Between critical thinking, values, education, and teachers.

8

May 10, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

Some teachers of geography, English, history, religious education, social studies and even science have made it their business to deal overtly with moral and social issues. However carefully teachers avoid overt indoctrination, it is impossible to teach any of these subjects without implying some perspective and making some choices which will be implicitly value-laden.

Barnes, 1988: 18-19

I’m slightly concerned about some demands to include, and teach, critical thinking skills in curricula in general.

What is very easy to happen is that teachers will talk about critical thinking to students and then offer some kind of practice, for example, by showing them an advert and asking tricky questions which more often than not

a) students won’t be able to articulate their ideas to the teacher’s satisfaction (here I’m talking more specifically about Teaching English as a Foreign Language) because of linguistic and even cultural gaps, and;

b) they will give an answers whose intention was more to produce ‘correct’ language than to engage in a critical discussion and/or say whatever they think the teacher and peers will accept as ‘correct’ thought (if you’ve taught multicultural groups you’ll have hopefully had plenty of opportunities to see this happen, I suppose).

There are of course those who will respond ‘as expected’, i.e. with some critical awareness and engagement, but in my experience they’re a minority; not because they cannot think like this, but because the circumstances in which they’re asked to think critically are rather foreign to them; i.e. a classroom is not a place for such thought experiments. And also because in the end the teacher might paradoxically focus on language accuracy rather than critical thinking itself.

This is just so hard! I have the impression that when I give less importance to the linguistic aspects of my students language, they think that I’m not actually teaching them language, which is what in theory they’re paying for. On the other hand, if the focus is primarily on linguistic accuracy, context and motive for speaking becomes just a background, hence the experience becomes more of an evaluative and corrective one, rather than a communicative one. The truth is, there is (apparently) not enough time to take care of both things as much as they deserve. Plus, some students sort of get annoyed when there’s too much talk about their talking; and rather have a succinct feedback and move on with the course.

Back to my concern about teaching critical thinking, I think there are some fundamentals to be considered when interested in such an endeavor.

An important one, as hinted via the quote above, is – we should pay attention to whose values this critical-thinking approach is representing. As far as I can see, it’s often the teacher’s. So, the teacher believes it is good for students to learn how to think the way s/he considers to be the highest form of thinking; and that of course is deeply rooted in the teacher’s values, culture, and everything else. Needless to say it might not be the case for students, at least not in the classroom setting. This was clearly shown to me when teaching for the first time a group of Japanese students, and ‘testing’ their critical thinking abilities by asking open-ended questions on moral dilemmas in whole-group conferencing; and all that in the first couple of lessons with the group. Yes, I know; what the heck was I thinking? But at least I now know better how to approach a similar situation. Anyway, what I want to say is that my choices were value-laden, and so are most of your choices when making pedagogical decisions.

Therefore, I have realized some things that for some are common sense, but for me are rather liberating and consequently challenging:

  • any kind of teaching is teacher-centred in some ways, for it is impossible to completely get out of one’s consciousness when teaching someone something. Teaching is intrinsically value-laden; hence a genuine learner-centered education may only happen without the hierarchical conception of teaching and teachers.
  • learner-centeredness is rooted in Western projects of enlightenmentmodernism, capitalism, autonomy, etc; and is ultimately of an understanding that the individual can be self-governing through high doses of education. All this is so value-laden that, oh boy… I don’t even need to say anything.

Coming down to a practical level, I could only say that:

- critical thinking, if desired, should start from allowing (and why not, teaching) students to challenge their primary source of information, namely the teacher, and his/her teaching apparatus: syllabus, textbook, etc.

In essence, critical thinking starts with being critical about critical thinking itself; whose intention it serves, what for, what values are brought along, etc. It starts from examining the source of knowledge one encounters, with the teacher being the main hub of this knowledge when engaged in formal education.

The questions is: are teachers ready to be taken critically by their students?

Reference

Barner, D. (1988) Knowledge as Action, In: Lightfoot and Martin (eds.) The word for teaching is learning: essays for James Briton. Oxford: Heinemann.

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8 thoughts on “Between critical thinking, values, education, and teachers.

  1. ddeubel says:

    Willy,

    Lots of thoughts to chew upon. I’d even go further than your thesis (and challenge a few things you said) “are teachers ready to be critically taken by themselves?” This is where it all starts, these little questions where the world stops and we ask ourselves, “why” and “why can’t this be that?”

    But I’d also add – “are students ready to be critically taken by their teacher?” (you seem to imply most aren;t – I’m a little less cynical) This is paramount, all teaching is metaphorical and by example. The way for students to start to challenge the status, function and knowledge of the teacher is for them to be challenged and upturned. A teacher needs to risk and “upset the apple cart”, “turn the tables”. It just won’t happen out of thin air, off and on talks. This is the calling and challenge of a social reconstructivist (hate to label this but that’s what we’re talking about). You are making me think of “the man” speech in School Of Rock – something I show my own student teachers in class.

    But I do have to reject your relativism (you seem to imply this). There are truths and this is central to any effort to make a better world and nurture students that embrace these truths. but they are quiet, personal and not easily communicated. These truths are of spirit and you’ll only know them

    Finally, I think critical pedagogy is concerned with a lot more than critical thinking – you might even say the MO is for the teacher to show students how the world might be different. Most don’t ever envision anything else than “turn to page 6″ or “write about what you want to be when you are older. ” We sell our students short. Fortunately in this day and age, the classroom has porous walls and technology is allowing it to be more part of the real world.

    David

  2. What I’ve noticed is that after a good deal of guidance with regard to approaching any task/reading/video/etc critically, the keener students begin to question every source of information, including me; the majority applies techniques autonomously (with good accuracy) on their own source information, but rarely me; the deadbeats who don’t want to be there don’t do anything differently.

    Everything we do and say must inextricably be value-laden and this is no different. One part of critical thinking (for students) though is being able to assess how this is the case and extract information you need and recognising how values are affecting perspective.

  3. dingtonia says:

    Have hd exactly this this week, Willy. Extremely demanding, difficult, sometimes almost incomprehensible student who wanted none of what we thought all students wanted. He challenged every single thing I presented to him – and challenged it critically.

    “Why you ask me about Russian legal system?”
    “Because you are a lawyer and I would like to know about it.”
    “No. You no want know about it. You want make me speak. I not interested in speak. You give me vocabulary.”
    “Okay. Let’s look at some legal vocabulary.”
    “This vocabulary for YOUR system, not mine. I am not lawyer in England.”
    “Okay, where can we look for vocabualry for YOUR system?”
    “This is your job, not mine.”

    Oy! Tough week!!!!

    • annehodg says:

      Oh, no: “I not interested in speak. You give me vocabulary” rings a very loud bell, Candy. I don’t think that’s critical thinking, though, honestly. I think it’s a learning style issue. Sounds like he might be an intrapersonal, deductive, closure-oriented learner.
      I’m experiencing something very similar with my distance learners. They want input neatly packaged so they can learn it by heart and then apply to well-structured business cases.
      Is stretching their learning styles an area of developing their critical thinking skills?

  4. Deirdre says:

    Sounds like damned if we do, damned if we don’t! Unfortunately this has and always will be the difficulty in teaching. I try not to ask so many of these difficult questions because I feel it incapacitates me to some extent. I try to be as flexible as I can. Oh the woes of teaching….

  5. aussieargie says:

    Has anybody tried OSDE methodology for touchy issues and critical thinking in class? I think it’s a good starting point for teachers who can’t let go, and their conversation starters are quite engaging.

  6. TEFL Ideas says:

    I think you have to give a lot of value-laden perspectives. In other words, you do it best by showing all sides of the argument. Wasn’t it Aristotle who said that the mark of an educated is being able to entertain an idea without accepting it. Surely this is what teachers should be encouraging in order to develop critical thinking.

  7. TEFL Ideas says:

    * educated mind.

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