October 21, 2019

What Constitutes Teaching Thinking?

After publishing my recent essay titled Whatever Became of Critical Thinking? I received a very appropriate question from a reader: “What approaches can teachers use to get their students to think critically?” Following are the most basic ones:

To begin with, critical thinking should focus on the particular subject being taught (history, literature, biology, etc.)—more specifically, on the challenges to understanding that characteristically arise in that subject.

The process involves having students address the challenges as practitioners in the field have done, asking relevant questions and pursuing answers. If the challenges are carefully selected and sequenced—simpler ones first and then more complex ones—learning will be active rather than passive. The result is that students simultaneously deepen their understanding of the subject and develop their thinking skills.

Teaching students how to think requires teachers to play a different role in the classroom. Instead of lecturing students, they must guide students in acquiring information and discovering answers for themselves. For example:

Asking fewer questions that demand simple recall and more that require students to evaluate existing ideas or generate new ones.

After posing a question, remaining silent for 10 or 15 seconds so that students can think before they respond.

Avoiding one-on-one exchanges with students. For example, when a student asks a question, re-direct it to other students—“Harry, how would you answer Sally’s question?’

Disguising one’s reactions to students’ statements so that they weigh ideas rather than just “reading” the teacher.

Guiding students to defer judgment until they have considered all available evidence and various interpretations of it.

Requiring students not just to state their opinions but also to explain why they hold them and to discuss their strengths and weaknesses.

Breaking down the false notion that one must always “stick to her/his opinions.” Praise students for changing their own opinions when the evidence warrants doing so.

Here are the kinds of questions that stimulate student thought and discussion of the problems and issues they are examining:

What conclusion have you reached?

What line of reasoning led you to that conclusion?

What evidence supports your position?

Could the same evidence support a different conclusion?

In what way does your experience support or challenge what Ralph (the previous speaker) said?

What additional information might help you reach a conclusion? Where might you find that information?

What objections might be raised to your viewpoint? Putting your preference for your own view aside, assess the merit of those objections.

What other viewpoints about this issue are possible?

Is the most reasonable view a combination of your view and other people’s views? If so, explain that combination.

When the roles of teachers and students change in the ways outlined above, many students will become confused and/or upset. Having spent years with teachers being the main source of information and validation, they will be uncomfortable having to think for themselves. Teachers must anticipate this difficulty and introduce the new approach gradually, giving more help with the process at the outset, then less and less as students gain skill and confidence.

Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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