Plenary Workshop at NELIG: What is Critical Thinking, and Why Is It So Hard to Teach?

I call this a plenary workshop, but as I learned after I agreed to do it, it was not only a plenary session, but it was the only session. Apparently NELIG, at least in its quarterly meetings, is structured as one giant workshop. No pressure there, then… 😉

In any case, I think it worked out (The abstract is here). This was a reformulation of some of the material covered in the Critical Skills Workshop over break, but redirected to issues of information literacy. If there’s one big idea in it, it’s that when we think critically we don’t often do the computation-intense sort of processing we tend to conceptualize as critical thinking. The most important pieces of critical thinking (as practiced in daily life) happen before you start to “think” — they come from the conceptual frameworks that formulate our intuitive responses. To address problems in critical thought, you have to understand the conceptual frameworks in use by students, work with the student to actively deconstruct them, and provide more useful frameworks to replace them.

If you can’t do that — if your idea is that the students will just learn to think harder — you’re lost.

The participants were great — actively engaged, great thinkers asking all the right questions. I want library faculty in all my presentations from now on: you really can’t do better. In the activity, they identified the differences between the conceptual frameworks librarians use to parse results lists, and the frameworks used by students — students use “familiarity” and “match” as their guideposts — to them, the act of choosing a resource is like that of choosing a puzzle piece. Librarians look at genre and bias — what sort of document is this (journal article, news story, conference proceeding, blog post) and what markers of bias can we spot (URL, language, title, etc). For librarians, this is an exercise of seeking out construction materials, not finding puzzle pieces.

We talked a little about how to students these processes may appear the same: librarians talk about bias, and students hear “use familiar sources”. Librarians talk about genre, and students hear “fit” or “match” — “How many journal articles do I need to collect? How many news stories?”, which is really just a different way of asking what shape the puzzle piece should be in. Until you address the underlying conceptual misunderstanding directly through well-structured activities, students will continue to plug what you teach them into a conceptual framework that undermines the utility of the new knowledge.

Slides are here. There’s some good stuff in there, but much is incomprehensible without the activities and narration.

To all NELIG participants, thanks for a great Friday morning. It was a pleasure to talk with you all!


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