Connecting, Questioning, Reflecting, Analyzing

Critical Thinking

Recently, I made the mistake of being kind of negative in a tweet:

@newtechnetwork @edudemic – the 4-step guide is overly simplistic: ow.ly/npZkx Critical Thinking is so much more.
My comments really do indicate what I think, but if I am going to be critical in such a public venue, the onus is now on me to actually come up with an alternative.   This post starts describing my thinking about so-called Critical Thinking, and its use in my classroom.
As a science teacher, I have always loved the notion of critical thinking, because when I solve a physics problem, I consider that very deliberate, but sometimes free-form thinking, to be a great example of “critical thought”.    I would often describe my process to my students.   When posed with a problem, I considered my ‘physics tool box’, which includes the collection of concepts that describe systems generally, and then the equations that approximate those concepts.      I sift through the concepts, like one might rummage around in a toolbox, looking for not just the one tool, but ANY of the tools that will help to solve the problem.   Then I look for connections between the tools, compare the tools to one another, and then use as many as I need to solve the problem.    In all of this, I also consider, “does this problem look like others that I have solved?”.   If it does, I might be able to solve this one by analogy.   Eventually,  I write out the pertinent equations, remembering the criteria that regulate their use, and start experimenting.   If an experiment with the equations doesn’t seem to go anywhere, I go back to the beginning, and question my assumptions.    If I get an answer, I immediately ask, “does this make sense?”.    If it doesn’t, I reexamine my process.   When I find a satisfying answer, I often start asking, “does this truth apply in other situations?”     I might even try some new, slightly different problems, and look for patterns in the results.   
I want to highlight some important words and phrases from the above paragraph:
  •       “not just the one tool”
  •        “connections”
  •        “compare”
  •        “by analogy”
  •         “criteria”
  •         “question…assumptions”
  •         “reexamine the process”
  •         “asking”
  •         “look for patterns”

In my twenty years as an educator, I have come to the conclusion that teachers cannot only assess critical thinking, but also teach it.   Now, before Daniel Willingham, or Jay Matthews by proxy, strongly object, I want to give a nod in Willingham’s direction, and agree that one cannot teach Critical Thinking in the absence of content.  (Because I’m sure both of them hang on my every word)  As a physics teacher, students were first and foremost learning about physical systems, but they were applying techniques and habits of mind that could be used in other venues.     In almost every activity, they were comparing, making connections, making analogies, questioning assumptions, and so on.    And I don’t think this is terribly groundbreaking – these are the things that our brains do automatically, but often just not in a disciplined way.     What teachers bring to the table is a way to consider problems in a deliberate, disciplined way that recognizes how careful minds approach new ideas, and solve problems.   Those words and phrases that I bulleted above provide a bit of a road map for how I articulate to students the habits of deep and deliberate thinkers.  I find those sorts of words more satisfying than the typical sentence-starters you see in an explication of Bloom’s Taxonomy.     
At our school, we are working on a rubric that will describe student action and behavior that indicates putative Critical Thinking.    We are using at least two influences:   first, the learning outcome VALUE Rubrics published by the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and second, our own experience and observations as educators.    With the former, we like the rubric for Critical Thinking, and also the rubric for Inquiry and Analysis.    Both do a great job of describing actions that students can take (and teachers can encourage) that will engender a deeper, more disciplined approach to gaining understanding.
That second influence – our own observations as teachers – can be summarized in the list that I will probably post in my room this year.  
Deep and Deliberate Thinkers…
  • Are curious; they pose questions regularly, and know how to pursue the answers to the questions.
  • Cite evidence to support claims
  • Question the reliability of information sources
  • Make connections between various ideas
  • Break complex problems into their constituent parts
  • Ask the question, “Does this make sense?”
  • Know that there is more than one way to look at a problem
  • Use analogies to make sense of new ideas
  • Use consistent criteria to assess the merit of ideas
  • Know that understanding often requires multiple iterations
  • Look for patterns in everything

Many of these ideas are encapsulated in a diagram that I use to guide my curriculum development.   I’m not going to get too deep into the diagram here, but save that for another post.   A pal of mine wrote a bit about it here.
We are working to achieve a satisfactory synthesis of our experience and the AACU rubrics to create our own rubric.   I’ll post what we have when we get it done.
I invite you to comment and tell me what you think.   I still have a week and a half before we roll out any posters or rubrics.  

By the way, I borrowed the image at the top from another post on critical thinking, which I enjoyed, because of the connection [there’s that word again] between critical and creative thinking.