Teaching Critical Thinking

Jamin Totino, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, presented on Universal Design in education. With a history grounded in architecture (the planning of buildings and facilities for greater access by all), Universal Design (UD) seeks to foster greater access to education. In education, UD began in the 1980s working away from a medical model that stigmatized and segregated people (defining them as damaged)and towards a social model in which, when UD is implemented, there is no need to accommodate students. Again, it borrows from the architectural principles of UD in the Seven Education Principles of UD: Equitable, Flexible, Simple and Intuitive, Perceptible, Tolerance for Error, Low Physical Effort, and Size and Space for Approach and Use. UD supports critical thinking by allowing full access to a course’s materials and assignments for all students, rather than working out accommodations for students on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, UD fosters critical thinking for educators as well since it requires that a course be accessible to all learning styles (i.e. using different media for materials) and requires regular checks and updates of accessibility to all of a course’s components.

Dr. Angela Ledford presented “A Cultivation of Key Skills Approach” to teaching critical thinking. Using her Political Ideologies course as an example, Ledford explained her process of instilling close reading skills combined with note-taking and connecting concepts in her students to build their critical thinking skills. As an answer to the questions, “What’s important? What do I write down?”  Ledford gives her students a set of headings—categories of things to look for—when reading. As the student becomes aware of these specific categories while reading and note-taking, the student is able to attach the ideas of a particular thinker/writer with different ways those ideas are understood. The next step for the student is to make connections among concepts—associating particular ideologies with different historical periods. The final step for the student, then, is being able to write clearly and self-consciously about the material she has learned.

Dr. Laura Weed presented on Logic and Critical Thinking. As these are subjects about arguments, Weed talked about teaching students the structuring of arguments and the relationship among an argument’s claims. This is an important step for students because critical thinking depends on judging the quality of arguments. Weed also commented that the language of an argument is important because grammar is the logic of language. Weed teaches her students the vocabulary and ability to spot fallacies and to avoid fallacies in their own thinking; to think logically. The restructuring of students’ thinking—to break their bad mental habits—is Weed’s goal for her students. Since this process takes time and practice, Weed added that it would be ideal to teach Logic/Critical Thinking in smaller amounts of time (blocks of 2-credit-hour units) over the course of a year or two.

These three presentations call to attention the need for teaching and fostering critical thinking skills in students, but also highlight the requirement of critical thinking in teaching, designing, and structuring of courses—to create environments, to implement models of instruction, and to practice these skills over and over to ensure that students understand and are able to use critical thinking both in and out of the classroom.

Click through to see Angela Ledford’s handout on teaching critical thinking in the political science classroom.

Teaching Critical Thinking:  A Cultivation of Key Skills Approach

Close Reading, Note-Taking, Making Connections:  A Path to Critical Thinking and Writing

Political Ideologies (POS 142)

Dr. A. Ledford – Spring 2011

Taking Notes on the Text– Identifying Concepts, Making Connections (“What’s important?  What do I write down?”)

I use this as one possible model for students at the introductory level to emulate.  I think this approach has a number of advantages:  it provides some guidance to students regarding what to look for in the text  (I provide the headings and the students  add to the categories in classroom discussion[from their notes] as we complete the primary selections from various scholars); it helps them position one foot at the level of “overview” such that they have a clear understanding of what classical liberalism is, while at the same time keeping the other foot in the specifics of what those values mean as espoused by which thinker (and it is here where we can begin to tease out the tensions within ideological traditions) ; finally, the connections between and among the categories should become more apparent, thus revealing their importance and shedding additional light on the social and historical context from which they emerge .

Classical Liberalism

Human Nature    Primary Values    Democracy   Justice/ The Good Life?

Self-interested    Negative Liberty   Representation

[Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Freidman] [Mill, Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Friedman]

Selfish(?)    Equality of Opportunity   Divided Government

[Hobbes, Smith, Friedman]  [Smith, Friedman, Locke, Federalists]

Passionate/Violent(?)   Individualism    Separation of Powers

[Hobbes, Hamilton, Madison & Jay] [All]

Acquisitive    Free Markets    Capitalism

[Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Friedman] [Smith, Friedman]

Competitive    Toleration    Private Property

[Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Friedman] [Locke, Mill]

Reason/Rationality   Individual Freedom   Limited Government

[Locke, Mill]    [All]

Writing for Critical Thinking

Of course we continue the process above for contemporary liberalism (such as egalitarian liberalism) as well as the other ideological approaches (conservatism, fascism, socialism and communism, anarchism, feminism, eco-politics. nationalism and globalization).  When coupled with their class notes and more detailed notes on the readings, students should be in a strong position for beginning the work of crafting, more self-consciously, a criteria that each can defend and against which to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various political world views while identifying the internal tensions.  It is in the writing process that these ideas become more refined.  Ideally I prefer to have students meet with me individually at the beginning of the semester to work through the first draft of the thesis.  Then I generally have students (at the upper-division level) complete multiple drafts of a paper—encouraging them to refine the thesis, tighten the organization, add to their body of research while improving their skills when it comes to finding relevant scholarship and using it effectively,  and polish their writing style.  At the lower-division, I tend to opt for shorter essays where the emphasis is placed on the careful construction of a clear and specific argument.  In this case, I draft an essay question with multiple parts that lends itself to the construction of a thesis.  In other words, the query dictates a set of responses and reasons for those responses.  This has served as a good device for coaxing students into a practice of stating early and clearly precisely what will be defended in the paper.

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