Teaching for Critical Thinking
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Teaching for Critical Thinking

Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions

Stephen D. Brookfield

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eBook - ePub

Teaching for Critical Thinking

Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions

Stephen D. Brookfield

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Über dieses Buch

While notions of what constitutes critical thinking vary, educators, politicians, and employers all agree that critical thinking skills are necessary for well-educated citizens and a key capacity for successful employees. In Teaching for Critical Thinking, Stephen Brookfield explores how students learn to think critically and what methods teachers can use to help.

In his engaging, conversational style, Brookfield establishes a basic protocol of critical thinking that focuses on students uncovering and checking assumptions, exploring alternative perspectives, and taking informed actions. The book fosters a shared understanding of critical thinking and helps all faculty adapt general principles to specific disciplinary contexts.

Drawing on thousands of student testimonies, the book identifies the teaching methods and approaches that are most successful when teaching students to think, read, and write critically. Brookfield explains when to make critical thinking the classroom focus, how to encourage critical discussions, and ways to reach skeptical students. He outlines the basic components required when reviewing a text critically and shows how to give highly specific feedback.

The book also addresses how to foster critical thinking across an institution, beginning with how it can be explained in syllabi and even integrated into strategic plans and institutional missions. Brookfield stresses the importance of teachers modeling critical thinking and demonstrates himself how to do this.

Crammed with activities and techniques, this how-to guide is applicable in face-to-face, online, and hybrid classrooms of all sizes. Each exercise includes detailed instructions, examples from different academic disciplines, and guidance for when and how to best use each activity. Any reader will come away with a pedagogic tool kit of new ideas for classroom exercises, new approaches to designing course assignments, and new ways to assess students' ability to practice critical analysis.

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What Is Critical Thinking?
As a reader and a working classroom teacher I always appreciate a chapter, or even a book, that starts by telling me what I’m going to be reading in the next few pages. That way, if it’s of no interest to me I can skip it and spend my time doing something more useful or pleasurable (hopefully both). So let me begin this introduction by saying that in this chapter I want to introduce what I understand as the basic process of critical thinking. This entails (1) identifying the assumptions that frame our thinking and determine our actions, (2) checking out the degree to which these assumptions are accurate and valid, (3) looking at our ideas and decisions (intellectual, organizational, and personal) from several different perspectives, and (4) on the basis of all this, taking informed actions. I also propose a basic typology of different kinds of assumptions that critical thinking unearths and scrutinizes—paradigmatic, prescriptive, and causal.
I’m also using this chapter to make some strong claims about critical thinking. I argue that if you can’t think critically your survival is in peril because you risk living a life that—without your being aware of it—hurts you and serves the interests of those who wish you harm. If you can’t think critically you have no chance of recognizing, let alone pushing back on, those times you are being manipulated. And if you can’t think critically you will behave in ways that have less chance of achieving the results you want. So critical thinking is not just an academic process that leads to good scores on SATs, elegantly argued essays, or experimental hypotheses that can stand the toughest scrutiny. It is a way of living that helps you stay intact when any number of organizations (corporate, political, educational, and cultural) are trying to get you to think and act in ways that serve their purposes.
How Critical Thinking Saved My Life
As a way of leading into these ideas I want to begin on a personal note by showing how critical thinking saved my life. A few years ago I was at rock bottom emotionally. I was one of the 20 million Americans diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety, convinced most days that I was on the verge of death and feeling worthless and ashamed about my inability to control my state of mind. I spent a great deal of energy hiding my depression as best I could from family, friends, and colleagues, and steadfastly refused to seek medical help. Since, objectively, I had nothing to be depressed about (I had a job I loved and a loving family) my response to my depression was to tell myself to snap out of it. I believed the way to beat depression was to reason my way through it, to tell myself that since there was no earthly reason I should be depressed, I ought to just stop being that way. My depression’s persistence and debilitating effect were heightened dramatically because I wasn’t thinking critically about it. Once I started to do this, things improved dramatically. So, I begin this chapter with a bold statement; the ability to think critically about one’s assumptions, beliefs, and actions is a survival necessity.
I’ve written about this period of depression in much greater detail elsewhere (Brookfield, 2011) and this may be entirely too much information about me for you to digest so early! If that’s the case, then skip this introductory section and go to the next section, Hunting Assumptions. If you’re still with me I want to focus on just one point—what was getting in the way of my dealing with my depression was my inability to think critically about it. What I mean by that is that I refused to consider the possibility that any of my assumptions regarding my depression were wrong. For example, I assumed that the right way to deal with depression was to think your way out of it. I assumed that depression was a sign of weakness, unless external circumstances (such as divorce, being fired, or the death of a loved one) warranted it. Because I assumed I was weak, I assumed I needed to hide my condition from peers and colleagues. More fundamentally, I assumed that if I was a real man I would be able just to stare this condition down and force myself out of it by an act of will. I assumed it was up to me to “dig deep” (as the sports cliché has it) and dredge up the mental strength to beat it.
Some of the assumptions I’ve just outlined were on the surface and were reasonably easy to identify. These mostly had to do with how I understand cause and effect. For example, I reasoned that depression was caused by external circumstances and therefore, since my circumstances were good, it was a mistake to be depressed. The assumption that by engaging in intentional self-talk (“come on now, don’t be ridiculous, it’s all in your head, you are in great shape, there’s no reason at all to feel the way you do”) I could move beyond depression was also causal. Causal assumptions can always be stated as cause and effect linkages, as in “if I do A, then B will happen.” Hence, they are both explanatory and predictive. They explain why the past happened by establishing the causes of particular events. They predict the future by positing what will be the consequences and effects of certain decisions.
Some of the assumptions about depression I reviewed were more about how good professionals (which is how I thought of myself) are supposed to behave. These were prescriptive assumptions. Prescriptive assumptions are assumptions we hold about what are desirable ways of thinking or acting. They can usually be recognized by their inclusion of the word should, as in “a good professional should be able to respond to cultural diversity,” or “a good marriage is one in which partners can be totally honest with each other.” Prescriptive assumptions state what a good friendship or relationship looks like, what should be the characteristics of a truly democratic decision, or how social resources should be allocated. I held a prescriptive assumption that a normal, fully functioning person copes well with life and doesn’t get depressed. I believed that good professionals don’t let irrational feelings of depression, worthlessness, or shame dominate their lives.
The third type of assumptions I held about depression was harder for me to uncover and challenge. These assumptions lay deeper within my mental structures and were not immediately apparent to me. They were so much a part of my outlook, and so central to my self-identity, that when they were pointed out to me as being assumptions I was tempted to reply, “that’s not an assumption, that’s reality.” Specifically, I assumed that a fully functioning man is logical, clear-headed, and determined, a sort of steely-jawed, no nonsense mental equivalent of an early Clint Eastwood character, or Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Although I would have strenuously denied it at the time, I had assumed that the ideology of patriarchy—the belief that men are governed by reason, women by emotion, and therefore that men’s powers of rationality equip them to be natural leaders—was correct. As I say, this was not an assumption I held consciously. It was much more subtle than that; it had wormed its way into my consciousness, so to speak. I call this kind of assumption a paradigmatic assumption.
Paradigmatic assumptions are the deeply held assumptions that frame the whole way we look at the world. When we discover paradigmatic assumptions it often comes as a shock. In the case of depression I had no real awareness of just how strongly I had successfully internalized the assumptions of patriarchy. Patriarchy views men as natural leaders and decision makers because they are guided by reason and logic, unlike women who are regarded as being guided by irrational emotion. Patriarchy says that a “real” man has no need for drugs to fight depression and, moreover, that a real man doesn’t suffer from depression in the first place. Because men are deemed to be naturally strong and in command they assume that if they simply tell themselves not to be depressed that will take care of the problem.
I had been well socialized over five decades into accepting the ideology of patriarchy, and it was so much a part of me that it was very difficult for me to see just how powerfully that ideology was shaping my behavior. But I’m convinced that one reason I didn’t seek help until after years of misery was because I believed that if I was a “proper man,” a “real man,” I wouldn’t need a psychiatrist, or drugs, to help me deal with depression. All I would need was manly inner fortitude. “I’m a man, I’m supposed to be ruled by reason, I should be able to keep my feelings under control” was the inner voice that rumbled beneath my more conscious conversations. To take drugs to deal with a problem was something that would be OK if I was a woman, but was surely a sign of weakness for a man. So month after month, year after year, I refused to consider any suggestion of medication. This refusal was underscored by the fact that the only people I knew who were taking medication for mental problems were all women. There was no male I was aware of under meds for depression.
One thing I learned about overcoming shame was that for me, a man, it required a process of ideological detoxification. I had to understand just how deeply and powerfully the ideology of patriarchy had been implanted in me over my five decades on the planet. And I had to understand, too, that stopping it from determining how I thought about, and responded to, my own depression would be a long haul. Even today, despite having written books on critical theory (Brookfield, 2004) and radicalizing learning (Brookfield and Holst, 2010)—both of which explore how to resist ideological manipulation—I still feel there’s an unseemly lack of manliness, or grit, in my suffering from and disclosing my depression.
A second paradigmatic assumption I had to uncover had to do with the etiology of depression. I assumed that people feel depressed because something bad has happened to them. So the fact that depression had settled on me seemingly out of the blue was completely puzzling. Yes, 9/11 had happened a few months before, and yes, I had nursed my mother during her last weeks of cancer a year earlier, and yes, some test results I had received had been worrying—but none of those seemed to account for the overwhelming anxiety and depression that gripped me. The paradigmatic assumption that depression was rationally caused, and therefore treated by the application of reason, took me years to unearth, challenge, and discard. I had always considered myself a sentimental person, given to emotional reactions to people, compassion, sport, music, and film, and had no idea of just how deeply the epistemology of European rationality was assimilated within me. Challenging and changing my unquestioning belief in rationality with the assumption that depression was the result of chemical imbalances in the brain was enormously difficult. I was so fixated on my inability to reason myself out of feeling depressed that I was unable to consider any other way of understanding how depression was caused.
Once this second paradigmatic assumption was challenged then many of my causal and prescriptive assumptions started to totter. Having managed to reframe my assumptions about the etiology of depression, it became much easier to keep the debilitating effects of shame under control. If depression is linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, I could tell myself, then part of its treatment has to be pharmaceutical. Suddenly, drugs didn’t seem a sign of weakness, an indication that I was a pathetic excuse as a human being. After all, my psychiatrist told me, you’re fine with taking drugs for bodily imbalances such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, acid reflux—why should taking drugs to redress chemical imbalances in the brain be any different? Instead of assuming that depression was always caused by the existence of depressing external circumstances that a real man should be able to transcend, I started to see it as a medical condition like asthma, diabetes, or high blood pressure. Once I started to view depression as caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain and not by the external circumstances of life, I opened myself up to the possibility that it might be appropriate to treat my condition with pharmaceuticals.
All this is by way of illustration of how critical thinking saved my life. Because I identified and challenged several assumptions I held about the nature, cause, and treatment of depression I was able to seek psychiatric help and eventually settle on a combination of medications that kept me emotionally stable. Instead of being plagued by permanent feelings of shame and worthlessness, and feeling suicidal on some days, I returned to my old self. That’s not to say I don’t have days when I feel down, get fed up with things, or feel anxious about situations. But because I was able to think critically about it, depression doesn’t rule my life as it did. Had I not been able to think critically about it, the depression would still be overwhelming me.
Hunting Assumptions
The core process described in the example I’ve just given in the opening section of this chapter—as it is in all critical thinking—is hunting assumptions. Trying to discover what our assumptions are, and then trying to judge when, and how far, these are accurate, is something that happens every time critical thinking occurs. You cannot think critically without hunting assumptions; that is, without trying to uncover assumptions and then trying to assess their accuracy and validity, their fit with life.
Assumptions are guides to truth embedded in our mental outlooks. They are the daily rules that frame how we make decisions and take actions. Everyday communications are subject to a continuous and ever-present set of assumptions. We make assumptions about the meaning behind the words we, and others, use, about the meaning of certain gestures, expressions, or pauses, or about how to respond to a comment. Assumptions inform our judgments about whether or not someone is telling the truth, or how to recognize when we are being manipulated.
As we move through each hour of each day our actions are always based in assumptions, most of which have been confirmed by repeated experience. I brush my teeth assuming that doing so will prevent tooth decay and cut down on the expense and pain of dental procedures. I choose my food for the day based on assumptions about how healthy, or how pleasurable, eating those foods will be. I set the thermostat and choose clothes based on assumptions I’m making drawn from the weather report. As I drive to an appointment I fill the gas tank, lock the back door, follow traffic lights, and rely on street signs on the assumption that doing all these things will get me where I want to go in the speediest and safest way possible. All the assumptions I’ve mentioned are held because experience has shown them to be accurate. When I want to get to Fridley, Minnesota, I follow the AAA map and the interstate road signs, and set the GPS, because doing this in the past for other destinations has been successful. So I assume that it will be equally successful this time around.
Assumptions as instinctive guides to truth operate at much deeper levels than that of daily routine, however. In the example of depression, a host of assumptions were present about what it meant to be a man. Some of these were highly personal and context specific, but others were linked to dominant ideologies such as patriarchy and what critical theorists call the instrumentalization of reason (Brookfield, 2004). This is a fearsome sounding piece of academic jargon that actually is pretty easy to understand. Instrumentalized reasoning is described by Horkheimer and Adorno (1972) and Marcuse (1964) as the kind of thinking that is most valued in contemporary life. Basically, you reason instrumentally whenever you try to fix a problem without ever questioning whether or not the problem is the one that needs fixing. You reason instrumentally when you tinker with a system—for example, how to assess whether students are learning correctly—so as to improve it, to make it more effective. You don’t ask whose interests are served by solving the problem, because you’re so focused on being a good fix-it kind of person.
When people think critically they question the fundamental assumptions behind how problems are defined. They ask the big questions of life—what constitutes learning? How do we organize organizations and communities to encourage compassion or fairness? What is the fundamental purpose of teaching? What does it mean to work authentically? Needless to say, in an instrumentalized culture asking these questions is usually seen as either Utopian, impractical, or idealistic, something we grow out of and come to regard as an annoying waste of time.
Assumptions that spring from dominant ideologies are particularly hard to uncover, precisely because these ideologies are everywhere, so common as to be thought blindingly obvious and therefore not worthy of being the object of sustained questioning. These are the paradigmatic assumptions described earlier. Ideologies are the sets of beliefs and practices that are accepted by the majority as commonsense ways of organizing the world. Some of them operate at macro-levels, such as the assumption that majority vote democracy is the decision-making system that most fairly meets the most important needs of the majority. Others operate at micro-levels, such as the assumption that a secret vote gives the most accurate result, or that an action supported by a majority vote has the greatest legitimacy and is therefore the one that should be followed.
Along with democracy, free-market capitalism is another ideology that exercises enormous influence. On a macro-level capitalism holds that the less you regulate economic activity, the more you encourage individual entrepreneurship. Capitalism further assumes that individual economic enterprise and political liberty are inextricably intertwined, so that if you want to safeguard a free democracy you must defend capitalism. Consequently, socialism, communism, even social democracy are viewed as inherently undemocratic. After all, if ...


  1. Cover
  2. Title page
  3. Copyright page
  4. Preface
  5. About the Author
  6. 1 What Is Critical Thinking?
  7. 2 Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines
  8. 3 How Critical Thinking Is Learned
  9. 4 Introducing Basic Protocols of Critical Thinking
  10. 5 Developing Critical Complexity
  11. 6 Reading and Writing Critically
  12. 7 Integrating Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum
  13. 8 Making Discussions Critical
  14. 9 Misunderstandings, Challenges, and Risks
  15. 10 Modeling Critical Thinking
  16. References
  17. Index