Teaching for Critical Thinking

The CNDLS community recently came together to discuss Stephen D. Brookfield’s book, Teaching for Critical Thinking. Brookfield has a PhD in adult education and is currently a Distinguished University Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He began his teaching career in 1970. In his book, Brookfield lays out a series of methods for professors to teach critical thinking in their classes.
Brookfield’s definition of critical thinking involves 4 steps:

  • Identifying assumptions that frame our thinking and determine our actions
  • Checking how valid and accurate these assumptions are
  • Approaching the problem from different perspectives
  • Taking informed action

Brookfield contends that his definition of critical thinking applies across the curriculum.Whether or not this is actually the case, this definition provides a good starting point from which to analyze the role and impact of critical thinking. We found that the most helpful parts of Brookfield’s book are his pedagogical methods for encouraging students to think, talk, and write in unaccustomed ways. These methods include:

  • Peer interactions in small groups: Brookfield finds that students learn new habits of mind best when they practice in small, supportive groups. He explains that involving the whole class in a discussion can often make students hesitant to participate and share their viewpoints.
  • Modeling by the professor: By sharing their personal experiences with critical thinking, professors create a safe space for students to first observe and then experiment. Professors should also make a point of questioning their own assumptions and explaining the rationale behind their choices in front of the class.
  • An incremental application of new thinking skills: Have students practice new habits of mind on hypothetical or distant situations before asking them to apply those habits of mind to their own lives and assumptions. Also, begin with small-scale tasks and provide as much scaffolding for the process as possible, giving regular and specific feedback.

Brookfield provides an array of tools to help professors teach students how to think, read, and write in unaccustomed ways. One of these is the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ),  a list of questions that Brookfield has designed to get anonymous student feedback. The CIQ gauges students’ understanding of and feelings about critical thinking (or anything else). This helps the professor teach to students’ needs. You can see Brookfield’s version of the CIQ on his website. Along with the CIQ, Brookfield also suggests that professors create “disorienting dilemmas” for students. Brookfield explains that when students are put into a situation that makes them uncomfortable, it can ultimately be a learning experience because they are forced to reconsider their assumptions. He does not suggest specific ways of tackling these dilemmas beyond using discussion groups and processes of reflection – since they vary from from discipline to discipline – but he generally stresses their value as (embodied) learning experiences. We discussed how both the CIQ and the theory of “disorienting dilemmas” could be useful concepts to bring in to CNDLS programs such as TLT, Doyle, and the Englehard project.

If professors are interested in specific examples of scaffolding activities, types of feedback, protocols for critiquing student work, and techniques for modeling critical thinking for students and colleagues, Brookfield’s book provides many examples. The tools that focus most on discussion are on pages 87-99 and 106-126, and the tools that focus most on reading and writing are on pages 142-153.