Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking

I spent Friday at the Eastern PA Regional College Assessment Consortium’s Third Annual Assessment Summit: “Teaching and Assessing Critical Thinking,” held at the Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA. Attendees were treated to two panel discussions, one concerning the struggles in teaching critical thinking, the other on issues surrounding assessing the effectiveness of that teaching. Both are very thorny problems, and both the presenters and my colleagues in the audience were sensitive to ambiguities and nuance, let us say, of the endeavor. In the end, I was left with more questions than answers, but with a couple of observations about ourselves.

First, the observations. We exhibit, I would say, a “genial arrogance” with regard to our students. “Genial,” in the sense that it is obvious – perhaps especially among community college faculty – that there is a deep and genuine concern for the well being of our students and a commitment to do what is necessary to help them learn and succeed. But “arrogance,” in the sense that I only heard us saying what we think their concerns are, what we think their problems are, what we think the sources and causes of their obstacles to learning are. I am not sure I heard anyone report directly what students told them about how they viewed their struggles. We just “know,” uncritically, about their situation and their needs. We just assume we know what education is supposed to be, what teaching is supposed to be, and what our students are supposed to be (and are they supposed to be “what’s” or “who’s” anyway?).

Perhaps students cannot articulate their own situation – but have we tried to find out? Instead, we blame elementary and secondary schools, parents, pedagogical practices (the dreaded rote memorization), etc., as if we knew those were the sources of our students’ inability to think critically. I also happen to teach at an institution that takes Cura Personalis – “care for the entire person” – as the cornerstone for a genuine education. Perhaps we ought to try to practice this more widely as a foundation to our critical thinking about our students and about critical thinking itself.

Further, we tend to talk as if critical thinking was a “skill set.” We view critical thinking as co-extensive with problem solving, which leads to thinking life is a problem (or just a set of problems) to be solved. What about the enigma, paradox, the sweet mystery of life? But, as they say, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. If education is only about problem solving, a sense of wonder and awe is relegated to the romantic, and thus, in our pragmatic and utilitarian culture, devalued.

Critical thinking, as it was tacitly presented, exhibits a Cartesian obsession with certainty at the same time it attempts to instill in students a sense that “there are no right answers,” to make them comfortable with difference and diversity of viewpoints. Still, the drive to certainty manifests itself in the sense that it is the lack of certainty that demands (what turns out to be) the insipid tolerance of “whatever.” In effect – despite paying lip service to it – judgment is made radically problematic. But as the very root of the word “critical” – krinein (Gr.): to discern, to judge – implies, thou in fact shalt judge. Judgment is the ignition switch of action. The dismissive “whatever” means the spark plugs of judgment are dead. Even the command, “Thou shalt not judge,” is itself a judgment on those who are being judgmental (which is not the same as judging), those being hypocritical (under-discerning, not discerning enough, especially about themselves). Because, while there is no “one right answer,” there are certainly wrong answers, and being hypocritical and judgmental is a good way to come up with them. To judge is not to be judgmental; to be judgmental is not to judge at all. Our efforts to teach critical thinking aim at getting students to see this. But if those same efforts cut off judgment entirely, we’ve simply come to the opposite side of the same coin, a bad penny indeed. This is our struggle.

Perhaps this means that critical thinking advocates (and who of us is not among them?) need to reflect on whether CT needs to be tied so tightly to the notion of problem solving. Perhaps it is uncritical to think that CT is all and only about problem solving. Perhaps a critical thinker is one who recognizes that not all of human reality and experience submits to instrumental or utilitarian reasoning, important as those are in their relevant spheres.

This all leads to the issue of assessment, which has clearly come down to quantitative analysis. Does thinking in its fullness admit of such measure? We have, I believe, uncritically come to think so…or at least act as if it did. All of us in teaching want to believe that students get something of value as a result of our efforts. We’d like very much to be sure we’ve succeeded in attaining that goal. So our natural tendency is to devise ways to check whether students have learned what we want them to learn (setting aside for the moment the question of whether it is possible that students might learn something of value as a result of our teaching that we do not consciously want them to learn, that we’ve never learned ourselves). Now these ways cannot be of the type, as one person at the conference put it, of “looking for that gleam in their eye.” Why not? Because not only do I need to know whether students “get it,” but others need to know. My colleagues, my chair, my dean, the provost, the president, the state, the funders, the prospective employers all need to know whether the students get it. Not to mention the students themselves (we are, it seems, frequently not mentioning the students themselves…).

But is what I need to know the same as what, for instance, the state needs to know, or the prospective employer needs to know? And is what the math professor needs to know the same as what the philosophy professor needs to know? And is any of this what the student, as a human person, needs to know? And can that which each needs to know be measured in the same way? And is that way always one of quantification?

To put it another way, have we been sufficiently critical – self-critical – about the very meaning of education, specifically higher education? If we have been less than adequately critical, dare I say, hypocritical, about this, then all our progressively intensifying efforts to satisfy our assessment obsession will only result in measuring – if it truly can be measured at all – what we are doing now. It will not ever ask, is what we are doing now what we ought to be doing? In the business world we used to say, “What you measure is what you will get.” If there are multiple intelligences, multiple modes of knowing, but we measure only one, then one is what we will end up with – if in fact we end up with anything at all once we abstract a piece out of human experience and make it the be all and end all.

When our students “just assume,” we judge they are not being good critical thinkers. We judge that they are “just checking their memory banks” for received opinions, accepted without reflection, indeed, held dogmatically. We judge that they are participants in “group think,” and are not themselves thinking autonomously or authentically.

But might we not be guilty of the same charges? Are we not assuming a lot about the nature of education and its aims when we launch into obsessive assessment mode? I think we are. At least I am willing to think about it…critically. And so were my colleagues at the conference on Friday.

Some additional questions:

1. What is more important as an outcome in education, right answers or good questions? In other words, should students leave school with more answers or with more questions than when they started?

2. Are all disciplines the same when it comes to their aims? Do we measure progress and maturity the same way across disciplines? And so can assessment be “one size fits all”?

3. Is everything that goes on in a college or university disciplinary? For what is the purpose of a discipline than to form disciples. Can a disciple be a critical thinker? How?

4. What role does eros or philia have in education? Or is it all about discipline?

5. Regarding learning styles, about which there is ever-increasing awareness: should we “type” all our students? Left-brain/right-brain? Auditory/visual/kinesthetic learners? Mulitple intelligences? Jungian? Myers-Briggs? Enneagram? Astrological sign? Kabbalah? Is this a form of packaging our students? And for whose convenience, theirs or ours?

6. Is teaching a technology? Are we laboring under an illusion of technique when we say we “teach critical thinking”?

7. Is life nothing but solving problems? Is even math really nothing but solving problems?

8. Is all learning ultimately about everything? Are the silos we create, the academic division of labor, the most appropriated structure for higher education? At least, do these silos need to be maximally hardened? Should all learning aim at transdisciplinarity (trans- = through, between, and beyond)? How would that work? For instance, as a teacher of philosophy, how much time should I spend on grammar, economics, and history, all of which are vitally important for a deep understanding of my subject?

9. Are we in danger of getting stuck at the meta-educational level in our drive for (quantitative) assessment? In other words, are we going to spend more time talking about education or are we going to focus on educating? (For instance, focusing more on explaining the rubrics than on the subject matter the teaching of which the rubrics are meant to serve.) Are these separable, though?

10. Is social justice an integral part of all higher education? Or is it one matter among others that can be used as a project theme in a course in an effort to teach critical thinking?

11. Even though surveys show that critical thinking is among the highest priorities – if not the highest – of faculty concerns, have we considered that there may, in fact, be an even more profound concern: the quest for wisdom? Or is critical thinking just what we mean by wisdom?


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