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Rethinking thinking

College classes that make one think - it's a basic concept assumed as a given. But many grads walk away with a diploma yet still lack critical-thinking skills. That's why some educators are asking students to close their textbooks and do a little more reflecting.

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"All disciplines need to become more liberal-arts-like in their focus on the intellectual skills that underlie what they do," she says. "Some of that is critical thinking, some of it is broader and encompasses that."

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Cultivating open-mindedness

If undergraduates aren't learning to think, one major reason may be that most higher education institutions don't know how to systematically teach it, says Elizabeth Minnich, professor of philosophy at the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati.

In an article last month entitled "Teaching Thinking: Moral and Political Considerations" in Change magazine, a higher-education publication, she argues that thinking can and should be taught more deliberately and intentionally in college courses.

She then goes on to describe the kind of thought process she most values.

"Thinking is neither coerced nor coercive," she writes. "It is exploratory, suggestive; it does not prove anything, or finally arrive anywhere. Thus, to say people are 'thoughtful' or 'thought-provoking' suggests that they are open-minded, reflective, challenging - more likely to question than to assert, inclined to listen to many sides, capable of making distinctions that hold differences in play rather than dividing in order to exclude, and desirous of persuading others rather than reducing them to silence by refuting them."

Rather than trying to "cover the material" in a class and force-feed terms and concepts to undergraduates, she says in an interview that she tries to cultivate open-mindedness, reflection, and a questioning attitude.

She might, for instance, begin a class using Plato's Republic as an occasion for "thinking practice."

Before the students are even assigned to read the Republic, she explains to her class the confusing mixture of tongues and nationalities Socrates and his friends would encounter at the port of Athens. For help, they turned to an old man, Cephalus, to ask questions.

"Then I ask the students, 'To whom would you take a question raised for you by an encounter with people(s) whose differences suddenly make you unsure of your own, hitherto unquestioned, values? Would you take it to an old person? A religious authority? A political leader? Your mother or father? A scientist? A friend?' "

Rather than just downloading content of the Republic, she wants to be sure "the students are bringing something to it."

The idea is that the students then begin to read Plato as if reading it through the lens of their own experience.

She often asks at some point: "What would you do if you were an Aristotelian? How would you see that tree, or how would you listen to your friend when they are trying to tell you their problem?"

'Hey, I'm already doing that'

There are, of course, a number of liberal arts college and a few public universities that consciously pursue critical thinking across the curriculum.

George Nagel is a professor of communications at Ferris State University, just north of Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I was pretty skeptical, probably a little cynical, like a lot of our faculty," he says. "I had the attitude [three years ago] - 'Hey, I'm already doing that and doing it well.' But it's funny, when you ask [the faculty] what they're doing so well, they can't really explicate it for you."

Now he and a growing number of faculty on campus are warming to the idea of specifically and intentionally teaching critical thinking in every discipline. Professor Nagel has received training from the Center for Critical Thinking in Dillon, Calif., and is now teaching others at Ferris to do the same.

But such notions are not always immediately welcomed on campus.

At Ohio University, Wyatt at first had to buck the tide of opinion among some colleagues when she retooled her courses to focus on critical thinking.

"What I'm doing is different than what normally is done," she says. "When I first started, people said that's going to be a lot more work and students won't get it. This is the way you do lab: You run the lab, the cook book, and this is what you get."

Today, instead of being in the academic doghouse, Dr. Wyatt finds her thinking-based classes are a hit - popular with both students and a growing number of faculty who believe she offers something of genuine value.

"They like the product we're turning out," she says, "kids who are actually thinkers."