Teaching Critical Thinking
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Teaching Critical Thinking

Practical Wisdom

bell hooks

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eBook - ePub

Teaching Critical Thinking

Practical Wisdom

bell hooks

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About This Book

In Teaching Critical Thinking, renowned cultural critic and progressive educator bell hooks addresses some of the most compelling issues facing teachers in and out of the classroom today.

In a series of short, accessible, and enlightening essays, hooks explores the confounding and sometimes controversial topics that teachers and students have urged her to address since the publication of the previous best-selling volumes in her Teaching series, Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community. The issues are varied and broad, from whether meaningful teaching can take place in a large classroom setting to confronting issues of self-esteem. One professor, for example, asked how black female professors can maintain positive authority in a classroom without being seen through the lens of negative racist, sexist stereotypes. One teacher asked how to handle tears in the classroom, while another wanted to know how to use humor as a tool for learning.

Addressing questions of race, gender, and class in this work, hooks discusses the complex balance that allows us to teach, value, and learn from works written by racist and sexist authors. Highlighting the importance of reading, she insists on the primacy of free speech, a democratic education of literacy. Throughout these essays, she celebrates the transformative power of critical thinking. This is provocative, powerful, and joyful intellectual work. It is a must read for anyone who is at all interested in education today.

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Teaching 1 Critical Thinking

DOI: 10.4324/9780203869192-2
On the cover of my memoir Bone Black there is a snapshot of me taken when I was three or four. I am holding a toy made in vacation Bible school, a book shaped like a dove. I often joke that this picture could be called “a portrait of the intellectual as a young girl”—my version of The Thinker. The girl in the snapshot is looking intensely at the object in her hands; her brow a study in intense concentration. Staring at this picture, I can see her thinking. I can see her mind at work.
Thinking is an action. For all aspiring intellectuals, thoughts are the laboratory where one goes to pose questions and find answers, and the place where visions of theory and praxis come together. The heartbeat of critical thinking is the longing to know—to understand how life works. Children are organically predisposed to be critical thinkers. Across the boundaries of race, class, gender, and circumstance, children come into the world of wonder and language consumed with a desire for knowledge. Sometimes they are so eager for knowledge that they become relentless interrogators—demanding to know the who, what, when, where, and why of life. Searching for answers, they learn almost instinctively how to think.
Sadly, children's passion for thinking often ends when they encounter a world that seeks to educate them for conformity and obedience only. Most children are taught early on that thinking is dangerous. Sadly, these children stop enjoying the process of thinking and start fearing the thinking mind. Whether in homes with parents who teach via a model of discipline and punish that it is better to choose obedience over self-awareness and self-determination, or in schools where independent thinking is not acceptable behavior, most children in our nation learn to suppress the memory of thinking as a passionate, pleasurable activity.
By the time most students enter college classrooms, they have come to dread thinking. Those students who do not dread thinking often come to classes assuming that thinking will not be necessary, that all they will need to do is consume information and regurgitate it at the appropriate moments. In traditional higher education settings, students find themselves yet again in a world where independent thinking is not encouraged. Fortunately, there are some classrooms in which individual professors aim to educate as the practice of freedom. In these settings, thinking, and most especially critical thinking, is what matters.
Students do not become critical thinkers overnight. First, they must learn to embrace the joy and power of thinking itself. Engaged pedagogy is a teaching strategy that aims to restore students' will to think, and their will to be fully self-actualized. The central focus of engaged pedagogy is to enable students to think critically. In his essay “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?” Daniel Willingham says critical thinking consists
of seeing both sides of an issue, being open to new evidence that disconfirms young ideas, reasoning dispassionately, demanding that claims be backed by evidence, deducing and inferring conclusions from available facts, solving problems, and so forth.
In simpler terms, critical thinking involves first discovering the who, what, when, where, and how of things—finding the answers to those eternal questions of the inquisitive child—and then utilizing that knowledge in a manner that enables you to determine what matters most. Educator Dennis Rader, author of Teaching Redefined, considers the capacity to determine “what is significant” central to the process of critical thinking. In their book The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools, Richard Paul and Linda Elder define critical thinking as “the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.” They further define critical thinking as “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self corrective.” Thinking about thinking, or mindful thinking about ideas, is a necessary component of critical thinking. Paul and Elder remind us:
Critical thinkers are clear as to the purpose at hand and the question at issue. They question information, conclusions and point of view. They strive to be clear, accurate, precise, and relevant. They seek to think beneath the surface, to be logical and fair. They apply these skills to their reading and writing as well as to their speaking and listening.
Critical thinking is an interactive process, one that demands participation on the part of teacher and students alike.
All of these definitions encompass the understanding that critical thinking requires discernment. It is a way of approaching ideas that aims to understand core, underlying truths, not simply that superficial truth that may be most obviously visible. One of the reasons deconstruction became such a rage in academic circles is that it urged people to think long, hard, and critically; to unpack; to move beneath the surface; to work for knowledge. While many critical thinkers may find intellectual or academic fulfillment doing this work, that does not mean that students have universally and unequivocally embraced learning to think critically.
In fact, most students resist the critical thinking process; they are more comfortable with learning that allows them to remain passive. Critical thinking requires all participants in the classroom process to be engaged. Professors who work diligently to teach critical thinking often become discouraged when students resist. Yet when the student does learn the skill of critical thinking (and it is usually the few and not the many who do learn) it is a truly rewarding experience for both parties. When I teach students to be critical thinkers, I hope to share by my example the pleasure of working with ideas, of thinking as an action.
Keeping an open mind is an essential requirement of critical thinking. I often talk about radical openness because it became clear to me, after years in academic settings, that it was far too easy to become attached to and protective of one's viewpoint, and to rule out other perspectives. So much academic training encourages teachers to assume that they must be “right” at all times. Instead, I propose that teachers must be open at all times, and we must be willing to acknowledge what we do not know. A radical commitment to openness maintains the integrity of the critical thinking process and its central role in education. This commitment requires much courage and imagination. In From Critical Thinking to Argument authors Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau emphasize that, “Critical thinking requires us to use our imagination, seeing things from perspectives other than our own and envisioning the likely consequences of our position.” Therefore, critical thinking does not simply place demands on students, it also requires teachers to show by example that learning in action means that not all of us can be right all the time, and that the shape of knowledge is constantly changing.
The most exciting aspect of critical thinking in the classroom is that it calls for initiative from everyone, actively inviting all students to think passionately and to share ideas in a passionate, open manner. When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful. In such a community of learning there is no failure. Everyone is participating and sharing whatever resource is needed at a given moment in time to ensure that we leave the classroom knowing that critical thinking empowers us.

Teaching 2 Democratic Education

DOI: 10.4324/9780203869192-3
Growing up in the fifties when schools were still racially segregated and the seeds of civil rights struggle were being spread quietly, folks talked about the meaning and value of democracy. It was both a public discourse and a private topic of conversation. Black men like my father who had fought in the all-black infantry during the second world war came home disillusioned by a nation that had sent them to fight and die to “keep the world safe for democracy” while denying them civil rights. This disillusionment did not lead them to despair. It served as the catalyst for them to struggle on the home front to make our nation truly democratic. Throughout my high school years, I participated in the Voice of Democracy essay contests put on as part of their scholarship programs. In my essays, I would passionately express my views that our country was a great nation, the greatest nation in the world, because the United States was committed to democracy. I wrote that all citizens needed to assume responsibility for protecting and maintaining democracy.
Like many black children, I had been taught that one of the most important aspects of our democracy was that it granted the right of education to everyone irrespective of race, gender, or class.
There is little public discourse among students today about the nature of democracy. Nowadays, most students simply assume that living in a democratic society is their birthright; they do not believe they must work to maintain democracy. They may not even associate democracy with the ideal of equality. In their minds, the enemies of democracy are always and only some foreign “other” waiting to attack and destroy democratic life. They do not read the American thinkers, past and present, who teach us the meaning of democracy. They do not read John Dewey. They do not know his powerful declaration that “democracy has to be born anew in each generation, and education is its midwife.” Highlighting the need to align schooling with democratic values, James Beane and Michael Apple paraphrase John Dewey in their book Democratic Schools to explain, “If people are to secure and maintain a democratic way of life, they must have opportunities to learn what that way of life means and how it might be led.” When disenfranchised groups of American citizens worked to change all educational institutions so that everyone would have equal access—black people/people of color and white females, along with allies in struggle—there was a dynamic national discourse about democratic values. In keeping with that discourse, educators were deemed crucial conveyers of democratic ideals. At the core of these ideals was a profound, ongoing commitment to social justice.
Many of those allies in struggle were white males who, by virtue of circumstance and privilege, had been at the forefront of efforts to make education a site where democratic ideals would always be realized. Yet, many of these proponents of democratic values were divided. In theory, they expressed the belief that everyone should have the right to learn and yet, in their practice, they helped maintain hierarchies within educational institutions wherein privileged groups were given advantage. Like Thomas Jefferson, who contributed much to the rise of democracy, their minds were divided. Although he could proclaim “educate and inform the mass of people,” in much of his work Jefferson's split mind was revealed. On one hand he could speak and write eloquently about the need to uphold the spirit of democracy and of equality, and on the other hand he could own slaves and deny black people basic human rights. Despite these contradictions, Jefferson did not waver in his belief that embracing change was crucial to the “progress of the human mind.” He wrote, “As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” Certainly, as the critique of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal values gained momentum, schooling and education began to undergo profound and radical changes.
Conservative dominator culture responded to these changes by attacking public policies like affirmative action that had provided the means by which institutions of higher learning could include disenfranchised groups. Consequently, the doors to education that had opened and allowed the disenfranchised to enter were closing. The subsequent rise of private schools undermined public schools, while teaching for testing reinforced discrimination and exclusion, and segregation on the basis of race and class has quickly become an accepted norm. On all fronts, funding for education has been cut. Progressive professors who had once pushed for radical change were simply bought off. High status and high salaries motivated them to join the very system they had once worked so hard to dismantle.
By the 1990s, Black Studies, Women's Studies, and Cultural Studies were all revamped so that they were no longer progressive locations within educational systems from which a public discourse about freedom and democracy could be vocalized. They were, for the most part, deradicalized. And in those locations where deradicalization did not take place, they were ghettoized, deemed a suitable playground for students who wanted to assume a radical persona. Today, professors who refuse to comply with deradicalization are often marginalized or even encouraged to leave academia. Those of us who stay, who continue to work to educate for the practice of freedom, see first-hand the ways that democratic education is being undermined as the interests of big business and corporate capitalism encourage students to see education solely as a means to achieve material success. Such thinking makes acquiring information more important than gaining knowledge or learning how to think critically.
The principle of equality, which is at the core of democratic values, has very little meaning in a world in which a global oligarchy is taking over. Using the threat of terrorist attack to convince citizens that free speech and protest place our nation at risk, governments globally are integrating fascist policies that undermine democracy on all fronts. Explaining that “capitalism no longer needs democracy” in his powerful polemic How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth, Herve Kempf contends:
Thus, democracy has become antithetical to the objectives the oligarchy seeks: democracy favors opposition to unwarranted privileges; it feeds doubts about illegitimate powers; it pushes for the rational examination of decisions. It is consequently more dangerous all the time during a period when the harmful tendencies of capitalism are becoming more obvious.
Now more than ever before in our nation, we need educators to make schools places where the conditions for democratic consciousness can be established and flourish.
Educational systems have been the primary place in our nation where free speech, dissent, and pluralistic opinions are valued in theory and practice. In her thoughtful consideration of this subject, Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy: On Being an American Citizen, Susan Griffin reminds us that “to keep the spirit of democracy alive requires a continual revolution.” In her profound meditation on democracy, The Healing of America, Marianne Williamson emphasizes ways that the democratic principle of unity in diversity remains the foundation of democratic values:
There are people in America who overemphasize our unity yet fail to appreciate the importance of our diversity, just as there are those who emphasize our diversity yet fail to appreciate the importance of our unity. It is imperative that we honor both. It is our unity and our diversity that matter, and their relationship to each other reflects a philosophical and political truth outside of which we cannot thrive.
Griffin echoes these sentiments: “In a democracy many different points of view about every possible subject will be expressed, and almost all of them must be tolerated. This is one reason why democratic societies are usually pluralistic.” The future of democratic education will be determined by the extent to which democratic values can triumph over the spirit of oligarchy that seeks to silence diverse voices, prohibit free speech, and deny citizens access to education.
Progressive educators continue to honor education as the practice of freedom because we understand that democracy thrives in an environment where learning is valued, where the ability to think is the mark of responsible citizenship, where free speech and the will to dissent is accepted and encouraged. Griffin contends that,
those who would contribute to democratic consciousness would transgress the boundaries of prejudice and assumption is consistent with the deep desire for free speech and thought, not just as tools in the eternal battles for political power that occur in every era but from an even more fundamental democratic impulse, the desire to enlarge consciousness.
Democratic education is based on the assumption that democracy works, that it is the foundation of all genuine teaching and learning.

Teaching 3 Engaged Pedagogy

DOI: 10.4324/9780203869192-4
Engaged pedagogy begins with the assumption that we learn best when there is an interactive relationship between student and teacher. As leaders and facilitators, teachers must discover what the students know and what they need to know. This discovery happens only if teachers are willing to engage students beyond a surface level. As teachers, we can create a climate for optimal learning if we understand the level of emotional awareness and emotional intelligence in the classroom. That means we need to take time to assess who we are teaching. When I firs...

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