the semester, to diagnose as best I can where this particular group of students is coming from. One thing I use fairly regularly in introductory courses is a very carefully constructed questionnaire that allows me to understand students’ overarching views on the subject matter I’m going to spend the bulk of the term exploring. With such a questionnaire, I achieve several goals simultaneously: I’ve had them lay something out that invests some preliminary commitments on the course, but it also allows me to see what kinds of things would be best for me to explore critically with them. One example of what I do early on in the semester is give them a one-page list of all the important good and bad ways of reasoning. I try to have them recurrently use the list, so that they begin to talk like a critical thinker. I also like to give them a manageable list of critical-thinking questions: “What does it mean? Is there vagueness, is there ambiguity? How do we eliminate the vagueness and ambiguity? What underlying assumptions are being made? What are the implications of holding this view? Is the case made for the view such that it has gaps, and how might we supply the unstated premises that will fill the gaps?” It’s not just a matter of identifying and analyzing and then evaluating other people’s arguments; it also means you have to construct the best arguments for your own positions.

I also use modified debates. Unlike regular debates, where you’re actually trying to win the debate, these modified debates are glorified and controlled discussions. I try to make them somewhat dramatic and engaging by having all the pros on one side of the room, all the cons on the other, and all the undecideds in some kind of middle ground. I always choose a topic that demands critical-thinking skills. The proposition might be, for example, “Everyone always ultimately acts selfishly.” If, in the course of discussion, their initial position has been dislodged, they are obliged to move to the appropriate physical space.

CFT: How do you encourage students to question the information you give them yourself?

Brown: That’s a very important piece of teaching. I think we set the tone by questioning the students. The better students, then, will come back and ask the same things of us. I always hope to get students who will say, “Well, that doesn’t follow,” or “Does that follow?”, or “Why does that follow?” It’s a matter of setting the tone of inquiry, trying to avoid acceptance or complacency by creating an atmosphere on which the questions are more important than the answers.

Speece: I am an authority figure to my students, and I want them to bring the same degree of scrutiny to my class as to any other authority. Today’s students are more politically correct and not as likely to question authority as students in the 60’s were. It’s too easy to fall back on the position that the media will tell you what to think. I do find that most students, after studying relevant cases, are willing to take the risks associated with questioning assumptions.

Tlumak: I always strive to induce the sense that this is a kind of joint inquiry. I do still find that there are certain kinds of issues they are less open to exploring critically than others; for example, largely economic issues tend to make them more closed minded. Interestingly, something that you might think is less crucial to life– a material, economic thing–they tend to recoil at, whereas I can push the theological problem of evil. It’s almost as though, if they have entrenched beliefs about a subject, they understand those beliefs are supposed to be open to analysis.

CFT: If you could leave your students with one thing, what would you want it to be?

Brown: One of the funny things we say about law school is that by the time students go home for Thanksgiving, their families can’t stand sitting around the dinner table them anymore. They ask different kinds of questions about things which used to be much easier to talk about. They tend to push and to challenge. They really have learned something, and it may be obnoxious sometimes and they may wish they hadn’t changed, but once you learn to think this way, you are a changed person. One of our goals in the law school, I think, is to train better citizens as well as better lawyers.

Speece: An inquiring spirit. It’s the best preparation for the rest of their lives. I can give them facts and concepts, but the ability to question honestly is a huge safeguard–think about the rise of Hitler, for example, in a nation of people intellectually gifted but a majority of whom lacked critical inquiry. The students need to be able to question outside their comfort zone. It will not always be easy but it will be worth it, because if something is not true, it’s not worth building your life on.

Tlumak: I honestly think that the most important thing I could do is exhibit with such sincerity and force my own commitment to the effort at critical thinking that they become more prone to act similarly.


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