By Ingrid Keenan, Program Coordinator
“Critical thinking is a practice.” It’s something that Assistant Professor of Economics Christina Houseworth came to understand during last spring’s Faculty Learning Community on Teaching Critical Thinking, and it’s a practice that several faculty members are continuing to incorporate into their courses this fall.
Assistant Professor of Psychology Emily Fisher was one of nine faculty members who read and discussed Stephen Brookfield’s Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help students Question Their Assumptions. Even during the workshop, Fisher reports, faculty were already inspired by the discussions and were “experimenting with tactics” in the classroom. Professor Houseworth, for example, was teaching Econ 120 last spring, and created a series of assignments in which students were required to critically evaluate an aspect of economic theory. The first assignment was very hard for them, Houseworth reports, “but by the second assignment, they began to get the hang of it. They were getting into the practice of critical thinking.”
Associate Professor of German/Associate Dean Eric Klaus saw an immediate impact on his teaching, from grammar, to his FSEM, to cultural topics in beginning and advanced German classes. Interestingly, Brookfield’s view of critical thinking mirrored closely Klaus’s approach to teaching cultural literacy: “Critical thinking and cultural literacy overlap has greatly impacted my German instruction and led me to develop an FSEM, for which I received a Mellon grant. The FSEM will use digital resources to have students map fictional spaces and then cross cultures by exploring the spaces. This idea is a direct outcome of my work with the CTL's FLC on critical thinking.” (For more on Klaus’s approach to cultural literacy and critical thinking, see http://www.hws.edu/academics/ctl/newsletter/02_german.aspx )
“By the end of the semester, we knew we wanted to open up the discussion to the whole faculty,” says Houseworth. In May, the group organized a faculty institute, and seventeen of their colleagues joined in the conversation. At the day-long session, participants discussed how to define critical thinking, and workshopped activities or assignments to develop their students’ skills. Professor of Chemistry Erin Pelkey found the interdisciplinary conversation useful: “I had an idea of what [critical thinking] meant in a chemistry class, but found it applied differently in other contexts… For me, it has impacted my teaching moving forward as it helped me design classroom exercises to foster critical thinking. I am still very green, but at least I had somewhere to start.”
The group decided to meet one more time, closer to the start of the fall semester when faculty would be in the process of fine-tuning their syllabi. Professor Fisher, who had already participated in the Faculty Learning Community and the May workshop, brought in assignments for her PSY 227 course. Students in this course are a mixture of sophomores and juniors, and Fisher assigns them regular writing assignments in which they are expected to evaluate primary sources. During the August workshop, she was able to develop more concrete suggestions to students about how to question texts. “I wanted them to think about what it means to comment, and how you make connections between ideas. I wanted them to come away with tools to promote thinking in depth about the readings.” Fisher is already seeing the results this semester, she says, in an increased facility with critical thinking.
Professor Klaus is also carrying the lessons learned in the Faculty Learning Community into his work this fall. Klaus is facilitating the group looking at teaching critical thinking in FSEMs: “While there is a multitude of ways to approach critical thinking, and many people at HWS have done outstanding work on that topic, working with the FLC in the spring of 2013 gave me the idea about how to tackle this task - we can use a Brookfieldian perspective of challenging assumptions and go from there.” The model is proving successful in this new group, Professor Klaus reports: “Our goal is to produce concrete best practices for FSEM instructors to use in their seminars, and our discussions and work thus far have yielded some interesting results. We hope to have something prepared for next spring's FSEM faculty workshop.”
The long-term impact of this Faculty Learning Community is not surprising, given the importance of the subject matter –our curricular Goal Two– particularly as we launch into our curriculum review. Above all, as Professor Houseworth points out, once you have analyzed the idea of critical thinking, “you can’t help but think about it.”