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Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Education Toolbox

Wanted: Critical thinking education

By Rebecca Tallent and Kelley Crowley

Many journalism teachers say the linchpin of their program is the coaching of critical thinking skills. Some high school teachers say the teaching of critical thinking can help save their program in the face of budget cuts.

But how does one teach thinking? On its face, it seems a bit odd at best. After all, everyone thinks, don’t they?

Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget agreed: Everyone does think, but not everyone thinks alike or uses the same critical thinking skills. Piaget’s research shows there are four stages of learning, and most people get stuck at the third level, which he called “concrete operational.” In this stage, people cannot think beyond what is right in front of them, something they can see, feel, taste or otherwise know from experience.

Critical thinking, he said, comes in the fourth stage, “formal operations” where people can perform abstract reasoning. To write a news story, the writer must be in the formal operations or higher, K.F. Riegel’s dialectical reasoning. This is where true critical thinking persistently lies, as the individual can accept ambiguity and contradictions.

So how can someone teach these concepts, especially in the age of texting and Instagram, where critical thinking doesn’t seem necessary?

Back to Piaget, who said a person’s capacity for logical thought is not learned but embedded, just as hair color and gender are embedded in DNA. But these tendencies do not mature unless they are used. Students who do not apply their abilities and test their limitations will never reach full intellectual capacity or ability to think critically.

If we as journalism teachers/professors have our students practice their reporting skills, have them repeatedly test and refine their critical thinking, we can help them become active critical thinkers. This is the beauty of what we do in our daily assignments: as we encourage, require and cajole students to do the work, we help them unlock their own critical thinking potential.

This is no more than our normal assignments: get students out of their comfort zones and go out to interview people face to face. Yes, this is still used in social media, but by requiring the students to write a print or broadcast news story — find the news and logically write a story — we are helping them craft their own logical processes and critical thinking skills.

From the simplest stories of a baseball game or a student senate meeting up through much more complex articles, such as a legal dispute or bioengineering research, all such writing can help train students’ minds in the critical thinking process as they learn to gather facts and make decisions. Many of these stories will have conflict, so learning to be a journalist teaches them how to discern conflict and how to weigh the issues as well as accept the fact that conflict exists.

Even if they do not ultimately go into journalism, it is a skill they can use for the rest of their lives, a skill that is highly valued in business.

There has been an active call for high schools and colleges to teach critical thinking skills on all levels since 1988, when Stephen Brookfield published “Developing Critical Thinkers.” The need, he said, is great because a flexible, adaptable labor force is needed to meet the competitive challenge of the future.

To enable a change, he said, people must recognize critical thinking as a productive and positive activity; that it is a process rather than an outcome; that manifestations of critical thinking vary according to the context in which it occurs; and that critical thinking is triggered by both positive and negative events. In short, for journalists, it is the everyday of writing a news story.

Teaching critical thinking in journalism classes occurs almost by osmosis. The consistent repetition of writing skills and the requirement that students look at multiple aspects of an event or situation make us unheralded leaders in the critical thinking movement.

It also provides an excellent argument to administrators for maintaining journalism programs in the face of budget cuts.

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