There is every probability that students define self and develop a view of life events from the values of their teachers at an early age. Instructors at the post-secondary level, working with older individuals, may be less influential on student self-definitions and their views of larger events, but when students lack skills in critical appraisal, the potential increases.
Those of us in the business of mentoring (teaching, instructing) should, perhaps, feel a moral obligation to offer a range of alternative views to our students so that they may make appropriate choices based on real alternatives. The counter measures to biases exist, however, not so much in providing students with alternatives from which to select but in offering a method whereby they may increase the range and variety of alternatives for themselves. This can provide the prerequisite for lateral thinking and a more perceptive and profound basis upon which decisions may be made.
The teaching of critical thinking skills is one means of provoking students to ask questions appropriate to both personal need and the development of decision making related to the application of occupational skills in the workplace. Thus, they are able to evaluate answers they obtain related to causes, consequences and correlates of social and psychological phenomena. With the opportunity for sharpening intelligent awareness of choices and the consequences of making choices, they become more sophisticated participants in construing events.
A three-part definition of critical thinking is provided by Watson and Glaser (1980) who stated that critical thinking is: (1) an attitude of enquiry that involves an ability to recognize the existence and an acceptance of the general need for evidence in what is asserted to be true; (2) knowledge of the nature of valid inferences, abstractions and generalizations in which the weight of accuracy of different kinds of evidence are logically determined; (3) skills in employing and applying the above attitudes and knowledge.
Chaffee (1985) provides a number of critical thinking characteristics which define it as being active, independent, exploratory and open. It requires reason, evidence and awareness. It is organized and uses reflective language. Further, it involves concepts, factual information and the principles of problem solving.
de Bono (1976) has suggested that the teaching of thinking skills may not be adequately achieved through the process of formal logic using principles and axioms as a by-product of the teaching of other subjects such as Euclidean geometry or through the use of games, puzzles and simulations, or by psychology or philosophy (which, while teaching about thinking, do not teach how to think). He offers instead the knowledge approach (familiarity with the subject); the formula approach (find the formula, follow it through, examine the results); the general directions approach (learning general facts about a range of subjects and applying them to new situations); and techniques which involve examining familiar problems differently to achieve appropriate conclusions. Einstein did this when, upon examining the speed of light from a fixed point, he speculated on a view of the world from a person riding on a beam of light and from this developed the core of the principle of relativity.
There is also an important element of reinforcement of ethical considerations. Students can be encouraged to examine the rightness or wrongness of issues, and the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of actions. Within the context of community college education, this can be applied, for example, to nursing, engineering, business and so on.
By teaching critical thinking skills, instructors can counterbalance the effects of their own subjectivity and the limited experiences of their students by assisting in developing perspectives and alternatives which expand students' abilities to maximize choices from an actual or possible range. This is, in part, accomplished by confronting students with the necessity of making conscious choices. They might, for example, be confronted with having to decide if there is more than one perspective on a problem to be considered and, if there is, to define the perspectives and place them into categories. Cognitive levels of awareness are raised effectively when critical thinking skills are applied to the evaluation of a situation when a conscious effort is made to exercise volition in selecting from a range of choices.
Students may, however, be faced with a dilemma when application of critical thinking skills is perceived (as indeed it is) as a challenge to accepted values in social thinking. This may not necessarily lead to behavioural anarchy. As the results of critical thinking shift from the purely personal to the social, the realities of the larger society modify the eventual choice of direction. There may be initial insecurity as old norms, values and beliefs are called into question and perhaps rejected as being illogical, untrue or manipulative lies. When students realize that the world in which they live, and the realities they have construed for themselves on the basis of past information available are not what they had thought, they may become confused, angry and embittered.
A potential problem arises when students, having been taught the skills of critical thinking and having consequently been guided in the deconstructive process, are left to reconstruct without assistance. Resulting emotional insecurity and difficulty in maintaining trust in individuals may affect their work and interpersonal relations. Guidance is also required in constructing anew. There is a therapeutic context to this process. While there are individual differences in the construction of events, individuals may find common ground through construing experiences of their associates along with their own. In this way they may obtain support from experiences shared. They may create new meanings to their definitions of self as responsible professionals capable of appropriate decision making in pursuit of their occupations.
The acquisitions of critical thinking skills should be a liberating experience for the community college student. It should increase the student's ability to maximize the quality of occupational performance in the workplace upon graduation. It should enhance the application of college education in a range of professional activities as technologies change and occupational demands increase. In postmodern society, traditional social supports are eroded. The development of critical thinking skills can help graduates perform well in their chosen fields and facilitate personal adaptation to change.
Chaffee, J. . Thinking Critically. Palo Alto: Houghton Mifflin.
de Bono, E. . Teaching Thinking. London: Penguin Books.
Watson, G., and Glaser, E. . Critical Thinking Appraisal Manual. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
W. Richard Bond is Associate Professor of Education at Brock University in St. Catharines. He previously taught at Mohawk College in Hamilton for 14 years.