Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.
I’ve been busy in recent days. As many of you may recall, I manage a writing center at a community college in San Antonio, Texas, USA. For a number of reasons, recent weeks at work have been especially stressful. For one, I’ve been tasked with turning our center into a multipurpose learning facility. In other words, we’ll continue to help students with their writing, but we are broadening our horizons by offering additional services. These services include conducting hands-on workshops that help students develop their critical thinking skills. In the past half a month or so, I’ve been creating and offering these workshops to a wide variety of students, and all this has kept me super busy.
This experience of talking with groups of people about thinking and what makes it artful and “critical”—I often tell others that I prefer the term “creative” to “critical”—has both kept me from publishing here recently and also inspired this blog. I guess you could say my recent busyness has been a kind of double-edged sword.
Just yesterday I was doing a critical thinking workshop with a group of first-year students who were taking a course that helps them develop the kind of skills needed to succeed in both academics and life. Their regular professor had heard about my thinking sessions and asked me to stand in for her as a kind of guest presenter.
I got them started doing a few thinking tasks and then, from time to time, we’d stop to talk about their perceptions of what they were doing. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was riffing on how outdated so much of what we do as educators is. For example, the average classroom experience goes something like this: Students are required to buy an expensive textbook and then reading assignments are given from it. For all intents and purposes, the sole point of these reading assignments is to simply move the information from one location—the book—to another—the brains of the students. Once this transference has taken place, the students are then required to move the information again—from out of their heads to a piece of paper called an examination.
Thus, under this model, education equates to little more than moving information from one locale to another. The best students are those who are most skilled at keeping the information intact and complete throughout these transfers. It is even possible that a student might be skilled at doing this sort of thing while having only a very rudimentary understanding of the meaning or importance of the body of knowledge that’s being moved hither and yon.
The fact that so much emphasis is still placed on doing these sorts of strange exercises proves how little critical thinking is actually taking place even among the most highly educated.
This current state of affairs in education raises lots of questions. For example, what is the point of knowing facts and moving them from one place to another like this? What good does it do a person to simply be a kind of vessel that’s full to its brim with information? Certainly, it’s better to know than not to know. But is knowing stuff (and being able to demonstrate a kind of mastery of knowing) the highest state of being one might aspire to? What does it mean to be “educated,” “skilled,” “clever,” or “intelligent”?
In my critical thinking workshops, I ask students to think about knowledge and what use it is to “know.” I ask them if there is anything bigger than knowledge, and if so, what it might be. I certainly have a point of view on all these questions I’m raising. But I’m really writing this to hear what you have to say.