Sunday, December 31, 2006

Critical Thinking for the New Year

Critical Thinking: What Is It?

This question has come up before -- in interviews of people from different backgrounds, fields, and classes, teachers tended to use this term when asked (in round-about ways) to explain the signs of an effective thinker. CEOs and financiers used the term "problem-solving" or "innovative thinking." Others used phrases like the ability to "close the loop," "think independently," or "think on one's feet."

What's the Difference?

If given more context, it would be clear that they all represent pretty much the same process:

Representatives of each group I interviewed -- teachers, managers, CEOs, financial analysts, policemen -- are keeping a keen and dedicated eye out for anyone who is a quick study at figuring out the important information in any given situation and to analyse it effectively -- again, in terms of a particular task.

In other words, success across contexts lies in the ability to (first) observe and absorb concrete details and both analyse what's their and imagine what's possible. From that group of data, the winner finds the most effective solution to the problem at hand.

Breaking this down is a complicated enough proposition that many interviewees have told me it's impossible to teach -- you either have a gift for it, or you don't.

In fact, although some people are better at it than others, the skill requires practice at what to do in one context, in-depth repetition, and transfer the understanding to another context.

Then you start all over again.

For more on the way I've broken down this process, peruse past posts. It's everywhere in one form or another. Or send a note with a specific question, and I'll be happy to direct you.

An Interesting Prospect, If Baffling

People do teach what is called "critical thinking" in school. Others also teach "problem solving" and "innovation" in business. As far as I can tell, it's all the same stuff.

One of the things I have arranged in my time off from blogging is a trip to England to explore their notion of critical thinking. At the moment the educational system offers an A.S. (or junior A-Level, a sort of Pre-SAT). Next year, they will offer an A-level that can qualify a student for university.

How do you institutionalize the process of independent thinking, of creative analysis, of problem-solving in a school setting?

Why Now?

This is a particularly interesting prospect when one considers the new standards for admission. How is critical thinking taught given that the English government has declared all post-secondary educational institutions "universities" (including what Americans would call junior colleges, trade schools, and so on)?

Is it task-oriented? How could it be if the educational contexts of higher education are so diverse? Is it taught to be transferable across contexts? The English are notoriously class-specific -- is it likely?

My Experience: Critical Thinking Requires Context for Students

My data is anecdotal rather than scientific -- I've interviewed fewer than a hundred people and taught for fewer than ten years in a formal setting. However, that doesn't mean I haven't learned a thing or two.

The first is that students learn critical thinking best when they are given a context in which to practice (and practice and practice) until they've got as deep into a subject area as is possible. Only then do they really understand the process.

It didn't work when, as a new teacher, I tried to explain the process in the abstract. I gave examples, offered reading by philosophers and educators, and the result was no understanding of how to apply what they read.

Then everything changed. Only after we used concrete material (in this case, drama) as content to explore the differences and similarities in problems -- again, in this case among genres, periods, playwrights, characters -- did we apply the abstract philosophy to explore the concrete matter at hand.

And then there was light.

More on this in future posts.

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