Deeply awesome advice on teaching students about critical thinking

I’ve belonged to the Tomorrow’s Professor listserv for a very long time. It’s an amazing resource, run by Rick Reis at Stanford, and its regular postings touch on matters relevant to university students and teachers at all points along their careers (from undergrads to senior administrators). The posts come twice weekly in term time; they are almost always good reads over lunch, but some are genuinely inspiring. These are the ones I save: I print them, I forward them to colleagues, and I place them in my current teaching folder, for use in the next set of classrooms.

Today’s post was one of those posts. It excerpts material from Stephen Brookfield’s 2012 book, Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions. You can read the entire post here; below, I quote my three favourite insights from the post, with thanks to Brookfield, and to Tomorrow’s Professor.

Brookfield’s principal claim in this excerpt is simple but startling: that teachers need to remember that students need to learn what critical reading, writing, and thinking actually mean before they can do those things. If you’re anything like me, you have internalized “critical thinking” as the raison d’être of the Humanities classroom, forgetting that there are actually a lot of incorrect assumptions and blatant misunderstandings about the very idea of what it means to be critical circulating in our popular culture. Brookfield intelligently frames, and rebuffs, those misunderstandings; here are my top three. (All text is from Brookfield; all boldface and italic emphases are my own.)

That It’s Negative:

For many of us the word critical carries negative connotations. Being critical is equated with cynical pessimism, with taking great pleasure in knocking down what other people have created; in short, with attacking and destroying what we portray as the naïve and shortsighted efforts of others. It is important to say from the outset, then, that critical reading is a process of appraisal, involving the recognition of positive as well as negative elements. In fact, using the words positive and negative is mistaken because it only serves to reinforce a false dichotomy that we have to reach a verdict that something is good or bad. What critical reading and writing are all about is assessing the accuracy and validity of a piece of work. This means that we will usually find aspects of research, philosophy, or theory that we dislike, disagree with, and find incomplete or overly narrow. But we will also find aspects that seem to us well described, recognizable, and informative. Few pieces of writing we read in a doctoral program will be so unequivocally wonderful or awful that we can adopt a film critic approach to its appraisal, giving it an intellectual thumbs up or thumbs down. If we are reading critically we will almost certainly find that our appraisals are multilayered, even contradictory (as in when the same passages both excite and disturb). But central to all critical reading is the acknowledgment of what we find to be well grounded, accurate, and meritorious in a piece of scholarly writing, as well as what we find wanting.

That It’s the Preserve of Politically Correct Left-Wingers:

…The point about critical reading, properly encouraged, is that critical questions are asked of all ideologies, disciplines, and theories. So a critical social science turns a skeptical eye on all claims to universal validity. For a teacher to mandate in advance—either explicitly or implicitly—that only one ideological interpretation or outcome is permitted in a discussion or assignment is to contradict a fundamental tenet of critical thinking. That tenet holds that all involved—including teachers—must always be open to reexamining the assumptions informing their ideological commitments. For teachers this imperative is particularly important, since one of the best ways in which they can teach critical thinking is for them to model the process in their own actions. I hope, personally, that a critical reading of texts results in students becoming more skeptical of conservative ideologies, and more aware of the inhumanity of monopoly capitalism. And I feel a duty to make my bias known. But I also must continually lay out my own assumptions, and the evidence for these, and invite students to point out omissions in my position and to suggest alternative interpretations that can be made of the evidence I cite. For me to decree that “proper” or “real” critical thinking occurs only when students end up mimicking my political views would be the pedagogic equivalent of papal infallibility. I would kill at the outset any chance for genuine, searching inquiry.  

That It’s Wholly Cognitive: (this one’s my favourite!)

Critical reading, like critical thinking, is often thought of as a purely intellectual process in which rationality is valued above all else. The concept of rationality figures so strongly in work of critical theoreticians such as Habermas that it’s not surprising to find it prominent in discussions of critical thinking and reading. However, critical reading as it is outlined here recognizes that thought and reasoning is infused with emotional currents and responses. Indeed, the feeling of connectedness to an idea, theory, or area of study that is so necessary to intellectual work is itself emotional. Even our appreciation of the intellectual elegance of a concept or set of theoretical propositions involves emotional elements.

So in critical reading we pay attention to our emotions, as well as our intellect. In particular, we investigate our emotional responses to the material we encounter. We can try to understand why it is that we become enthused or appalled, perplexed or engaged, by a piece of literature. As we read work that challenges some of our most deeply held assumptions, we are likely to experience strong feelings of anger and resentment against the writer or her ideas, feelings that are grounded in the sense of threat that this work holds for us. It is important that we know this in advance of our reading and try to understand that our emotional reactions are the inevitable accompaniment of undertaking any kind of intellectual inquiry that is really challenging.

I’ve decided that I’m going to use these insights next semester very directly – I’m going to share them with my students, and invite a conversation about them. (This conversation might take place on the same day that we talk about owning our intellectual space; let’s imagine it to be a meta-lesson, early in the term, on how to improve our classroom learning toolbox.)

And, on that note: if you’ve got specific strategies for helping students to understand critical thinking and to develop their CT skills, I’d love to hear them.

Best of wishes,



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