Tag Archives: critical thinking

The Mark of an Educated Mind

The ability to think critically is the most important tool education can provide. It is a universal skill that is advantageous regardless of experience, background, or future ambitions. It should not be a surprise that one of the few common themes between my three years of writing for Write6x6 is critical thinking.

Since I transitioned to online teaching, there has been one series of assignments that I have continued to incorporate into all my courses. It starts as an entry-level writing assignment where I first give students carte blanche to defend a personally held belief. Next, the students summarize their defense into a discussion post and then play devil’s advocate with other students’ submissions. The final stage is writing a defense of the opposing viewpoint to their original work.  The overall goal is to introduce students to the concept of understanding, without adopting, differing opinions.

A favorite quote of mine comes from Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it”. I felt, and still feel, these assignments put that wisdom into action.

The assignment originated from a journal prompt I gave before doing a lecture on critical thinking in my face to face courses.  In those courses, the students were able to get a full lecture of context before they were challenged to “put on someone else’s shoes”. The online assignments evolved into a background to a larger module of materials.

Without the face to face lecture to provide specific context, I received some impassioned pushback when I first started using the series of assignments. I still have an e-mail archived away from a student who accused me of pushing my personal political bias on them for making them write an opposing viewpoint on the issue of abortion. This was, of course, the topic the student had chosen to defend in their first assignment.  I will say it was one of the more heated and accusatory letters I have ever received from a student.

The letter probably had the opposite impact the student hoped for. It serves as a continual reminder to me that critical thinking skills are the true definition of “educated”. I have since added more context to the assignments, but I have every intention of keeping a similar assignment early on in every course I teach for the rest of my career.

I plan on elaborating more on the need for critical thinking in politics in my final Write6x6 post, but the need expands well beyond politics and permeates the fabric of our society. The first and last lines of defense for critical thinking are educators, so find your battlefield and dig in.

 

The Professor and the Politician

This is my third time doing a six-week blog for Write 6×6. In previous years, I focused on the prompt and sort of went spur of the moment with what I talked about with very little connection or theme between posts. I wanted to shake things up a bit this year. Over the next six weeks, I am going to take an in depth (or at least as in depth as six blog posts allow) look at the skills that teaching develops and how those skills can be useful in other arenas. Before I get into specifics, I need to provide a little context…

author and wife dancing at wedding
The happiest day of my life

Those who know me know that my life has undergone some significant events in the last half decade, starting with my marriage to my partner of (now) 17 years. In 2017, the first year I participated in Write 6×6, I was still in the process of adjusting to life in a new area and trying to get both my physical and emotional well-being on track. Life’s track is more like a roller-coaster and finding any sort of balance was near impossible, but through the ups and downs I began to find bits and pieces of a better version of myself.

Moving forward to 2018, I had become active in my local community by serving as a member, and eventual chair, of the Economic Advisory Board. That volunteer service forced me to expand my knowledge of web design, photography, videography, content creation, and marketing. The reason I say expand is because being an online instructor had already provided me with a base knowledge in most of those areas. My skills as an English instructor specifically became invaluable when I was placed on the Planning Commission. This may come as a shock (/sarcasm), but how laws and municipal code are worded can have a major impact on their effectiveness (and legality).

Snip of Municipal Code
Boring essay? Try legalese…

In Summer of 2018, the unexpected happened. One of our local council members had to retire for health concerns, and I was appointed to fill the vacancy. It was both exciting and horrifying at the same time. As a teacher, I have always striven to see the good and promote the best in those around me, and that effort was almost always reciprocated in kind. I discovered in my time as a volunteer the political arena had the potential to be a much uglier experience, even with the best of intentions.

Image of author and Mayor shaking hands after appointment.
The smile hides the fear of my appointment.

Without going into specifics, I will say that both my excitement and my fear have been justified on multiple occasions. Outside of the support of my amazing wife, the thing that has kept me from drowning in the stormy seas of politics has been the experience and skills I acquired over the last dozen years of teaching. Over the next few weeks I want to elaborate on those skills and why they are so important and underrepresented, and exactly the sort of skills communities need. I hope that maybe (just maybe) in the process I will encourage fellow instructors to get active in their communities as well.

Best case scenario: I succeed.

Worst case scenario: I educate.

It is a win-win.

 

School Lunch

The major downside to being an online instructor is the lack of meaningful interaction. Outside of a few e-mails, I rarely have a conversation with fellow faculty. Most of those are usually related to development of course materials or help with a student or technical issue.

When I taught face to face there was a fellow adjunct, Gary, who was in a similar situation. Twice a week I would walk into the adjunct office to find him sitting there at his laptop, cup of coffee in hand, smiling and commenting on the various comings and goings. Wearing a baseball cap and shorts, he made it clear he was just there to socialize. Looking back, I now understand and appreciate that longing he had to simply associate with a group of peers.

Sadly, I can’t come in a few times a week like he could, but what I can do is stress how important it is to do so if you are able.

Gary and I ended up having lunch a few times and talking about everything ranging from education techniques to our shared interest in writing fiction. I credit him with giving me enough courage to finally self-publish my first short story. Fast forward five years and I now have several short stories published, and am working on putting together a collection. Those lunch time conversations, and Gary’s need to socialize, were the main catalyst for me stretching myself to accomplish more than I would have otherwise done.

You never know how people you meet will influence you, it won’t always be positive, but more often than not in education it will be. Despite having various backgrounds, I find that most educators are open minded and friendly by nature (it is one of those unspoken requirements of staying in the field).

So, as I sign off for the last time this year, I wanted to leave everyone with a message of encouragement. Find a fellow teacher and go have lunch. Talk about ideas, education, hobbies, interests. Appreciate every moment of it, because whether you realize it or not, that ability to connect is not a given, and who knows, it may even help you become a better version of yourself.

 

 

Let’s Get Critical

Last year I went in depth on one of the most overlooked assessment tools, rubrics. My feelings and thoughts on that important tool have not changed, but rather than repeat myself this year I want to talk about a different type of assessment. Specifically, I want to talk about assessing the critical thinking skills of students.

The specificLightbulb critical thinking ability I have been working on is the ability to analyze and attack a strongly held personal belief. The idea being that a good critical thinker should be able to understand opposing viewpoints.

I have done this through a series of writing assignments in various forms over many semesters. The most recent iteration is a “Devil’s Advocate” series of assignments where students are required to write a defense of a personal belief one week and write a defense of the opposing viewpoint the next.

The reason I always do this type of assignment is because of my core belief that critical thinking is a skill that will be useful to students no matter their future profession. It is also a skill that is sometimes overlooked in the test-driven performance-centric world of secondary level education.

Think Outside the Box

A word of warning, these types of assignments do have issues that will arise and need to be planned for ahead of time. There inevitably is always a group of students who absolutely detest this type of work. I had a student go as far as claim I was trying to “force my liberal beliefs” on them through my position of power. That complaint didn’t go anywhere, but it is an example as to how difficult this can be for some individuals. It also is very insightful as to the ability of students to critically think.

I have only recently started to tabulate the data in any real form, and the number of students that are able to successfully “think from the opposing viewpoint” has varied over semesters. The one constant I have noticed in the last decade is that there is always a significant portion of the class (30-50%) that must change their topic or take a sarcastic tone to complete the task, which shows a lack of developed critical thinking ability.

No matter what the final numbers and assessment show, the need to reinforce critical thinking skills at the college level is, well, critical. There are elements of critical thinking that can be taught in any discipline or class, and if every course made an effort to include tasks that require critical thinking skills, the end result would be students who will be better prepared to handle the unknown, problem solve, and appreciate (or at least respect) the “other”.

Education prepares the workforce of the future, politicians, nurses, teachers, managers, everyone that has a job that requires more than a High School diploma. In a world of percentages, having the majority with a solid foundation of critical thinking skills will result in a better world for everyone.

Graduation Photo

If you have assignments that assess critical thinking, or have thoughts about critical thinking in the classroom, I would love to hear about it. Feel free to comment below or send me an e-mail!

 

Theoretical War of Theory

When pursuing my Master’s I enrolled in a summer course entitled “Theory of Education”.  For many in the class it was the kind of backward psychobabble  that bore little relevancy on actual classroom technique and management, focusing primarily on Behaviorism and Constructivism.

Theory Meme

It has now been well over a decade since those early days of learning, and I have only grown in appreciation of the experience gained during those few months.

Fear not, this will not be a summation of educational theory and delivery methods. I could not give any theory justice this far removed.  No, like any good learning experience it wasn’t what was said that impacted me so much, but rather what was done.

Although most of those taking part in the class checked out day one, there were a few of us interested enough to make the classroom dialogue interesting. All the other students were already elementary or secondary teachers attempting to shore up their credentials and bank accounts by adding a Master’s to their wall. I was still in my educational infancy, a TA at the college without much in the way of practical experience.

The professor was a devote Contructivist and every lesson seemed to have a tinge of personal bias. Excellent for me who had latched on to Contructivism, but bad for the other interested parties who had seen Behaviorism work in their early education classrooms. Many of our sessions ended up turning into debates, often heated and passionate. At one point, midway through the summer semester, a frustrated elementary teacher stood up and declared that she would never understand Contructivism, and that the instructor would have to fail her on the spot because she was a Behaviorist for life.

I was at full attention, expecting some witty retort and conversion right then and there. What I got was a life lesson that stuck with me more than all the academic and education theories crammed into my textbooks. He smiled, warm, friendly, his debate tone drifted away replaced by a Bob Ross jovial melancholy, and he said that was okay, that he respected her beliefs even if they weren’t his own, and he wouldn’t want her beliefs to change simply because of his.

More important than theory I had witnessed practical implementation of the the greatest skills higher education can instill; patience, kindness, and critical thinking.  The ability to accept that there are different views beyond your own, and even if you are in a place of power you should not attempt to convert opinions, but encourage personal discovery.

Beliefs may define an individual, but they are not the reason society succeeds. Kindness, understanding, and curiosity are what propel both education and mankind, allowing us to achieve great things together, no matter what theories we happen to follow.

 

 

 

 

The Sleeper has Awakened

There are really two kinds of dreams, dreams we have for ourselves (personal goals and desires) and those we have for the world around us. But dreams don’t have to be these surreal or unobtainable goals, no matter how big they are. For those who enjoy viral internet trends, you may have seen a little gem with Shia LeBeouf giving an inspiring “speech” entitled, “Just Do It.” During the motivational and comically energetic rant he utters one very important line, “Don’t let your dreams be dreams.”

The dreams we have for ourselves usually involve work or family. On the surface they seem much more obtainable. For example, I often dream of working as full time faculty and finally being able to move on from ten years of working part time at multiple schools. I dream of raising a child with my wife and doing the best I can to provide the same support she has provided me ever since we started dating fifteen years ago. I’d like to think those are obtainable dreams. But dreams don’t come true if you fail to act on them, they require action. My adjunct work at GCC allowed me to start working towards some of my personal dreams. I have been given the opportunity (and even encouraged) to present at meetings, develop curriculum, and even help design entire courses. Those are all very real opportunities that serve as important and needed experience. I may not have reached my dream yet, but those opportunities acted upon are progressive steps.

The dreams we have for the world around us are usually far more reaching, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be acted upon just like personal goals. My far reaching dream would be to live in a world free from prejudice and bias. When I lived in Detroit I was able to see firsthand how horrible and destructive those forces can be. I may just be an adjunct English instructor, but even from that position I can act on my dream to create that better world. By encouraging critical thinking, healthy debate, and empathy in the classroom, slowly but surely, one student at a time, the world becomes a better place through my actions. I can’t have an impact on everyone, but each student I do have a positive influence on creates a ripple, and those ripples may be felt around the world.

Image of water ripples
Surface Waves (c) wikipedia commons

So don’t just sit and dream, take action, even a small step. Let the sleeper awaken and watch the world around you slowly change into to the one you imagined and hoped for. Just do it.