Kathy A. Fitch
Winter Quarter, 2002
College of DuPage

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English 102


Honors English 102

English 102 Online


Critical Thinking and Creativity

  Introduction to Critical Thinking and Creativity.

  Critical Thinking and Creativity Links.

  Just For Fun:  Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

  PowerPoint presentation for this unit.

  Mrs. Fitch's reflective critical thinking essay.  (Note:  I wrote this essay for a course I took.  The course emphasized the need to create critical thinkers to "deliver" to our college "clients."  As you'll see, in the essay, I object to the idea of regarding students as products.  Although I might write this essay differently now, I share it with you as one example of how one might go about developing and supporting a thesis about critical thinking.)

  Activities for Unit Two:  Critical Thinking and Creativity.

Introduction to Critical Thinking and Creativity

One of the goals outlined in College of DuPage's mission statement is to "promote critical and creative thinking."  For this unit, we will focus on 1) defining critical thinking and creativity, 2) examining why fostering students' development of these two sets of skills is considered a priority in higher education, 3) comparing and contrasting critical thinking and creative thinking, 4) analyzing teaching and learning processes with an eye toward discovering which strategies do the best job of promoting critical thinking and creativity, 5) exercising our critical and creative faculties by reading, analyzing, and discussing a variety of sources, and finally 6) writing analytical essays in which we synthesize what we've learned about critical thinking and creativity in order to support an argument or thesis of our own devising. 

As you've no doubt already discovered, taking a Rhetoric and Composition course makes the ideal occasion for contemplating critical thinking and creativity, for all of our tasks--reading, responding, synthesizing sources, developing a thesis, organizing support for that thesis, and finding the words that best express our positions--demand that we think both critically and creatively.  Some have said that a blank page is "God's way of reminding us that it isn't so easy being God." All of us who've ever stared at a blank sheet of paper or a blinking cursor in our word processors certainly know the truth of that:  filling blank space with clear, compelling words isn't always easy.  Faced with a blank page and a looming deadline, we might be tempted to wait for inspiration to strike, magically placing that  full-blown essay, letter, memo, or research project  in our brains, but inspiration is rarely as cooperative a creature as we might like it to be.  Studying critical and creative thinking, then, offers us a means of asserting greater control over our thinking, reading, and writing processes.  Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, we can and should develop more reliable strategies for developing ideas.

What is Critical Thinking?  What is Creativity?

Critical thinking and creativity are universally recognized as traits worth developing.  Many colleges and universities list the two in their mission statements, just as College of DuPage does, and the communities colleges and universities serve similarly value the two.  Indeed, employers often rank these skills as among the most desirable in prospective employees.  What, then, are critical thinking and creativity?

To begin answering that question, read and consider the following:

Critical Thinking Resources

After you've finished reading, take a few minutes to write out answers to the following questions:

  1. Based on the histories and definitions of critical thinking offered at the sites above, how would you define critical thinking in a paragraph or two?

  2. Which aspects of the definitions do you most agree with?  Which aspects most confuse you?  Do you object to any aspects of the definitions?

  3. What are the qualities or characteristics of a critical thinker?  

  4. What does the "critical" in "critical thinking" mean?  Why does "critical" so often have negative connotations for us?  

  5. To what extent do you think that your education so far has promoted the development of critical thinking skills?

  6. Which of the types of intelligence Gardner describes are typically emphasized in school?  Which aren't?

Creativity Resources

Next, read and consider the following resources on creativity.

After you've finished reading, take a few minutes to write out answers to the following questions.

  1. Based on the approaches to creativity outlined in the readings above, how would you define creativity in a paragraph or two?

  2. Which definitions of or approaches to creativity seem soundest and most appealing to you?  Do any of the definitions or approaches seem silly or outlandish?

  3. Compare your paragraphs on critical thinking to your paragraphs on creativity.  In what respects are your definitions similar?  In what respects do they differ?

  4. What are the connotations of "creativity"?  Do you think most people would rather think of themselves as "critical" or "creative"?  Why?

  5. To what extent do you think your education so far has promoted your creative development?  

Characteristics of Critical and Creative Thinkers

As you consider the following lists of traits, think about which most and least typically describe you as a thinker, and which you'd most and least like to describe you.

  1. Dwelling comfortably in the land of "no single correct answer":   School often emphasizes and rewards coming up with correct answers quickly and reliably.  All of us know, however, that many of the problems and puzzles we face in life will not yield to a single correct answer.  Raising children, negotiating relationships, solving thorny personnel issues at work, deciding whether or not to change careers--in all of these real-life situations and many more like them we are faced with multiple choices, none of which are guaranteed to be correct.  Those with highly honed critical and creative thinking skills learn to dwell comfortably in this land of conditions and possibilities, gradually becoming ever more adept at solving problems and making sound decisions based on the best available evidence at the time.  Highly evolved critical and creative thinkers are always open to the possibility that what counts as the "best" answer is subject to change as conditions warrant.  Uncertainty, of course, is never wholly easy to deal with, but developing our thinking skills can go a long way toward making it easier to cope with a world in which there is no teacher's manual with answers to life's problems helpfully listed in the back.

  2. Understanding that "no single correct answer" doesn't mean that some answers aren't better than others in the instance at hand.  We can identify worthwhile answers and solutions even when there's more than one choice.  How?  Good answers are those that encompass the greatest amount of the available evidence, that are consistent with the information we've gathered, that do the best job of providing satisfactory solutions under the current circumstances, and so on.  Sound complicated?  Think of all of the possible ways of analyzing and responding to a Shakespeare play--Romeo and Juliet, for example.  Hundreds of thousands of essays analyzing that play have been written, and no two of them are exactly the same.  Indeed, many of them contradict each other!  We wouldn't have much difficulty identifying the good essays and the bad ones, though, for all of the good essays would add, somehow, to our understanding of the play, enriching our experience of it.  Bad essays would either simply repeat what has been said already, thus failing to enrich our understanding, or would offer such outlandish interpretations that they seemed not to be based on the play at all. Similarly, there are many means of raising children.  Parents who are already successfully raising one child may think that they've learned everything there is to know about childrearing, but once a second child comes along, they'll often discover that the strategies that worked well with child number one simply don't suit child number two.  No question about it, there is no single correct method of raising children.  Nonetheless, we can all agree that some approaches work better than others in the instance at hand.

  3. Formulating Questions:  Many have observed that there are no such things as a stupid questions--with the exception of those that go unasked. Questions, in other words, are inherently good things because they prompt our thinking. Strong thinkers know how to generate interesting questions that lead them down new paths, and they recognize that even questions that might seem sort of silly, at first, can actually prove quite valuable.  Note that children are famous question askers, sometimes generating ten or more of the things in a single breath!  Somewhere along the way, many of us lose that ability to generate questions so prolifically, perhaps because we've been shushed too many times by parents or teachers, or perhaps because we've lost our childlike awe of the world, along with our voracious curiosity about how the world works.   

  4. Switching critical lenses with growing ease, and recognizing that one's critical lens determines what one sees:  You may have heard the saying, "When you're only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."  That saying is an excellent illustration of the importance of critical lenses.  "Critical lens," is shorthand for "perspective" or "point of view."  In college, the general education courses you take are designed to familiarize you with a variety of critical perspectives, so that you learn to think like a biologist, an economist, a psychologist, a sociologist, a chemist, a writer, and so on.  One goal of college is to help us become "well-rounded," which means that we should be familiar with a variety of ways of looking at the world, and we should be able to discern the connections and contradictions afforded by those varying perspectives.  Even seemingly simple observations grow richer and more complex when we have a variety of perspectives to bring to bear on them.  For instance, I've often noted that the front porches that were so common in my childhood neighborhood are quite rare here in suburbia. Nearly every house comes with a backyard deck, these days.  Why?  The sociologist in me wonders if living in such crowded conditions makes us prefer the privacy of a backyard deck to the public display of a front porch.  My inner sociologist also wonders whether our mobility makes us much less likely to know all of our neighbors--and thus want to greet them from our front porches as they pass--than we were when families spent their entire lives in a single neighborhood.  From a psychological perspective, I wonder how much of the backyard deck phenomenon is a matter of "keeping up with the Joneses," an observation which, in turn, makes my economic frame of mind kick in:  why are so many of us willing to pay so much--tens of thousands of dollars--for a living space that's only really usable for a few months a year in this part of the country.  Then, of course, my English teacher self takes over to contemplate writing a poem or an essay about porches and decks and all they reveal about our changing society.

  5. Honing the perceptual skills that feed the pool of "intellectual raw data" that makes complex conceptions possible:  If I didn't stop to notice all of those backyard decks, I'd never end up tempted to write about them.  To think, in short, we must take the time to notice our worlds, collecting data about them through our senses, our experiences, and our reading and research. Makes sense, doesn't it?  After all, it's pretty tough to become strong thinkers if we haven't anything to think about!  Sayings like "stop to smell the roses," or "wake up and smell the coffee!" remind us of how important it is to slow down and notice our worlds.  Keen perceivers make strong thinkers. Once again, this is an area in which children tend to be very strong.  For instance, one spring, as I cleaned my gardens in preparation for planting, two little girls who live on my street came to join me.  Soon, we were all happily digging--I with an eye toward getting the garden cleaned at last, they with an eye toward worm hunting!  They discovered all sorts of worms:  long ones, short ones, fat ones, and thin ones.  They picked up the worms to examine them more closely, letting them wriggle wetly across their palms.  They "accidentally" cut some of the worms in half, noting that each half continued to wriggle.  Before long, they'd sent me into the house to rummage up some jars they could use for their budding worm farm, and were peppering me with questions about what worms ate, what their purpose was, how they reproduced, and so forth.  More than a few grade school science teachers would have envied me that teaching moment, I'm sure!  Both learning and the hunger to learn begin in simply noticing.

  6. Knowing how to move from both the general to the specific (deduction) and the specific to the general (induction):  Strong thinkers can both apply general principles to individual cases and extract general principles from a collection of individual cases. 

  7. Understanding and appreciating both fixed and organic forms:  For instance, a strong writer should be able to write in a variety of circumstances.  He or she should know when and how to write very formal things such as resumes, letters of application, and business letters, but should also be aware of when and how to create more fluid forms.  Similarly, a strong thinker should know when and how to apply specific formulas, and when and how to get along without them.

  8. Developing a willingness to be an explorer, not an expert:  Thinking is a journey whose destination is often uncertain.  Critical and creative thinkers learn to enjoy the journey despite or because of its uncertainty.  As an old cruise-line ad used to put it, "Getting there is half the fun!"  Learning, by definition, requires stepping out of our areas of expertise.  We can do so tentatively and nervously (a little discomfort is probably unavoidable, but too much is clearly paralyzing), or with an explorer's spirit.

  9. Making cross-disciplinary, cross-media connections:  Unlikely connections can lead to valuable insights. Think, for instance, of the design of a spiral staircase, which is said to have inspired understanding of the double-helix structure of a DNA Molecule.  Similarly, Sigmund Freud's influential psychoanalytic theories were heavily influenced by Greek mythology.

  10. Willingly setting aside the widely accepted "correct" answer to explore other options:  For years, the idea that ulcers are caused by diet and stress was accepted as gospel in the medical community.  Indeed, when the idea that bacteria may play an important role in the formation of ulcers was first introduced, it was considered so controversial that it was dismissed out of hand by many experienced doctors.  Years later, even as the debate rages on in medical journals, antibiotic treatment of ulcers is routine, bringing relief to thousands of people each year.  Can you think of other ideas or inventions that were once considered outlandish but are now standard, accepted parts of our lives?  

  11. Considering the moral and ethical domain:  No human is an island.  Because our ideas, our actions, and our decisions effect others,  many of the most  Valuable Intellectual Traits of critical and creative thinkers fall into the realm of morals and ethics.

Traits Associated with Creative Thinkers

Elliott et al. Educational Psychology: Effective Teaching, Effective Learning.

Tolerant of Ambiguity  |  Flexible  |  Original  |  Intelligent  | Independent  |  Able to  Synthesize   |  Perseverance |  Insightful |  Visualize  |  Fluent |  Sensitive | Connected  |  Resilient  |  Intuitive  |  Self-critical   |   Risk-taker |  Knowledgeable |  Analytical |  Curious Focused  |  Imaginative  |


Interactive Tutorials and Inventories

Try your hand at the following interactive tutorials and online inventories, and then take a few minutes to write answers the questions that follow:

  1. Why do the critical thinking tutorials emphasize argument?  Do you think that understanding the concepts and terms of argument is an essential aspect of becoming a stronger thinker and writer?

  2. Should students be aware of their preferred learning styles?  To what extent should schools and teachers attempt to take students' varying learning styles into account?

  3. Do you agree that the skills Gardner calls "intelligences" should be considered forms of intelligence?  Why or why not?

  4. What skills do you think are built by the "instant challenges" in Reggie's Instant Challenge Playhouse? Would you enjoy participating in such challenges, or do you prefer to learn on your own?

Critical Thinking and Creativity Links

Just For Fun:  Lateral Thinking Puzzles

(No fair peaking at the answers until you've driven yourself nuts pondering these for awhile.  However, once you have peeked, you're perfectly within your rights to drive family and friends nuts with them.)

Activities for Unit Two:  Critical Thinking and Creativity

Kathy A. Fitch
Winter Quarter, 2002
College of DuPage

Learning Links

Teaching Portfolio

English 102


Honors English 102

English 102 Online


Copyright 2000-2002, Kathy A. Fitch
College of DuPage Liberal Arts Division IC 3129 B (630)942-3367
FitchK@cdnet.cod.edu Disclaimer 11 February 2002