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What is Critical Thinking?

Thomas More College has decided to develop our QEP using the Paul/Elder model of Critical Thinking. Below are some key components of the model.

Critical thinking is that mode of thinking - about any subject, content, or problem - in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them. (Paul and Elder, 2001). The Paul/Elder framework has three components:

  1. The elements of thought (reasoning)
  2. The intellectual standards that should be applied to the elements of reasoning
  3. The intellectual traits associated with a cultivated critical thinker that result from the consistent and disciplined application of the intellectual standards to the elements of thought

From criticalthinking.org.
To view an interactive model with more information, click here.

Teaching Techniques

Fundamental and Powerful Concepts
In every course, there are a few key ideas. Traditionally, these ideas were referred to as key because they unlocked the essence of the course. Unfortunately, the terminology has evolved into meaning important ideas. While there are many important ideas, there are really very few key ideas. As usually happens, an effort is being made to create new terminology to get back to the point that was originally being made.

Consider one of your courses. Take five minutes to select 3-5 terms (specifically more than one) that describe the content of your selected course. The terms should have the following properties:

  1. Each term should be 1-2 words, specifically not a sentence.
  2. The terms should be fundamental in the sense that these are foundational ideas upon which many other ideas are built.
  3. These same terms should also powerful in the sense that they are useful to students when they encounter new ideas.

Ok, now that you know what to think about, you have five minutes… ready? … ok, Go!

Tick...tick...tick...tick... one more minute... tick... ok, pencils down.

What I hope you will notice about the fundamental and powerful concepts is that they are both fundamental and powerful. These ideas are broad enough that all of the (many) important ideas can be related back to one or more of these (few) fundamental concepts. These ideas are also flexible enough that when one encounters new topics, new ideas, or new situations, these ideas can act as a guide for how to think about the new information. You might imagine starting a new chapter, opening a new novel, or asking the class to consider a new historical era or a new ethical dilemma all by not explaining what the students should pay attention to, but rather by having the students explain to you how they can understand the new information by applying the previously defined fundamental and powerful concepts and considering how the ideas all interact. By clearly indicating those concepts that are fundamental and powerful, you are enabling the students to prepare a ready-made context for new information that minimizes their tendency to accept all information as being equally important.

At the risk of using discipline-specific analogies: as fundamental concepts, these tend to form the largest circles in the Venn-diagram of your course - touching on many other ideas, and as powerful concepts, these tend to also act as the fulcrum upon which your students can leverage any new information as it appears in the class or, and more importantly, any new information that appears after they have left your class.

Central Questions
I would like to think that students have the opportunity to take courses based purely out of curiosity. I imagine that all of the students in all of my classes are there because they are honestly interested in what the subject tells them about the world around them. I then imagine myself incapable of recognizing sarcasm as they all reinforce my delusion.

Let's consider a single, enthusiastic, and honestly-interested student who has elected to take your class. Imagine this ideal student on the very first day of class, before any discussion has occurred, sitting in the back row of your class, feigning meekness, while secretly dying to know what will happen. On a whim, after taking attendance, you decide to soften the first discussion and get to know the students. Before introducing any technical terms or any relevant information about your topic, you casually sit on the edge of the front desk, produce your most disarming and charming smile, and ask, "If there were one question that you hoped this class would answer for you, what would that be?" Then one hand in the back of the room rises tentatively, and an intelligently inquisitive voice pipes up, asking that one question that you deep-down really hoped somebody would ask, the question that truly encapsulates what your course really considers. That is your central question.

Notice that your central question is a question that a student coming in to your course might actually ask. It should not use the language introduced by your class. It should not access concepts introduced in your class. This is a question that a student might ask on the first day of your course.

The usefulness of the central question is four-fold: (1) It provides a context to the vast landscape of details covered by your course, after every discussion one can end the discussion with "How does that idea relate to our central question?" (2) It can be used to show the development of understand by the class. If you ask the central question every second or third week, the answers should become gradually more mature, more focused, clearer and richer. Both you and the students can see their understanding grow and develop. (3) Touching every new idea back to a single central question shows the complexity and subtleties of how different ideas lend support for each other; it provides a tree trunk upon which the vines of your course can climb, surround, and intertwine. (4) It provides the students access to their own curiosity in the context of your topic, reminding students that education is an exploration and their curiosity is the compass guiding their journey.