Critical thinking, Creative thinking & Reflective practice

As a young environmental and political activist in Australia in the 1970s I was involved in a wide range of actions—from working with trade unionists to oppose the construction of an inner city power plant through campaigning against excess packaging to establishing a natural foods co-operative.  However, when someone asked me: “If you could wish for one thing to be changed when you wake up tomorrow, what would it be?” my answer was not a concrete political success or environmental improvement.  I replied simply: “I would want everyone to question,” by which I meant not to be merely sceptical, but to consider alternatives to accepted views and practices.  This interest in critical thinking led, eventually, to my teaching science students to examine the social influences on knowledge-making.  Addressing the challenges of this kind of teaching led, in turn, to my applying for the second full-time faculty position in the Critical & Creative Thinking (CCT) Graduate Program at UMass Boston in 1998.

When I look back at the path from Australia in the 1970s to CCT, I see that I was also moving in the direction of creative thinking.  Where, we can ask, do a critical thinker’s ideas about alternatives come from?  Not out of individual inspiration, but from borrowing and connecting.  The more items in your tool box—the more themes, heuristics (rules of thumb), and open questions you are working with—the more likely you are to make a new connection and see how things could be otherwise, that is, to be creative.  Yet, in order to build up a set of tools that works for you, it is necessary to experiment, take risks, and reflect on the outcomes.  Such “reflective practice” is like a journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas—it involves risk, opens up questions, creates more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, requires support, and yields personal change.[1]

Traditionally exponents of critical thinking have emphasized the teaching of skills and dispositions for scrutinizing the assumptions, reasoning, and evidence brought to bear on an issue by others and by oneself.  In short, they promote thinking about thinking.  But how do students come to see where there are issues to be opened up and identify those issues without relying on some authority?  The current form of my evolving “answer” is that people can understand things better if they place them in tension with alternatives, but, in order to encourage them to do so, they also need support as they grapple with inevitable tensions in personal and intellectual development.

This picture of critical and creative thinking and reflective practice makes a virtue of my personal history of chewing on many questions, exploring alternative practices, and accumulating diverse tools; of relying less than many of my peers on established intellectual positions and institutional arrangements; and of not following well-intentioned advice to get established in one discipline and use that as a base to seek a wider impact.  My continued journeying prepared me to present myself as a “work in progress” once I joined the CCT community, in which we are engaged in learning how to support others to “develop reflective practice and change their schools, workplaces, and lives”—and to keep journeying.

(Excerpt from Preamble to 2003 Self-study by CCT Program, http://www.cct.umb.edu/aquad02report.pdf


[1] Peter Taylor, “We know more than we are, at first, prepared to acknowledge: Journeying to develop critical thinking,” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/journey.html.

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