Definitions of critical thinking vary greatly. My feelings about critical thinking are reflected in a scene from the movie Rudy, the story of a working-class young man who has to overcome many obstacles to achieve his goal of playing football at Notre Dame. After yet another disappointment, Rudy asks the local priest for advice. The priest replies, “In thirty-five years of religious studies I’ve come up with only two hard incontrovertible facts, there is a God and I’m not him.”
We all agree that critical thinking exists and we know it is not repeating facts. After that, it’s up for grabs. My favorite part of critical thinking is creativity, building on what you are hearing, reading, or learning, and making connections, usually clever, enlightening, or imaginative.
Although educators say critical thinking should be encouraged, in reality, it is often discouraged, ignored, or put off so that educators can achieve their own goals. Saying “That’s interesting but,” “I will take questions at the end if I have time” “We’re going to address that in next week’s class” are all ways to delay spontaneous critical thinking.
As part of Jumpstart’s Read for the Record, I read Loren Lang’s Otis about a heroic farm tractor to a group of preschoolers. The sound of the tractor, “putt puff puttedy chuff,” was repeated many times as he did his work.
After the reading, the teacher started singing “Old Macdonald Had A Farm:” “On his farm he had a cow…with a moo moo, here, and a moo moo there…” Then she asked the children to call out suggestions for what was on the farm. One boy kept saying “tractor.” “After being ignored three times, he stopped. In a few more grades, he will probably not even bother to make a suggestion as teachers continue to ignore his critical thinking.
As critical thinking does, the boy’s thoughts stimulated mine. What’s on a modern farm?
A milking machine, with a chugga, chugga, here, and a chugga, chugga there
A harvester, with a tatata, tatata, here, and a tatata, tatata there
A banker, with a foreclosure, foreclosure, here, and a foreclosure, foreclosure, there
A frustrated farmer, with a fuck, fuck, here, and a fuck, fuck there
We need to be realistic about critical thinking if we are going to encourage it. Ironically, those who oppose it are correct when they stated that teaching critical thinking results in: “challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority” (Texas Republican 2012 Platform, later retracted). See Stephen Colbert for critical thinking on that!
I support teaching critical thinking, but we need to think about how we will handle the consequences. Based on articles critical of general testing, my son Ross put his name on a middle-school standardized test and handed it in without answering any questions. His teacher called me; she was extremely upset about the “terrible” action he had taken. I thought, I guess this is not a good day for critical thinking.
Educators, if you are serious about critical thinking, start looking ahead, get ready to be made uncomfortable and to think on your feet. Students who think critically will rock your world!