Where to start? Remember reading an article that's too difficult for you and the panic you feel about how to get a handle on it? That's the position students are in when faced with a new discipline, and don't forget, in their first year of college they're ranging across disciplines far more widely than we are.
What we all know...
The most important thing we can do for students is give them the confidence to ask good questions and use the concepts and theories of our discipline to answer them. Thus the issue is not only how to train them but how to intrigue and inspire them.
What we mustn't forget...
The centrality of the classroom
Classroom exercises can work to stimulate critical thinking because the classroom forms a crucible in which ideas are forged and exchanged:
- A handout with two columns highlighting quotes for comparison.
- A series of pictures or a short video as a catalyst for discussion.
- A board work exercise listing pros and cons and then weighing them up with a show of hands.
The importance of discussion
- Students have reason, but not necesssarily critical reason - it takes practice!
- Have them practice arguments first, then get to the formal properties of arguments.
- There are all sorts of ways of staging debates in class, but getting everyone involved is trickier.
The uses of juxtaposition!
One fruitful source of stimulation is to juxtapose quotes from the reading:
- The judicious use of biographical details can help highlight contrasting perspectives.
- It's more difficult to find diametrically opposed views than to find views that have interesting resonances.
SEMINAR EXERCISE: Faculty list of dreaded student questions
- Is this on the test? The moment of anxiety. Should I pay attention or go back to sleep?
- This reminds me of... Some tangent where you don't want to go. "Did any one see 'The Daily Show' last night?"
- The judgmental question: Isn't she too old to have a love affair with him?
- Studies show.… statistics prove.… vague espousals of truth... a false sense of security...
- "Oh he's an idealist, this would never happen today" - digesting concepts through their contemporary applicability.
- Presentism. Flat-footed relativism. "That means nothing to me." "This looks great to me." Stops all debate.
- The out-of-left-field question. Either they don't understand or they're not listening.
- You want to ask a broad question to open up a discussion and they want a specific answer.
- The tragic non-sequiter: so we start on plastic water bottles vs aluminum water bottles and a student responds "That's why there are so many homosexuals."
SEMINAR EXERCISE: Faculty suggestions for getting better student questions
- I put forward a model question for next time. Bean talks about giving them good questions to take home.
- Give them confidence: give praise where it is due.
- Use the class before to advertise the book in advance before they start reading it.
- When they don't do the reading: make them sit at the back and audit.
- When they don't do the reading: I just dismiss class. But can really do that more than once?
- Give more time to the privileged importance of the question.
- How about the idea that there is no such thing as a stupid question? It's up to you to know how to bring it back.
- I ask what prompted the stupid question.
- When you get silence, ask them to write a question on a 3x5 card. Then I have them write. Then I sort their question into categories.
- Build a pause in to let everyone consider the question. Having people write helps them collect their thoughts.
- We're trying to attract them to have fun thinking harder.
FACULTY RESPONSES: What was the best idea, comment, technique from the workshop?
- Loved the idea of comparing short passages of text. Pulling out specific quotes and making handouts for students to read and write on.
- Doing more than one thing at once: juxtaposing texts, ideas or individuals and having a comparative rather than linear approach.
- The idea that there are strategies for getting students to ask better questions.
- Side-by-side bit size pieces; I often ask for comparisons but do some of the work for them to draw out nuggets. I also really liked the idea of asking them to find and discuss a single quote for homework as preparation for discussion.
- Exploring different genres of question: both good and bad.
- Ask students to take 5 minutes to write a response, then call on them.
- Having debate observers who summarize arguments and provide feedback.
- Provide them with an essay without an introduction and then ask them to write the introduction.
- It made me muse on all the different ways you can use debates, dialogues, and focused critical assignments.
- That the first step in teaching critical thinking to freshman is teaching them to identify arguments in texts.