Earlier this fall I published a piece on Critical Thinking in Education Week online. In it I argued that “critical thinking” is, for most people (including teachers and administrators) a meaningless term. It signifies something to be desired (who could be against it!) but when you ask someone what he means by teaching critical thinking you often get tautologies like “I teach kids to reason” or “I get them to think” or “I use the Socratic method.” (One video describes teaching critical thinking as getting kids to ask questions and another as getting students to define their terms.)
I know exactly the mental operations that I’m hoping to train and so for me, I regard my contribution to teaching critical thinking particularly as the ability to draw correct inferences from assembled data and the ability to recognize patterns. I have several exercises to help me help students train themselves to practice inferential skills and to recognize patterns. (I also have them do memorization exercises and recognition exercises and application of skills exercises and all sorts of other mental operations but, for me, critical thinking and the altering of intelligence is done through teaching pattern recognition, inferential skills, convergent and divergent production [group things and then split them up], and evaluation. DON’T TRUST ANY TEACHER WHO CAN’T TELL YOU WHAT MENTAL OPERATIONS THEY ARE WORKING WITH IN ADDITION TO THE ACTUAL MATERIAL THEY ARE COVERING!)
I begin by explaining that the attitude students must bring is one that presupposes meaning to any “text” they are studying (a painting, a man-to-man defense, a “cover-two” with blitz package, the various shrugs and nods of a pitcher accepting and declining signs, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas, Huck Finn, or The Simpsons–all the world’s a text!) This is not as obvious as it seems–many students approach texts assuming that there is NO meaning and so CANNOT find one (or cannot create one–creating meaning [as oppposed to finding it] is not so bad as it might seem and by the time we get to existentialism we can do quite a bit with this idea)–but back to finding and creating meaning. When I teach lyric poetry–often daunting–we begin with puzzle poems, we search for patterns (I often use brain-teasers and puzzles in class anyway as warm-ups because puzzles and brain teasers self-evidently have solutions). I’d much rather have a student who finds patterns that don’t exist than students who find no patterns–the first kind of student is on the right path; the second does not know there is a path.
In any event, here is a cool (usually) two-day exercise that helps students watch their own thinking and to reflect on various mental processes (not just inferential skills but definitional skills, descriptive skills, etc.).
Take a bag (book bag, shopping bag, pledge drive bag–it doesn’t matter–I use one with a Greenpeace logo) and then fill it with stuff from around your house of office or engage your friends to contribute random things–stuff like Visine, aspirin bottle, gardening gloves, kids toys, scraps of paper, from your car floor, a novel, tools, a magazine or catalogue, some business cards from people they won’t know, graph paper, pencils, random keys, incense sticks–raid your junk drawer for literally anything). Depending on the class level and time allotted I might pick anywhere from 20 to 70 items. Tell the students you are going to play a game and the game is that you found the bag in the parking lot and they are going to take things out and as they do so they’ll have to describe each article and then eventually they will construct the person to whom the bag belongs. We keep a list on the board and each student keeps a list of all the stuff. I have the students get up, pick the objects, move around the room, pass the objects around (I wouldn’t bring breakables).
It helps if you pick a couple of objects which require some specialized knowledge–I use an architect’s scale which most students identify as a ruler–but usually someone knows it’s not and will correct that (it might make a difference if graph paper is another item or an architectural magazine or home design magazine is in the bag). After everything is out then start making groups–things that pertain to health: Visine, aspirin, cough drops; things to be read: magazine, book (but what if the magazine has an article about health in it?!); children’s toys or objects: a sippy cup, a tennis ball (or is that for a dog?), a refrigerator magnet letter. And on an on–make categories with them or let them gloriously create their own with little help. Does the bag count as an artifact? (If students know what Greenpeace is does that cause them to begin to draw conclusions about the person?) Does the fact that it locks or doesn’t lock mean something–could passersby have already taken key things out–could some of the trash in it have been put in? Does a crumpled advertising flier mean “anger” or did the recipient just get two of them? Do objects have gender? (pulling a gardening magazine early in process often causes people to start using “she” for the owner; try pulling a pair of pliers [or are those more specifically “channel locks”] or a screw driver [Phillips-head, flat-head, square head?] and watch the gender become male). A great deal of the fun comes from grouping and re-grouping and watching students develop and see relationships that delight and instruct me. I occasionally bring a visual encyclopedia to help them–I use What’s What: A Visual Glossary of the Physical World (also a favorite of novelist George Pelecanos) published by Hammond, but there are other good ones. It helps you see the world more clearly, know the correct terms for things, and it makes you more exact.
To finish I have them try to construct a plausible story for the person that incorporates as many artifacts as possible. (I always grab random stuff from my house and a have a friend bring in junk so it is a process of discovery for me, too–my kids love this assignment.)
Often, one thing we learn (in addition to my ability to assess their strengths at pattern making, convergent production, drawing inferences, etc) is the all-too-human characteristic of suppressing evidence that does not fit their “person”–it’s amazing to watch what doesn’t fit the character they create get left out of the discussion.
A common assignment if I choose to move from the class or small group level to the individual level is to ask for an essay in which the student constructs a story that tries to incorporate the disparate elements of the bag into a coherent whole. (I have done this exercise to help introduce inferential reasoning to a statistics class and it can be done in a world languages class with an emphasis on creating “work-arounds” for not knowing the specific vocabulary to name an object–instead you have to describe it with words you do know.) I cribbed the embryo of this exercise form an archeology text-book where the professor would “seed” the trash can for the first day of class and then dump the can on the desk and have the class try to construct the society based on the things it throws away.
I think next week I am writing about the obligations of teachers and students and then at least one entry on Japanese literature and culture.