Tag Archives: critical_thinking

Probe, create change, reflect: A spin-off blog

The name “probe, create change, reflect” comes from the logo below (with “probe” replacing “inquire” to suggest that we need to look beyond first answers):

The logo is that of the Critical & Creative Thinking graduate program where I work, helping mid-career or career-changing students to “develop reflective practice as we change our schools, workplaces, and lives.” Posts on this new blog are in the same spirit. Posts specific to complexity in environment and biomedicine continue to be made on this Intersecting Processes blog (from which the first four months of the new blog have been extracted).  I am imagining that most readers with science and complexity interests will prefer to peruse blogs in that area when they visit this blog and ditto for readers with reflective practice interests when they visit the new blog.  Cross-posting will lead readers from one area of interest to the other, if they are inclined.

Related to the new blog: tweets, wiki on critical thinking and reflective practice

Why a blog? As before:
1. To make sure I write every morning (even if the post is drawn from past work) before the busy-ness of teaching and administration takes over my day.
2. To see if these daily bits of writing and thinking (and recalling past writing and thinking) combine in ways that lead to new insights.
3. To expose my work more widely, including unpublished work, in the hope that kindred thinkers might come across it and make contact.

Q: What constitutes a kindred thinker for the new blog? A: Someone who wants to promote critical thinking and reflective practice through teaching, groups processes, institutional change in the academy, and more broadly.

(Taking the new blog and this Intersecting Processes blog together, a kindred thinker would be someone who is interested in addressing complex situations “that cut across scales, involve heterogeneous components, and develop over time” and in extending this interest to the interpretation of the researcher-in-social-context and to engagements that modify the directions that researchers take—including their own.)

Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey

One course I taught for the first time soon after I joined the UMass Graduate Program in Critical and Creative Thinking was “Critical Thinking.” Mid-way through the first semester, when the topic was revising lesson plans, we revisited a demonstration I had done in the first class. The details are not important here, except to say that some students had interpreted the demonstration as a science lesson while the science aspect seemed unimportant to me. Discussion of the discrepancy led me to articulate my primary goal, namely, the students would puzzle over the general conundrum of how questions that retrospectively seem obvious ever occurred to them and to consider their susceptibility to recurrent reconceptualizations.

The image that occurred to me was that development as a critical thinker is like undertaking a personal journey into unfamiliar or unknown areas. Both involve risk, open up questions, create more experiences than can be integrated at first sight, require support, yield personal change, and so on. This journeying metaphor differs markedly from the conventional philosophical view of critical thinking as scrutinizing the reasoning, assumptions, and evidence behind claims (Ennis 1987, Critical Thinking Across The Curriculum Project 1996). Instead of the usual connotations of “critical” with judgement and finding fault according to some standards (Williams 1983, 84ff), journeying draws attention to the inter- and intra-personal dimensions of people developing their thinking and practice.

The image of critical thinking as journeying gave me a hook to make sense of my development as a teacher. In narrating my own journey, I attempted to expose conceptual and practical struggles in learning to decenter pedagogy even as I provided space and support for students’ development as critical thinkers (written circa 2000, published several years later as Taylor 2008). The central challenge I identified was that of helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge—something that seems relevant to teaching research and engagement as well as critical thinking. Several related challenges for the teacher or facilitator emerged:

Helping people make knowledge and practice from insights and experience that they are not prepared, at first, to acknowledge
Teacher-facilitators should:

    a) Help students to generate questions about issues they were not aware they faced.
    b) Acknowledge and mobilize the diversity inherent in any group, including the diversity of mental, emotional, situational, and relational factors that people identify as making re-seeing possible.
    c) Help students clear mental space so that thoughts about an issue in question can emerge that had been below the surface of their attention.
    d) Teach students to listen well. (Listening well seemed to help students tease out alternative views. Without alternatives in mind scrutiny of one’s own evidence, assumptions and logic, or of those of others is difficult to motivate or carry out; see also point i, below. Being listened to, in turn, seems to help students access their intelligence—to bring to the surface, reevaluate, and articulate things they already know in some sense.)
    e) Support students on their journeys into unfamiliar or unknown areas (see paragraph above).
    f) Encourage students to take initiative in and through relationships.
    g) Address fear felt by students and by oneself as their teacher.
    h) Have confidence and patience that students will become more invested in the process and the outcomes when insights emerge from themselves.
    i) Raise alternatives. (Critical thinking depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. People understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives.)
    j) Introduce and motivate “opening up themes,” that is, propositions that are simple to convey, but always point to the greater complexity of particular cases and to further work needed to study those cases (Taylor 2005).
    k) Be patient and persistent about students taking up the alternatives, themes, and other tools and applying them to open up questions in new areas. (Experiment and experience are needed for students—and for teachers—to build up a set of tools that work for them.)
    l) Take seriously the creativity and capacity-building that seems to follow from well-facilitated participation, while still allowing space for researchers to insert the “translocal,” that is, their analysis of changes that arise beyond the local region and span a larger scale than the local.


Critical Thinking Across The Curriculum Project (1996). “Definitions of Critical Thinking.”http://www.kcmetro.cc.mo.us/longview/ctac/definitions.htm (viewed 18 Feb 2001)
Ennis, R. H. (1987). A taxonomy of critical thinking dispositions and abilities. Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. J. B. Baron and R. J. Sternberg. New York, W. H. Freeman: 9-26.
Taylor, P. J. (2005). Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, P. J. (2008). Developing Critical Thinking is Like a Journey. Teachers and Teaching Strategies, Problems and Innovations. G. F. Ollington. Hauppauge, NY, Nova Science Publishers.
Williams, R. (1983). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York, Oxford University Press.

(Extracted from “Teaching/Learning for Reflective Practice,” a section of a book manuscript, Taking Yourself Seriously: A Fieldbook of Processes of Research and Engagement, also on the web.)

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.