The secret to teaching critical thinking?

No magic bullet from Brookfield? What shall I do?

When I picked up Stephen D. Brookfield’s award-winning book Developing Critical Thinkers, I confess I was hoping he would hand me a magic bullet to slay the beast that is preventing my students from being critical thinkers.

Indeed, recent research suggests that post-secondary students are not learning critical thinking skills at college and university (see my last blog entry). That’s worrying, since the ability to think critically is crucial to understanding, and being empowered about, the world around us. That includes understanding the causes of developments in our personal relationships, our professional lives, political events, and world affairs.

I’ve been writing a lot about the need to teach our students critical thinking skills and I try to teach them in my classes through our group discussions and assignments. However, I’ve been looking for a way to provide a single focused lesson to introduce my students to the importance of thinking critically and to teach them the basics of implementing this crucial capability.

I was hoping that Brookfield—who I think of as one of the gurus of critical thinking thought—would provide me with an easy one-to-three-this-is-how-you-teach-it exercise for my classroom.

For better or for worse, he’s not going to do it—in this book or in any other, it seems. And he definitely doesn’t want to be called a “guru” because, after all, being suspicious of anyone who claims to have all the answers is what critical thinking is all about.

Sadly, Brookfield would refuse to be my guru

Having said this, Developing Critical Thinkers is also not about teaching critical thinking in a classroom environment. However, the book did inspire me. And an idea is now forming as to how I can create that lesson on critical thinking.

Some teachers might argue that it’s my job to teach writing to students as opposed to teaching them how to think. After all, I’m a business communications instructor. But how are students to read critically if they can’t think critically?

So I’m going to take a stab at teaching critical thinking and I’m going to do it as a result of inspiration from Brookfield and my old journalism pal Jordan Press, who is now a national reporter for Post Media. A former newsroom colleague at the Kingston Whig-Standard, Jordan left the newspaper to obtain his Masters of Education before accepting a reporting job at Post Media in Ottawa. His Masters research revolved around media literacy and it really excited him.

After reading Developing Critical Thinkers, I understand why media literacy is so interesting for a teacher in training. Brookfield explains that helping people to become media literate, or “critically alert,” is a great way to help them practice critical thinking skills.

“In whatever mode and format they choose to work, educators and other helpers should regard the development of media literacy as one of the most important and influential ways in which they can develop critical thinkers,” he writes.

Critical thinking, after all, is about calling into question the assumptions on which we base our ways of seeing the world and then acting differently based upon the new views we form through that analysis. Those of us who are media literate watch out for the ways that the news media distort reality, either through journalists’ pre-existing assumptions and/or assumptions they cause their audience to adopt as a result of the way they present the news.

People who are media literate, or critically alert, watch out for commentators who oversimplify disputes. We know that most issues are not black or white. We know that unpopular minority views often receive “repressive tolerance,” as Brookfield describes it. In other words, the views of minorities—or unpopular views—may indeed be reported on, but they may be neutralized (by placing their viewpoints lower in a story, for example).

No magic answers? Then what do you call inspiration?

We also know imagery can be used to make protesters or striking workers, for example, look more violent than they are, which can discredit their case. And we know that executives frequently receive better press treatment in television interviews. They’re often interviewed in their quiet, well-lit air-conditioned offices while protestors are often interviewed outside in angry and loud crowd scenes where they must think on their feet and shout to be heard.

The critically alert watch out for these types of devices, which can create false assumptions for us. We see these reports for what they are and we adapt our perceptions and actions accordingly.

So that’s one of the tasks I have for myself in the next few weeks as I prepare for the fall semester. I’m going to design a class on media literacy and I’m going to use it to teach my students how to think critically.

And I’ll let you know how it goes.

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About teachingteacher

Business communications instructor, journalist, corporate communications writer and media trainer ... and Masters Candidate M.Ad.Ed.
This entry was posted in adult education, Critical Thinking, Reflective Practice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The secret to teaching critical thinking?

  1. I’d like to discuss my media literacy work with you, which for the past 15+ years, has been bringing critical thinking workshops to teachers and students alike.

  2. Hi Fred. I sent you a note to your AOL email address. Thanks for the offer. I’m keen to chat.

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