Thursday, January 24, 2008

Learning to Think

On Words

Learning to Think


Jakarta – Students are not educated for the past, but rather for the present and the future. This is done by teaching critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking is, as defined by American psychologist Diane Halpern, the ability to use skills and strategies in a purposeful manner, increasing the probability of achieving a desired result. It is this ability, more than any content learning, which students need to bring forward with them into future learning situations both in and out of the classroom.

Without critical thinking skills, we cannot fully participate within our current time and context. Nowadays, we face new learning challenges faster than ever before. Whether at school, home or our workplace, we constantly must make decisions quickly and correctly. For us, living in Jakarta, some of the most common problems we encounter have to do with educating our children, staffing our houses and businesses, choosing places to live and re-upping for another contract. Critical thinking helps us make such decisions judicially.

University of Massachusetts professor Cynthia Suopis likes to demonstrate the difference between standard thinking and critical thinking by giving an analogy of a river running through a town. She says,

Imagine standing by the river and then suddenly you see someone in the water, waving their arms, being swept downstream. If you can swim and you are able bodied, you would probably jump into the water and try to save the person. Good for you! That is good thinking and certainly responsive to the person in need. After you save one person, you go back on shore and dry yourself off and you suddenly see another person floating down stream in the same manner. You jump back in and you save that person. This strange occurrence happens again and then it happens again a few days later when you walk by the same spot along the river. A thinker would jump into the water and save the drowning people one by one by one. A critical thinker would do something else. Can you guess?

Yes, a critical thinker would ask, why are these people falling in the river? What is happening upstream?

Suopis explains that this story shows that simply reacting is “a very different thing” than using skills and strategies to break problems into parts for analysis. This process slows down the situation enabling you to search for the heart of the problem and ways that can best solve it. Suopis’s explanation reminds me of the way in which top-flight athletes talk about how they see the entire court or field while everyone else moves around them in slow-motion.

Fortunately, anyone can improve his or her critical thinking ability. In their book, Writing Analytically, David Rosenwasser and Jill Stephen lay out “five analytical moves” that we may follow in order to strengthen our critical thinking. We will review three of the five moves in today’s column.

The first move is suspending judgment. The two authors argue that the stopping of judging our world with likes and dislikes, agreement and disagreement is well worth the effort since judgments usually say more about the judge than that which is being judged.

Secondly, Rossenwasser and Stephen suggest that we “define significant parts and how they’re related.” This is the breaking down of a situation into workable pieces. This moving from the general to the specific and tracing the relations between the parts is vital to all critical thinking. We often use this technique in the language classroom when it comes to reading and writing exercises. Once, we can see how a text is organized and figure out how everything is connected, the mystery and the fear are vanquished from the learning process.

Finding patterns and binaries is important for the critical thinker and the authors’ third analytical move.

Patterns represent themes. Does more homework make for better educated students? Does the Trans-Jakarta Busway lessen traffic or make it worse? Are there other correlations we need to find and analyze before we can make a conclusion. A critical thinker explores patterns.

Binaries are matched pairs of exact opposites such as open and closed, black and white, home schooling or enrolling in school. Actively searching for these forks in the analytical road is essential since this is from where both sides of arguments are found.

Critical thinking is not a simple process of moving from point A to point B to point C. Sometimes we need to explore the road less traveled before turning back from where we came or, if need be, continuing on. Critical thinkers ponder and revisit all possibilities.

Thankfully, Rossenwasser and Stephen do not merely explain these moves. They also provide suggestions for us to follow if we would like to strengthen our critical thinking. We can actively work our critical thinking muscles on poems, speeches, movies, paintings, or anything we can read or observe.

I tried out the analytical moves on Emily Dickinson’s, Because I Could Not Stop for Death. Sure enough, by suspending judgment and searching for the parts that make up the whole, I was able to appreciate the poem in a way that I had never been able to do before with poetry. I hope that you too can find the time to practice the moves.

Happy thinking,


This article was originally published Dec. 12, 2007 in The Jakarta Post.

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