Danger illustrated

Students often struggle with critical thinking. They are great at description, but ask them to move beyond this into critical analysis and they look at you and shrug. And yet critical thinking is a vital graduate skill that once acquired, can be applied to all aspects of life.

Recently I have been teaching a research skills module to a whole year group of third year education undergraduates. The time came to address critical thinking, and I thought long and hard about the best way to help them to learn.

There are some great exemplars of effective education from across the ages. Think of Socrates with his constant questioning, or the great educator Comenius with his naturalistic approach to learning by 'obtaining knowledge through objects rather than words'. Then there was Maria von Trapp (played by Julie Andrews in the movie musical The Sound of Music. Look, I'm being serious here - kind of). She used a combination of sounds, imagery and mnemonics to teach the children to sing. She could have taught them to sing anything using this method - even Firestarter.

I brought all these ideas together to teach critical thinking this week. I illustrated my teaching with a simple plastic bottle of water. I asked my students to describe it. 'It's transparent', 'It's made of plastic', and 'It holds water' were perfect answers. These are superficial qualities to the bottle of water, but they don't really tell us much more about it. It's dangerous to accept something at face value without examining it in depth.

So, I made the illustration a little more difficult. I asked them to analyse the bottle of water. Now, there are many ways you can do this. You could chemically analyse the contents for example. Or you could simply trust the manufacturer and read the contents label on the side to see what levels of calcium, sodium or magnesium were present. You could also analyse the shape of the bottle - its design - and the affordance of the bottle top and whether it allowed you to twist or flip the bottle open.

The next stage is one that most students struggle with. How do we critically analyse the bottle of water? After a lot of thinking, several ideas were ventured including 'the water is almost gone, therefore the owner might have been thirsty', and 'the design of this bottle isn't as good as another brand I usually buy.' In essence the students were speculating based on their analysis of the bottle, and were also beginning to evaluate the worth of the bottle. They could have gone further and evaluated its worth in terms of value for money, or its health benefits in comparison to other popular drinks. They may have discussed the history of bottle water, its cultural impact, or even debated the plastic bottle in terms of how easy it would be to recycle its component parts. In fact, when you get to the critical analysis and the evaluation stages of thinking, there are endless possibilities. Let's hope the students make the connection to their education studies.

Photo from various sources to numerous to list here

Creative Commons License
Danger illustrated by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Popular Posts