Over the next several weeks, I plan to post articles covering each of the eight high-leverage critical-thinking teaching practices introduced last time.
As previously mentioned, these practices came out of many years of research, including research that went into Critical Thinking, my latest book from MIT Press.
That book ends with a set of high-level recommendations to help educators move from aspiration to reality when it comes to helping students develop their critical-thinking ability. For educators who want to know exactly what to do next, the practices offer a practical plan of action.
High-Level Practice #1 – Teacher Background Knowledge
As I describe in documentation regarding the practices:
Teachers trying to help students develop their critical thinking skills must have a grounding in fundamental critical-thinking principles. These include methods for structuring one’s thinking, techniques for turning everyday language into logical arguments that can be tested for quality, and knowledge of biases and other psychological factors that can impact reasoning. Teachers must also be aware of strategies for integrating critical-thinking knowledge and practice into the teaching of subject-specific content.
A later practice (#4) stresses the importance of teaching critical-thinking skills explicitly in the context of other course material.
An example I often use is how a math teacher instructing students on geometric proofs is also showing them examples of deductive reasoning – a key critical-thinking concept. By pointing that out, giving students an explanation of deductive reasoning, and showing how it can be applied to subjects other than geometry, the teacher creates relevance for a math topic while also explicitly teaching students about a vital critical-thinking skill that can be used within and beyond the classroom.
In order to take the step from implicit to explicit teaching, that math teacher has to be familiar with fundamental concepts, such as the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning, and why math provides unique opportunities to demonstrate the former. He or she must also be aware of methods for integrating explicit instruction on this concept at the right moment, in this case recognizing geometric proofs as a high-leverage content area for introducing students to deductive reasoning.
While developing this background knowledge might seem like yet another burden placed on educators, as I noted when describing this practice:
Fortunately, the level of background knowledge teachers need to effectively incorporate critical thinking instruction into their practice does not require a degree in philosophy, or even months (much less years) of study. But it does require a commitment to understanding critical-thinking fundamentals that form the foundation of all critical thinking high-leverage practices.
When I first podcasted lessons that eventually went into Critical Voter, my how-to guide that uses examples from political campaigns to teach practical critical-thinking skills, I was surprised to learn that it took less than 10 hours to cover all of that material. While some specialists dedicate their lives to teaching and researching critical thinking, the basics are something anyone of us can learn in a very reasonable amount of time.
Educating teachers about critical-thinking content and pedagogical strategies for integrating that content into traditional course material could take place in teacher preparation programs through incorporating high-leverage practices into methods courses. In-service teachers can accomplish this same goal through targeted professional development.
It should come as no surprise that in order for teachers to effectively teach a subject, including critical thinking, they have to have a strong handle on the content behind that topic. As already mentioned, the critical-thinking content needed to accomplish Practice #1 is finite and the material highly accessible, but in order to move forward with the other practices and achieve the goal of creating critical thinkers through education, teachers need to commit to getting up to speed through this required first step.