Saturday, March 22, 2014

Critical Thinking in the Classroom



by Guest Blogger Nwenna Kai Gates



I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my 30 years of teaching: schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators, but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic -- it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell where he must memorize that humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.” --John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling 

One of my mentors told me once that you can’t teach a person how to think, but that you can only teach them how to ask the right questions so that the thinking process could be stimulated.
Critical thinking is disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence. (www.dictionary.com)
As an English professor, I struggle to teach my students how critical it is to ask the right questions and to think critically and holistically on readings and discussions in the classroom.  Often it is a challenge to hold discussions informed by logic and not by emotion. 
I grew up and was schooled in a system where critical thinking was imperative to one’s survival.  However, today our students are more distracted by mobile devices, social media antics, and shortened attention spans that often diminishes the richness of tackling concrete and complicated topics of interest with tactical evidence based solutions.  On top of the distractions, as professors, we do not always set high enough standards to maintain the space of such an environment in order to encourage our students to think critically.  Over the past 30 years, our educational institutions have become institutions where students are taught to obey orders as opposed to institutions where students are encouraged to think independently.   
What this world needs now more than ever is a generation of critical thinkers especially in the African American community. 
Because who is going to solve the complex problems of the justice system, the high incarceration rates of Black men, the sub-standard education and poor reading and writing levels of Black children, female-headed single households, and high rates of poverty. 
We need critical thinkers for these issues, not citizens who obey orders.
So the question comes to how can we as professors nurture our students to think critically?
This is what professors can do:

  •  Encourage students to read The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal, The Washington Post as well as stay informed by global news outlets such as the BBC and RT News;
  • Find ways to create relevant lessons plans in all projects and assignments (An example of this would be in my public speaking class we are conducting debates where students are required to conduct heavy research and formulate evidenced based arguments on topics such as should drugs be legalized);
  • Encourage games and short activities that stimulate the thinking process and that speak to human nature (For example: The Red/Black Game; see http://www.users.csbsju.edu/~lziegler/redblack.html for more information on how to play);
  • Choose readings and books that will provoke heated discussions and provide a larger context for what the world we live in;
  •  Go back to the basics and teach students how to read critically, how to study, how to listen, and how to take notes.

Overall, critical thinking is imperative to the survival of individuals, educational institutions, and communities at large because complex problems require complex analyses solved by critically thinking people. 

Nwenna Kai Gates, a former restaurateur and TV producer is an adjunct professor in the Modern Languages and Literature department.  She teaches screenwriting, public speaking, and English composition courses.  She runs a wellness educational company called The LiveWell Movement and is the author of the book, The Goddess of Raw Foods.   She lives in Philadelphia with her family where she home schools her 3-month old daughter when she is not at Lincoln University.  Other than that, she loves Bikram yoga, green smoothies, preparing vegan meals, and teaching the students of Lincoln University. Visit her website at www.nwenna.com.



7 comments:

  1. 1. I agree that "Overall, critical thinking is imperative to the survival of individuals, educational institutions, and communities at large because complex problems require complex analyses solved by critically thinking people."

    2. I wonder, however, whether your suggestions about "what professors can do" are necessary or sufficient (or both or neither).

    3. If Bertrand Russell (or whoever said this) is right, many or most people would rather die than think and, in fact, they (usually) do.

    4. Part of the problem, I believe, is that many people have a misconception of critical thinking or merely use it as a buzz word or reduce its practice to (running) a talk show.

    5. Thanks for reminding us of the importance of critical thinking, particularly when done right or taken seriously.

    Safro Kwame

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  2. " Encourage students to read The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal, The Washington Post as well as stay informed by global news outlets such as the BBC and RT News;"

    Where can a student purchase The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post on our campus or within walking distance of our campus? Answer: Nowhere. When my children attended other universities (all in the last decade), there were free copies of the NYT, WSJ, and local newspapers available in their dormitories. USA Today (barely a newspaper) is available in the Student Union, but I have never seen a student reading a copy in my many visits there.

    Most of our students apparently don't even purchase the textbooks for their classes, and yet we hope to solve our "problem" by assigning additional reading?

    Critical thinking requires a desire to read and listen to information and opinions and to make decisions regarding them. If that desire is not present in a student, it is highly unlikely that a single professor or group of professors is going to change that behavior.

    I disagree strongly with the notion that universities are merely institutions that teach students to "obey rules." Of course, there are rules that are designed by caring, knowledgeable faculty and administrators to encourage students to read, listen, understand, and express themselves. Anarchy is not very effective in the classroom. If anything (and I consider myself a liberal in most respects), there are not enough rules. If students knew that failure to purchase a textbook, attend class, turn in assignments on time, etc. would result in failing grades (C- or below), and that the administration would support the faculty who give these failing grades, we would see a quick turnaround in their behavior. But the unwillingness to do this has resulted in a steady flow of uneducated (and often illiterate) students graduating with 3.2 GPAs and above.

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  3. I think "Anonymous," whoever he or she is, is right about these:

    1. "Critical thinking requires a desire to read and listen to information and opinions and to make decisions regarding them. If that desire is not present in a student, it is highly unlikely that a single professor or group of professors is going to change that behavior.'

    2. "If students knew that failure to purchase a textbook, attend class, turn in assignments on time, etc. would result in failing grades (C- or below), and that the administration would support the faculty who give these failing grades, we would see a quick turnaround in their behavior. But the unwillingness to do this has resulted in a steady flow of uneducated (and often illiterate) students graduating with 3.2 GPAs and above."

    However, I think the faculty can make a significant difference if we band together and raise standards as well as enforce rules, collectively, without having to rely too much on the administration.

    Unfortunately, you cannot even get most of the faculty to have special meetings to discuss these issues (unless the administration puts it is on the agenda of a regular faculty meeting).

    As for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, they are available on the internet, for free, where students can read them without having to buy them. The point about them, I presume, is that they are easier to read than college textbooks and, yet, they can provide supplementary opportunities for critical thinking.

    Safro Kwame

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  4. CORRECTION OF TYPO: "Unfortunately, you cannot even get most of the faculty to have special meetings to discuss these issues (unless the administration puts THEM on the agenda of a regular faculty meeting)." (NOT "puts it is on the agenda.")

    Safro Kwame

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  5. READING AND WRITING HELPS CRITICAL THINKING

    My own desire to survive in America reflects my critical thinking. Without a systematic way to plan and implement my goals, evaluating alternatives and arriving at decisions I might have been on a path that I have not voluntarily chosen.

    A human may think critically if that person uses a combination of senses that result in decision and actions. These discernible elements have their roots in information gathering, comparing alternatives, and making decisions or taking actions when all of our senses use information fed into our brain.

    At the point of processing the information from all our senses, putting myself as the homo-sapiens man, clear information leads to clear thinking of the alternatives in sight with the higher order brain processing overlaying experiences to value the possible outcomes in terms of rewards or punishment. Without critical benefit-cost information to process, I may hold back actions and further decisions while hesitating, perhaps for a long while.

    As new information emerges, my brain consciousness is triggered mentally making critical comparisons and decisions. My thoughts may be revealed by my actions and my choices.

    In applying my elementary ideas of critical thinking to create learning strategies that would get students moving toward their course goal, I ask questions and get little or no answer. Clearly student goals are lower than the course goals. Not even questions about what is not understood or followed in the classroom is raised by a student, even if asked directly. There is a big gap here begging for rules.

    Professor Nwenna Gates first advice could be applied to a technical textbook of applied methods, written in English.

    In order to overcome allow poor students the opportunity to share textbooks or subscriptions, I have redesigned my approach to promote individual reading, note-taking, and learning with an opportunity to apply what was actually learnt through assignments and in class examinations, about 40 percent for assessment purposes. In the Freshman Year Experience textbook, by Gardner and Jeweler, page 84-87 I have followed their recommendations ( a secret that many professionals are already aware of) that require creating individual study notes as a stimulus to individual learning.
    Professor Gates Lesson plan approach to project is excellent. We can turn the entire set of course learning objectives from vagueness and uncertainty into certainty of items or topics that need explanation and broad-based discussions beyond expressions of ‘I like’. The project lesson plan can be itemized for decisions and actions. In selected cases decisions and actions could be revealed in partnership research and report-writing activities with peers.

    Student actions to understand what is read and ask questions on assigned readings are often revealed in the classroom. A few students who are reading may demonstrate readiness to take action through asking questions that remove uncertainty and promotes clarity in understanding. Students who do not read may benefit from this limited interaction in a critical thinking exercise.

    I am surprised when I see how easily students use ‘cellphones as the notebook’ as they vehemently argue in the classroom. I strongly believe that such students are using the camera part of the cellphone as a note-taking device. There is a high level of risk that the student may only read or print onboard notes as ‘their’ study notes and by-pass the reading process. More rules that encourage reading and writing could make the preparation for true and false quizzes realistic. I am still waiting for suggestions on how to require students to learn from books, a gentle reminder to my students of my copyrighted poem entitled, ‘Books in the Hand, Dreams on My Mind.’

    I thank Professor Nwenna Gates for presenting so much food for cerebral thought.
    Ganga Ramdas
    Lincoln University

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  6. PS: my header Reading and Writing is a joint singular process.
    G. Ramdas

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