In higher education, helping students develop critical thinking skills has long been considered the Holy Grail. As faculty members, we talk about it, refer to it in our course descriptions, and build assignments around it. This sometimes-elusive goal is central to what we do.
Within the current cultural context, however, it may be that critical thinking skills are more crucial than ever before. Public opinion research suggests that people are deeply divided. There is low trust in society’s major institutions. The very nature of facts — what is real and what is fake — is questioned at the highest levels of our political leadership. If we hope to find a way out of this morass, it will only come through thinking critically.
Thus, it is timely that Western Washington University chose critical thinking as the theme for this year’s Innovative Teaching Showcase. This year’s featured faculty — Mark Neff, Ed Love and Bidisha Biswas — offer three excellent approaches to helping students develop these necessary skills.
As recent political debates over public policy demonstrate, the quest for truth isn’t simply amassing a pile of facts. The particulars of an issue take on a different character depending on the way the situation is defined. This is where critical thinking comes into play. In his environmental policy courses, Mark Neff, of the Department of Environmental Studies, works with students to understand and evaluate facts, while also being aware of the limited role they play in policymaking. He writes: “If I am doing my job right, students leave my classes less sure that they know how to fix the world’s problems, but better able to critically evaluate their own understandings and recognize the merits of competing ideas.”
That ability to approach a topic from multiple perspectives is a necessary part of thinking critically, according to Ed Love of the Department of Finance and Marketing. “Providing our students with this capability is one of the best things that we can do to prepare them for life beyond Western, regardless of their area of interest,” Love writes. “Novel solutions to future challenges can only come from the application of novel perspectives.” One of Love’s techniques to boost student engagement in his courses is through using the element of surprise.
Critical thinking-based approaches to problem solving can point to solutions to complex social problems, but they also have pragmatic worth. Research conducted by Bidisha Biswas of the Department of Political Science found that employers highly value candidates with the skills of critical thinking, complex reasoning, teamwork and problem solving. Students in her course, Applied Skills in Political Science, work on the skills needed to analyze data and communicate effectively about it. But they also think critically about the “assumptions, implications and practical consequences of using certain information sources.”
The work of Neff, Love and Biswas provide three exemplars of the kinds of work that happens at Western every day. There are a variety of other stories in the individual portfolios on this site that are worth checking out. Taken together, they provide strong evidence that critical thinking is a vital part of living up to the university’s motto of “Active minds, changing lives.”