Aug 20, 2012

Critical Thinking: Class or Curriculum?

One of the conversations focused on college curricula and student learning, in which I perennially -- though thankfully not perpetually -- seem to find myself involved takes on the form of a false dilemma, a forced option, which all too often gets used as the framework for thinking out the role of foundational disciplines should play -- and the shape they ought to take -- in higher education.  Whether it is a matter of Critical Thinking, Ethics, Writing, or other similar disciplines, the same basic problematic arises:  should students be introduced to, and practiced in, that subject matter in a specific course?  Or should it be infused throughout the curriculum?

My answer, put in one word, is simply this: BOTH.  I've got my reasons to say that, and to assert it so emphatically -- which I'm going to set out in detail below.  I'd like to observe first, though, that there are also reasons why so many people find themselves constrained to frame this sort of issue in terms of an exclusive Either-Or.  Maurice Blondel, a great dialectical philosopher of the early 20th century, observed and critiqued this tendency to frame  matters important to us -- whether in metaphysics or moral theory, politics or education, aesthetics or religion -- through such rigid dichotomies, where choices are seemingly constrained to opting between one of the two poles.  Concealed by this, he notes over and over, is that, at a deeper level, often unrealized by those making it, another option, another choice gets made -- one between setting up the terms in abstract opposition to each other, or seeing that neither term is sufficient on its own, and demands the complement of the other term for its very own adequacy.


What are Foundational Skills?

Colleges and universities teach a vast array of classes, divided necessarily into subject-matters, most of them within particular majors, and students inevitably come to concentrate their academic efforts into one, or at most two or three, of those subject areas -- hopefully acquiring not only a body of knowledge associated with that particular subject, but also the deeper intellectual complexes of skills and dispositions which organize and orient that information.  To major in business means more than simply reading through, or studying, or writing in response to, or taking exams from a particular set of textbooks -- the same goes for history or psychology, criminal justice or mathematics, theater or chemistry.  To every one of these subject areas, even those that seem the most utilitarian or faddish, there is a certain intrinsic attractiveness, a worthwhile value, even a kind of beauty -- overlooked, admittedly, by many students, some practitioners, even occasional instructors. they are, after all, things that not only can be done, but done well, can be learned, and learned deeply, assiduously.

There are, however, other sets of skills and dispositions which colleges and universities have long aimed, aspired, and claimed to teach and instil in the students which they graduate.  These are types of competencies more basic, broader in scope, of greater generality -- and foundational, because without their cultivation to some extent (whether deliberately, by accident, or through subtle forms of inculcation), no matter the degree to which one develops and hones one's mastery of a major subject, that mastery remains in some sense not only incomplete, but also rudderless, lacking a compass or governor.  These are skills and dispositions pertaining to the student as student, and as educated human being, not just to the student as a would-be specialist.  Institutions of higher education purport to supply competencies needed to do well in one's studies, later careers, in one's life, as a citizen of a democratic society, and as a consumer.

These sets of skills and dispositions are also disciplines in their own right, susceptible of being taught and learned thematically, assessed, developed, researched and furthered.  They furnish subject matters, both classical and contemporary, generally located within whatever a college or university calls its "core curriculum."  Several examples of these are written communication, oral communication, ethics, numerical literacy, and critical thinking -- not an exhaustive list here, mind you, and the names by which these are denoted sprawl over varied terms used in different institutions. 

As institutions of higher education have been called, more and more over the last several decades, to meet demands of accountability from various stakeholders -- legitimate demands, I'd add -- there has been more rhetoric, sometimes even more thought and resources, devoted to these foundational subjects, these subjects that transfer from context to context, transcending the ever-multiplying specializations.  Interestingly, if you examine the many available listings generated by asking employers just what they most want and need from college graduates, you find these foundational subjects not only consistently appearing in these enumerations, but often topping the listings.  One might interpret colleges' and universities' stress upon these core competencies as merely another sign of a slide towards a vocationally-oriented truncation of education -- if it were not for the fact that employers demand these skills precisely because they are so necessary, not only in the academy but in the broader world.

Constraints on Teaching and Learning

Are college graduates actually acquiring these foundational skills during their four or more years of post-secondary education?  Educational institutions certainly have a tendency to talk a good game on this subject, but a recognition that in many cases this sort of transformation and growth has not been taking place has long been growing -- a problem not only in the lower-tier institutions, but going all the way up into elite colleges and universities.  This deficit and deception -- the existence of a gap between ideal and reality -- has been critiqued, assessed, articulated numerous times and from many different perspectives.  One of the more recent studies, Richard Arum's and Josipa Roska's Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses aroused great controversy, drawing criticisms of great variety, on some legitimate and many spurious, some even plainly silly, grounds.  However one feels about their methods and conclusions -- and I'll set my cards on the table and say that I think for the most part they are quite valid --  such works do great service by keeping the problematic status of general education on the table and in the spotlight.

In the present configuration of the contemporary university, there are a number of real obstacles and challenges for real foundational education, and I think it's important to recognize these considerable constraints on what we would want to do for our students.  Setting aside issues of student motivation, diligence and effort, previous preparation, the demands of life-situations, and the like -- the whole side of the student -- there are three important problems I'd like to point out which bear on teaching and learning these foundational skills:  the constraints of time and schedule; coordination across the curriculum; and, the training requisite to teaching and assessing the subjects.  While I focus on critical thinking here, similar things could be said about the other foundational subjects.

Overcoming the Limits of Time

Time imposes demands on students, faculty, staff, and administrators, demands that are difficult, in some cases impossible, to do much about.  Consider, for example, the more-or-less cast in stone format for classes -- three credit hours per week, 15 or 16 weeks to classes.  Of course, those three paper hours are in reality only two-and-a-half, perhaps even less, practically speaking.  And, while classes do not always run for 16 weeks, when the length differs, it is invariably a matter of compressing the available time, shortening the course to ten or eight, sometimes even just four weeks.

Anyone who has ever taught a survey class -- World Literature, Intro to Philosophy, World Religions, or the like -- knows just how difficult it is to design and teach those classes well.  Generally, they're taught as part of a core curriculum, as required classes or those meeting distributional requirements, to non-major students unversed in the assumptions or background information germane to the discipline represented.  By far one of the greatest challenges is the immense triage that must be carried out in order to shoehorn the content that makes the cuts into the form imposed by 16 week college classes.  So much simply has to be left out.  And, there's never enough time for what gets to stay in, always too little to do more than skim the surface, unless, of course one decides to short-shrift the other remaining material.

Having taught Critical Thinking courses many times in the course of my career -- at FSU, generally teaching 3-4 sections per semester, practically specializing in the subject there -- I can definitively say that 15-16 weeks of 2.5 hours in the classroom per week, even augmented by the use of Supplemental Instruction, is simply too short a period to do more than introduce students to some aspects of that foundational set of skills and dispositions.  One might respond:  "well, that's quite all right.  It's a 100 level, introductory course, after all, no?"  But that would be to ignore just how much time, effort, work, study, and practice is needed to establish a solid foundation for those absolutely necessary skills and dispositions. 

To be sure, with thoughtful course design -- at least for engaged, disciplined, decently prepared students -- and harnessing technology like lecture capture, building online learning environments in the course management system (I'll write more about these strategies in future posts), it is possible to extend the amount of time of teaching and learning.  The more hours per day and per week that students grapple with the material in meaningful, well-informed ways, the more and the the more fully they can intellectually penetrate and digest the material we desire to share with them, to unfold, to open up, to lead them into.

Still, while that course of action can increase and intensify the learning that takes place -- and can also perhaps set some students on a course of further lifelong learning -- there's no getting around the fact that it is just too short a term for the kind of disciplined and guided study needed to reliably develop critical thinking.  Perhaps the answer then is to extend the period of learning, to distribute the study of critical thinking across and within the curriculum -- a proposal that, understood in certain ways, I am entirely in favor of.  But, are there constraints and challenges involved in implementing that sort of strategy as well?

Competence, Coordination, and Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum.

If the decision-makers and stakeholders within an educational institution can actually agree that they need to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to their claims about students developing critical thinking skills -- funding both literally and metaphorically, devoting monetary and other types of capital -- that greatly improves prospects for carrying out the kind of coordinated work required to extend real teaching and learning in critical thinking beyond the confines of a semester-long thematic course.  Alternatively, one could imagine -- though this would be difficult to bring off -- instead of a top-down initiative, efforts that emerge collaboratively, at the level of the instructors themselves, concerned with improving the level and consistency of their students' critical thinking. This would be an analogue to what occurred on a much smaller scale with the Ethics in Business Education Project at FSU in 2010-11.

No matter what approach is adopted -- either would be a great improvement over today's status quo in many colleges and universities -- there are several factors that have to be taken into consideration.  The first challenge is actually coordinating the courses and broader curriculum across disciplines and departments.  It's not such a simple matter as just saying:  "Ok, everyone needs to start teaching critical thinking in some of their courses now."  For one thing, if you look at syllabi, claimed learning outcomes, even at the self-understanding of instructors, you'll find that so many instructors, courses, and departments claim to be improving and instructing students in critical thinking that, if those claims were actually true, students would be very well off indeed.  One reason, among many, that matters are the way they presently are, is that "critical thinking" is one of those terms sufficiently ambiguous as to allow practically anyone to claim -- and perhaps even think -- that they are doing, modeling, or teaching critical thinking in their classes.

That's not surprising, given that even the experts aren't in agreement as to precisely what constitutes the competency and discipline of Critical Thinking.  I've done some research and writing on this myself, partly prompted by my own worries and frustrations, and partly as service while I was working at FSU, an institution which had made a deliberate decision to focus strongly on assessing, understanding, and improving critical thinking.  For instance, in an admittedly rather dry (as these sorts of things tend to be) white paper, produced as a subject-matter expert for the Quality Enhancement Plan writing committee, I examined several different models of critical thinking in play at FSU at the time:
  • the Paul-Elder model, beloved by the School of Education
  • the American Philosophical Association Delphi report model, much more representative of the discipline as such
  • the Collegiate Learning Assessment model
  • and, the model proposed at that time by the QEP writing committee.  
One could add others, not least the model implicit in American Association of Colleges and University rubrics, those explicitly articulated by the many available Critical Thinking textbooks, and Dee Fink's understanding of "critical thinking" in his Creating Significant Learning Experiences -- a text relied upon as a basis for integrated course design at FSU.

If you compare these various takes on "critical thinking," you'll find considerable variance, so it's not surprising that non-philosophers, who have generally had little rigorous and thematic training in the discipline -- even many philosophers can't claim to have had that -- would not be on the same page.  consistency of terminology raises other obstacles as well.  If not even the Critical Thinking textbooks entirely agree on how to classify and distinguish informal fallacies -- a confusion that gets worse as we move into allied fields like Rhet/Comp and Speech --  it asks a lot of students who are in process of learning that they make all the connections between disparate models and even vocabularies of critical thinking they run across in their coursework.

There's also a matter of competency, just touched upon above.  Anyone can claim to be a critical thinker, to have internalized its intellectual canons, to reliably apply that competency -- but claiming it doesn't make it so, and less than fully founded assumptions of one's own level of development can actually interfere with making further progress in the field.  If there is to be something like "critical thinking across the curriculum," this demands not only a consistent model and terminology.  It requires that the instructors themselves, throughout the disciplines, have at their disposal some level of expertise -- perhaps not as high as that which one would hope to see in the actual teachers of Critical Thinking courses, but certainly not just the bare rudiments.  Is that the case, presently?  If not, then any proposal to replace a one-semester course in Critical Thinking with a curriculum-wide critical thinking "emphasis" or "infusion" is a recipe for disaster, or at least for continued mediocrity.

Why Build Both Courses and Curricula?

When it comes down to it, if critical thinking is really as important as educators say it is, then neither strategy -- either a single Critical Thinking course, or critical thinking taught throughout the curriculum -- is an effective way to improve student learning in critical thinking.  What is needed is a a both-and approach, rather than an either-or approach.  As I've remarked elsewhere, it's actually an example of the fallacy of false dilemma (also called "either or fallacy", or "false dichotomy" -- depending of whose textbook you read!) to demand that we either adopt one or the other strategy.

What I advocate for -- in addition to having both a devoted course and infusing critical thinking in rigor and meaningful ways into curricula -- is something along the lines of the partnership we developed in the Ethics in Business Education Project, but carried out in broader terms.  I summarized that collaborative model this way:
Qualified and committed philosophy professors cross disciplinary divides to “teach the teachers of the students,” assisting Business faculty in developing higher levels of competence and confidence in teaching Ethics content, with developing and distinguishing assessments  of student learning in Ethics (knowledge, application, and moral development), improving pedagogy, reviewing and developing resources.
In order to really work well, this kind of collaboration across the curriculum would also require a similar kind of partnership with experts in course design and instructional technology -- where the teaching professors, both in philosophy and the other disciplines, would be the faculty being aided to develop their own competence and confidence.  That way, the time constraints on teaching and learning could be overcome not only by extending the period of coordinated education past a semester, but also intensified within each term.

Is this sort of project, or rather prospect or proposal, merely an academic's pie-in-the-sky daydream?  Or is this a realistic assessment of what could feasibly be implemented in our present-day academy?  I leave that up to you readers to decide, and perhaps debate.