Guest Post

Guest Post, Jeffrey Maynes: Critical Thinking In and Across Disciplines

I am excited to introduce a guest post by Jeff Maynes, associate professor of philosophy. If you are interested in writing a guest post for the blog, please find more information about a scholarship or teaching grant here.

Critical Thinking In and Across Disciplines

Jeffrey Maynes

We all want to teach critical thinking.  Subject matter knowledge fades, but if an education improves a student’s critical thinking skill, then that student will be better prepared for a range of careers and civic responsibilities.  The critical thinker, it is supposed, is better able to solve problems across a range of domains, and able to do so long after leaving the classroom (the skill is portable and durable) and is less susceptible to manipulation.  Critical thinking is at once an educational goal and a moral ideal, and a worthy aim for a collegiate education.

Worthy as this goal is in the abstract, it is a difficult one to implement in the classroom.  It’s not clear that portable critical thinking can be taught at all, and cognitive bias and reasoning heuristics pose additional challenges.  Teaching critical thinking across the curriculum faces two further obstacles.  

First, critical thinking is often identified with the tools of informal and formal logic, traditionally the provenance of philosophy departments.  Such tools are not always readily applicable to courses in other disciplines.  Second, if critical thinking skill is seen as distinct from course content and discipline-specific skills, instructors may simply lack the time and space in their course to fit it alongside other key goals.

To meet these challenges, it helps to start with what critical thinking is.  Rather than identifying it with particular tools of informal logic, or with intellectual virtues such as open-mindedness, I propose that we define critical thinking as the ability and tendency to employ rational cognitive strategies in the appropriate circumstances.  A cognitive strategy is simply a thinking process that helps us obtain knowledge.  We teach these across all of our classes.  In my own discipline of philosophy, this might mean translating an argument into its logical form and evaluating its validity or asking about the meaning of a given term.  In a field conducting experimental research, this might mean formulating a hypothesis or identifying potential confounds.  While such strategies are not discipline-specific, the kinds of problems each discipline reasons about lead to differences in which strategies are most effective, and most commonly used, by its practitioners.

The crucial point about this definition is that critical thinking is metacognitive. The mere ability to employ a rational cognitive strategy does not make me a critical thinker.  I am a critical thinker when I can and do pick the right strategy for the situation I am in.  Understanding how to think through experimental reasoning is a valuable ability for a critical thinker, but I also need to be able to recognize the different set of questions I ought to ask about qualitative field research.

The central question with which to begin is: what is it to think like a member of my discipline? What is it like to think like an anthropologist?  A political scientist?  A physicist?  That is, when approaching your subject matter, what kinds of problems and tasks do you find yourself facing (kinds of material to learn, kinds of data to analyze, kinds of problems to solve), and how do you approach those problems (what kinds of questions do you ask? what kinds of problem solving strategies do you use)?  

For example, an economist might ask certain kinds of questions about visual representations of data, while a psychologist examines the ways in which complex variables have been operationalized in an experimental study. Teaching a student to think critically is helping them to see how we implement these strategies, when we ought to do so, and why we choose those strategies.

These strategies are likely the things you are already doing in your course with the students.  It is what you want them to do in analyzing texts, contributing to discussion, designing and evaluating empirical studies, and solving homework problems.  The ‘why’ we use these strategies is also typically pretty clear to us – it is, after all, why we ask students to practice them.  More challenging is to break down the ‘how’ into steps communicable to non-experts, and to recognize the ‘when,’ as our deep training in our discipline often ingrains our ability to recognize the right problem solving strategies as second nature.

The more detailed we can be, however, in identifying the ‘how’ and ‘when,’ the more guidance we have in how to structure our coursework and assessments.  If I know that I want my students to learn how to recognize logically invalid arguments, I might start by helping students see the distinction between the logical form of a sentence and its content, and build activities and homework to practice that skill before I ask students to identify what the precise logical form of a sentence is.  As I sequence activities, I might begin by giving students explicit instruction on which strategy is appropriate to the given problem set, but later ask them to choose the right strategy (e.g., should I analyze this argument as an inductive or deductive argument?).  In following this process, students not only develop their facility with the strategies necessary to thinking critically, but they come to develop their ability to use the right strategies for the right kinds of problems, that is, to think critically.  The sequence involved in developing both the skills and the ability to ascertain which strategy to employ, and when, provides the structure upon which a course is built, and the result is an education in how to think critically that is tied to the faculty’s own expertise as a thinker and scholar.

This approach has one final advantage: it speaks to what is distinctive about teaching in the academy.  Information about our fields of expertise can be reproduced in videos and self-paced online lessons.  What the academy provides is the opportunity to study with a sociologist, to study with a literature scholar, and to study with a geologist.  It is these experiences which most profoundly teach our students how to think about the world.

So how do we apply this in our classrooms?  A good place to start is by picking out at least one of those thinking strategies that are second nature to an expert in your field, the strategies that tell us what it is to think like an expert in your field.  Once you’ve identified how and when to use that strategy, build a set of assignments or activities that walk students first through using the strategy, and then through choosing when to do so.  As students practice and develop these abilities, they will not only gain expertise in how to think like an expert in your field, but they will improve the critical thinking abilities so many of us strive to teach.