Thinking Through Writing: A Brief Explanation
When developing the courses that we teach, most of us are concerned with designing a course that will sharpen our students' thinking skills. In part, we accomplish this aim by presenting our students with interesting reading material, lectures, and class discussions. As students read more and hear more, we reason, they will gain knowledge and discover new contexts for their ideas. They will also (we hope) come to think more critically.
However, reading assignments and lectures by themselves do not insure that our students will improve their critical thinking skills. Many students read and listen passively, simply absorbing information. They do not reliably challenge the thinking of the writers they are reading -- or of the professors they are listening to. Nor do they reliably use the material they read to challenge their own ideas.
However, when students write, they cannot remain passive players in the learning game. Even the simplest writing task, such as a summary of an article, requires that students make important critical choices: What information is most important to this argument? What might be left out? More complex writing assignments ask students to make more difficult choices about a topic -- choices that eventually bring them to the questions: "What is it that I think about this subject? How did I arrive at what I think? What are my assumptions, and are they valid? How can I work with facts, observations, inferences, and so on, in order to convince others of what I think?"
In order to help students answer these questions for themselves, professors might want to employcritical thinking pedagogy in their classrooms. When we talk about critical thinking pedagogy, we are not referring simply to pedagogy that challenges our students to think and reason more carefully than they do. Nor are we referring to instruction in the fundamentals of argument. (If you are interested in this discussion, please link toTeaching Argument.) Rather, we are referring to a particular system of teaching whose aim is to break down a student's critical thinking into discrete activities, and then to show students how to reflect carefully on each of these activities in order to sharpen their thinking skills.
Elements of Critical Thinking
The "discrete activiites" that comprise critical thinking are categorized differently by different learning theorists. For the sake of simplicity and utility, we are categorizing the elements of critical thinking as including:
• Observations. From a series of observations, we can come to establish:
• Facts. From a series of facts, or from an absence of fact, we make:
• Inferences. Testing the validity of our inferences, we can make:
• Assumptions. From our assumptions, we form our:
• Opinions. Taking our opinions, we use the principles of logic to develop:
• Arguments. And when we want to challenge the arguments of others, we employ:
• Critical Analysis (through which we challenge the observations, facts, inferences, and so on, in the arguments that we are analyzing).
At first glance, these categories seem obvious. Shouldn't our students already understand that "observation" is not at all the same as "fact"? That inference differs from opinion? As we consider the matter more closely, however, we understand that our students don't always understand these distinctions, and that their writing might be considerably improved if they did. Defining these terms clearly (and pointing out the essential differences between them) is therefore the first step in providing our students with a critical vocabulary for their own thinking processes.
To begin, we need to make our students aware of what their own premises and biases are. We must then move them to challenge these premises and biases. Finally, we must move them to challenge the premises and biases of others. In short, we move our students to experience some shift in their cognitive processes.
One way to facilitate this shift is to create writing assignments that require our students to move back and forth between observation and inference, facts and assumptions -- all the while marking where they are in the critical process. The primary aim is to encourage students to observe themselves and others in the critical process. We want students to be able:
• To know the difference between reliable and unreliable observations and statements of facts;
• To be persistent enough to observe objectively and thoroughly, and to collect sufficient factual or textual evidence;
• To see patterns or relationships in what they have observed or discovered in their reading; To infer and to assume carefully;
• To form opinions even while keeping an open mind;
• To create arguments understanding that they are not the last word, but part of an ongoing debate in a scholarly process.
Kinds of Critical Thinking: Bloom's Taxonomy
In addition to familiarizing students with the elements of critical thinking, we will also want them to engage in a variety of kinds of critical thinking. Again, "kinds of critical thinking" have been categorized differently by different learning theorists. But one of the most influential of the critical thinking models is Bloom's Taxonomy of Higher Thinking. Bloom categorized thinking into the following six processes:
• Knowledge: To know something means to have a fact or bit of information at your disposal. One can "know" something without understanding it or being able to put it into a higher context. For example, we might know that the theory of relativity is E=MC2 without having any idea at all what this equation actually means.
• Comprehension: To comprehend a fact or piece of information is to understand what it means. For example, we might understand that E=MC2 actually refers to a formula that...
• Application: To apply information means to find some practical use for it. In other words, to what use can we put Einstein's theory of relativity? What other ideas does it help us to understand?
• Analysis: To analyze means to break information down into the sum of its parts and to see how those parts work together. Returning to Enistein's theory, we need to understand Energy, and Mass, and Speed of Light, and how they all work together before we can understand precisely how and if the theory works.
• Synthesis: To synthesize means to take the knowledge you have and connect it with other knowledge. For example, how can we understand the theory of relativity in relationship to other theories?
• Evaluation: To evaluate means to be able to judge. Is information good or bad? Sound or unsound? We might ask these questions of the theory of relativity, its applications, and so on. And evaluation is to be able to judge it for good or for bad: is the theory of relativity a good theory (meaning a "sound" theory)? Have its applications also been good? And so on.
All of this is important because, according to Bloom, students must master one level of thinking before they can move on to the next. We can't expect our students to evaluate knowledge if we haven't first required them to understand it, apply it, analyze it, and so on. Courses that employ critical thinking pedagogy take Bloom's theory into account, giving students practice in some of the "lower" critical thinking skills before moving them on to the more difficult tasks of the higher thinking processes.