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Dr Martha Burns Answers Two Critical Thinking Questions from Teachers

Posted by Peter Barnes on October 13, 2015 at 4:45 PM

Do you ever think much about thinking?

For most of us, busy with our day to day lives at home and at work, this is probably not something we do often. But is it a useful thing to do? 

Two teachers (an English teacher and a visual arts teacher) asked The Learning Capacity Podcast questions about thinking, and these sparked a discussion about the concept of critical thinking with Dr Martha Burns, Director of Neuroscience Education at Scientific Learning Corporation

What is critical thinking?

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Dr Burns says that critical thinking is "thinking about the process of thinking". 

English teacher's question:  What's going on in a student's brain when they have difficulty critically analysing literature or they have problems such as not seeing what an author is trying to show them in a piece of literature?

Dr Burns' reply: "This is a question that neuroscientists have been investigating for quite a while. Dr Marcel Just, Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, published a research paper about this very concept of reading in 2011.

Critical thinking begins with learning that I can see things you can't see. I can feel things you can't feel. I can hear things you can't hear. We start this development with young children when we encourage sharing - 'if you enjoy playing with it, chances are she will too'.

Then as students get older, especially students who have trouble with social skills, we start to try to build in how do you feel when this happens to you? What do you think someone else feels when it happens to them?

Talk about it in terms of taking perspectives of feelings. So I just had a birthday party, and I got three wonderful presents. How did that make me feel? It made me happy. So if I wanted to make someone else happy, what might I do?

Learning critical thinking from literature in year 5 or 6

By about year five or six in school, students start learning this from literature. What literature does, especially novels, is provide students the opportunity to learn to take the perspective of all the different characters in the story.

Critical thinking and language impaired students

But if the student has a brain in which his or her language skills are not developed well, they will struggle with critical thinking. So how do we develop strategies that can help students take that other perspective when language is a barrier?

When students have a problem with language, you have to go to a more basic language level to encourage them to think about the perspective of others.

I'd start with things like multiple meanings of words. For example, the word 'tree'. We all know what a tree is. But what is a family tree? What is a shoe tree? What is the tree of life?  So you can start with more concrete examples of language being the same word interpreted depending upon a different perspective or context.

And then build into that the idea that people have different feelings, different responses to situations. 

thVisual arts teacher's question:  How can we develop and maintain the critical thinking process in visual arts, because in arts, critical thinking is an emerging thing? It's emerging as you start with nothing. You develop an idea, and you evaluate it critically as you develop your idea. And then you let critical thinking continue to inform the development of the artwork.

Dr Burns' reply: One of the things critical thinking involves from the perspective of the art teacher is getting the student to evaluate their own work or their own ideas.

This is another level beyond the English teacher who's saying, "Let's take the perspective of the author."

The art teacher is saying, "Well, let's just evaluate our own ideas. Let's just look at our own ideas from the perspective of someone else but also from the standpoint of evaluating them and thinking about them."

That gets into words like insight and judgment and flexibility and having an open mind. When the artist is thinking about their concept, he is thinking about his idea, and he's criticising himself as he goes along. And that self-critiquing is what's involved in insight. It's probably involved in many of the higher level artistic fields. 

Critical thinking & learner-centered education

Dr Burns concludes:  "Ultimately, I think the goal of education is we become our own teachers. We develop critical thinking and become our own critics. And so every day we try to do our job a little better than we did before, and every day we've set goals for ourselves to make our life more meaningful or to produce a better product than we produced the last time.

We should not think that the role of education is just sharing content, or just having a library of books that the student read by the time they got to year 12.

But rather we should think that education enables me to say I learned to examine my thoughts, I learned to be organised, I learned to be goal oriented, I learned to be thoughtful and to think about things before I do them.

Then that model of bringing the teacher out and having the student start to become their own teacher is a very, very interesting one. I love it.

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