Remind students why this matters…

Some of your students may be eying this poster conference with suspicion. They may not see the value in presenting their work to a larger audience. But there is real and real world practicality to what we’re doing. This week is a good time to remind them.

Look again at our six learning objectives.  The first three can be summed up as: critical thinking, cognitive diversity, and communications.

To be more precise and detailed:  Critical thinking skills for identifying and working with complex problems; the ability to seek, find, and benefit from diversity of thought, experience, and opinion; and reading, writing, and oral communication skills to create knowledge cooperatively, and to share knowledge with others.

The next three include developing an inquiry mindset and an “inquiry-based question” designed to make the QU experience greater than the sum of its parts.

Now let’s look at critical thinking.  Daniel Willingham (2008) describes critical thinking as the combination of reasoning, decision making, and problem solving, adding that these must be characterized by three key features: “effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction”.

He says, “Critical thinking is effective in that it avoids  common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic, failing to support statements with evidence, and so on.”

This should sound familiar.  Consider how we organized the syllabus:

  • Every time my students follow the disciplined process of issue mapping (systems thinking – seeing a problem’s full complexity), they are practicing these strategies.
  • When my students “publish” their insights through discussion, writings, or presentations they are  engaging in these strategies.
  • During discussions when they interrogate their deeply held assumptions, they are engaging in these strategies.
  • As they connect their readings (and the disciplinary areas) to new ideas they are engaging in these strategies.

Given this, I would argue that each of our learning objectives are nested under the first.

Willingham goes on to say that critical thinking must be novel, it is not drawing on memory to address complicated but solvable problems.  He says, “Critical  thinking is self-directed in that the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a  student much credit for critical  thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.”

In other words, cleverness at solving a complicated problem is not critical thinking. Discovering the same “truths” found by each other FYS is not critical thinking.

It requires novel ideas forged through student-student and student-content interaction. When my students ask questions that lead to novel lines of investigation, they are practicing perhaps the most essential element of critical thinking.

Willingham reminds us that we cannot teach critical thinking as a discrete subject. It’s not simply a set of skills that once known makes us critical thinkers.  It’s also not good enough to practice the strategies within the FYS classroom and hope that they transfer to other courses and life activities (such as voting).  They need to recognize, practice, and employ these strategies in multiple contexts if we are to call them critical thinkers.

Hence the guiding question. Hence the desire to transfer their FYS habits of mind (asking, understanding, investigating, creating, discussing, reflecting, revising….and asking anew) into their other courses, their extracurricular activities, and their professional lives.

Remind them of this.  Remind them that the FYS learning objectives align with what the AAC&U tell us are in high demand by employers, regardless of major: the ability to think critically, solve complex problems, and communicate effectively.

Remind them that the poster session is not an FYS project that must be endured, but the first opportunity to showcase their novel ideas – to share how they have the potential to shape the world.

FYI: if you’d like a version of this document written for a student audience, here it is:  critical-thinking-revisited-student-version


Willingham, D. T. (2008). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach? Arts Education Policy Review, 109(4), 21-32. doi:10.3200/AEPR.109.4.21-32


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