by Steve Roushakes
The most common expression in education today is the need for schools to teach critical thinking, and I couldn’t agree more. The problem, though, is that the term “critical thinking” is so widely and effortlessly used – it seems to be a catchall mission statement these days – I’m afraid it’s becoming meaningless. George Orwell rightly said that imprecise language leads to imprecise thought, and schools and educators need to define – for themselves – what they mean by critical thinking, if they want to make it the mission of their pedagogies, and if they want those pedagogies to serve their students well.
Of course there are many ways to define critical thinking, although most definitions, I find, revolve around the application of reason, as in:
- Evaluating arguments
- Solving problems
- Distinguishing fact from opinion
These are all good and equally valid definitions of critical thinking, and certainly great lessons and curriculums may be developed from these goals. I suppose, too, that such definitions are closest to the actual meaning of critical, which implies a keen and discerning judgment – an essential skill, for sure.
But I like a more constructivist definition of critical thinking, one that emphasizes originality of thought and allows for the greatest possibility of informed ideas; a definition that defines critical thinking as a creative, rather than a judgmental, act. For me, critical thinking means:
Creating meaning from information.
Aren’t these – Meaning and Information – the two real platforms on the scale of education, and hasn’t Information been given greater weight in American education at the expense Meaning? 1492, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, stars convert hydrogen into helium through nuclear fusion, all dogs are descended from wolves, Martha Graham pioneered modern dance. All true, but where’s the corresponding meaning to these facts? Where’s the critical thinking?
And the most important pedagogical question of all: How do you create meaning from information?
At The New School, we believe that open-ended questions – essential questions – are the best approach towards teaching critical thinking. For example, for my English class on Romanticism, I began with the question What is the essence of Romanticism? which the students had to answer in a 30-minute presentation and Q&A – what we call an exhibition – at the end of our nine-week study. We read Rousseau, Goethe, Mary Shelley, Frederick Douglass; we examined the art of Friedrich, Blake, Turner; we listened to Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert; we studied nationalism and the rise of nation-states; and we sought to define the particularly Romantic concepts of the sublime, irony, and the self. Most importantly, we always read and discussed these works in the context of the essential question, which made the students engage those works critically throughout the course; after all, they would each be responsible for an informed answer to the question at the end of the class.
I’m particularly fond of essential questions because they allow for this kind of student choice, which I think inspires engagement and motivation, and therefore leads to student success.
On exhibition day, no student gave an imbalanced presentation of pure information, because the essential question – What is the Essence of Romanticism? – engaged each student to create an informed and meaningful argument. Note, too, that an essential question has no one, correct answer and therefore allows the greatest possibility for student responses.
What a fascinating series of presentations that day. The essence of Romanticism is…
- A celebration of the uniqueness of each individual and the importance of self-realization (based on a close reading of Rousseau’s Confessions and Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave).
- A fascination with the less rational forces in human nature (based on a close reading of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
- A defense of the importance and truth of human emotion (based on a close reading of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther).
It’s exciting to teach in such an environment, where you provide a space for exploration and originality of thought – always grounded in informed reasoning and relevant information. And after fourteen years at The New School, I still feel the same perennial excitement as I look forward to a new year of student possibilities.
Welcome back to school.