Our last Provisions session of the year included presentations from this year’s Provisions fellows on the topic of Teaching Critical Thinking.  Our three fellows for the year were Stephanie Bennett, Associate Professor of Sociology, James Allen, Professor of Educational Psychology, and Amina Eladdadi, Assistant Professor of Mathematics.

Dr. Bennett began her presentation with an overview of the year-long fellowship.  The fellows met bi-weekly and provided a bibliography and other resources for faculty, which included the four common texts that all of the fellows read in addition to those that they read of their own interest.  Dr. Bennett pointed out that even after this year-long fellowship the fellows are just beginning to understand the topic and how to incorporate it into their classes.  To that tune, she provided us with the mottos that they came up with, which are “change just one thing” and “less is more.”  Dr. Bennett explained that these slogans speak to the idea that it is more worthwhile to change and integrate new strategies slowly, and that everything does not need to be revamped right away; she explained that it is best to start small, and that introducing more critical thinking strategies is not something that has to be done radically and all at once.  Additionally, they believe that “less is more” is best practice as critical thinking lends itself to more in depth learning and less base-level learning, which in turn lends itself to a stronger base for a transfer of skills.

Dr. Bennett noted that the fellows came to a few universal conclusions in regards to critical thinking: that questions are important, that a collaborative work environment is imperative, and that teachers must make skills transferrable.  After describing a personal experience from her own classroom, Dr. Bennett concluded that she found collaboration was a good start, but that she needed to begin with this earlier in the semester and institute these more transferable techniques in class more often, instead of just making it a one-time thing.

Dr. Eladdadi’s presentation focused on her experience with teaching critical thinking through problem solving, and the idea that problem solving is only one skill involved with  critical thinking.  She explained how often, critical thinking is confused with problem solving and higher-order thinking, but that critical thinking involves many skills working in conjunction with one another, including reasoning, evaluating, analyzing, decision making, and problem solving.  She discussed George Polya’s four-step model of problem solving (read & understand, devise a plan, carry out the plan, and looking back), and came to the conclusion that in her personal practice, it was the guiding questions that were the missing piece in her pedagogical strategy, and that she needed to help create that stepping stone bridge between theory and practice for her students to help direct them towards thinking more critically.  Here is a slide from Dr. Eladdadi’s PowerPoint that illustrates various guiding questions that line-up with and fit into Polya’s model:


Dr. Eladdadi then talked about how this adapted type of problem solving strategy, with guiding questions that help elicit that overlay of skills from students (as opposed to a very linear process of evaluation linked to solely problem solving), introduced and used to approach mathematical problems with real world applications, truly led to that all-important transferability of skills.  As with Dr. Bennett, Dr. Eladdadi also came to the conclusion that critical thinking is very closely linked to collaboration and that she needs to start using this adapted problem-solving method earlier in the semester.

Dr. Allen’s main point in his presentation was that the focus needs to be on the facilitation of critical thinking as opposed to the teaching of critical thinking.  He argues that it’s not what we “do” to students but what opportunities we give them to do things for themselves.  Dr. Allen stated that students are not learning for class, but instead they are learning for the transferability of skills in the discipline, across the discipline, and for life, both personally and professionally, which should be the goal of all education.

A main strategy linked to facilitating critical thinking that Dr. Allen pointed out is the importance of questions.  He stated that there is a lot of literature on the role of instructor generated questions, but not on student generated questions, where the latter is more beneficial for the student.  Dr. Allen discussed the Questioning Formation Technique and the Reciprocal Questioning strategy and their role in keeping students motivated and cognitively engaged, as well as how these questioning strategies can work positively when students are collaborating with their peers.  In the end, Dr. Allen concluded that facilitating critical thinking in such a way that helps students learn how to generate questions, learn how to do for themselves and how to collaborate with their peers, fosters an environment in which transferable skills will develop and in turn produce self-regulated learners.

To listen to a podcast of the session, click here!


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