Transforming Higher Education
Reflective Essay #3
Kathy A. Fitch
The answer to the question raised at the end of our last class, "Where does the learning of critical thinking reside?", is everywhere and nowhere. If that sounds evasive, consider the complexity of the term "critical thinking." It has a multitude of meanings covering a multitude of skills employed in a dizzying array of situations and disciplines. Since the term has been in vogue, it has appeared in the titles of everything from parenting magazine articles to auto repair manuals. Everyone, it seems, needs to be a critical thinker. Few would argue, however, that every job or task requires exactly the same level of critical skill, and even fewer could provide a sure fire method of creating it. Therein lies the problem with this slippery term.
When I go to get my hair cut, I expect my stylist to have certain critical skills. She should, for example, observe the texture of my hair, note any cowlicks, and ask me how much time Iím willing to spend fussing with it each day. Then, she should look at my facial structure, find out whether Iím averse to such chemical procedures as dying and perming, and determine just how much money Iím willing to invest to keep whatever style we end up with looking its best. She should also have enough interpersonal skill to gently steer me away from styles that arenít likely to flatter my features, and to make reasonable predictions about whether Iím the type of client that prefers chat, or the type that prefers "letís get down to business" silence. Once sheís garnered all of that information, she should recommend a suitable style, and she should have the skill to produce it. If I were a salon owner, Iíd be on the lookout for such stylists, for Iíd know that my businessís reputation and success depend upon their ability to reliably satisfy my customers.
Now, how about a mother? She needs critical thinking skills, too, but of a different sort. About six weeks after my son was born, small, raised red dots began appearing on his body, scattered over face, trunk and limbs. Concerned, I dragged out one of my many "mommy books" to see if I could determine a likely explanation. What I saw sounded exactly like what the book called strawberry hemangiomas, a type of birthmark which, when it appears in the pattern my son seemed to be displaying, could indicate internal bleeding. Concerned, I called our pediatrician, who assured me that the condition was so rare as to be practically nonexistent (in his twenty years of practice, he assured me, he had never once seen a case), but he grudgingly agreed to see the baby anyway. After quickly examining the marks, the doctor disappeared into his office for awhile, presumably to take a quick glance at his more detailed reference books. When he emerged, he confirmed the diagnosis and asked me a question: how had I figured it out? When I told him about my "mommy books," he seemed nonplussed and just a little irritated. What, he wondered, had I made of the fact that hemangiomas are supposed to appear at birth, rather than six weeks later? I pointed out that my son had been almost exactly six weeks premature, which would make his marks right on schedule, then asked how we could discover whether or not the internal lesions mentioned in the book were indeed a reality. He quickly referred us to a pediatric dermatologist at Childrenís Hospital.
My sonís health matters more to me than a hair cut ever could. Thatís why Iím much more willing to throw myself on the mercy of a hair stylist than I am to throw myself on the mercy of a pediatrician, even though both are presumably much more highly trained in their respective fields than I. I donít like bad haircuts, and have never returned to a stylist who has left me feeling like a scarecrow on a windy day. Still, since Iím totally incompetent when it comes to matters of beauty, I leave the critical thinking to her. I suppose I could go to the bookstore in search of expert advice on hair styling, but why bother? Most of the time, Iíve got more pressing issues to worry about. If I choose my stylist unwisely--well, the hair will eventually grow back. On the other hand, I love my son with all my heart, and would not willingly subject him even once to the services of an incompetent pediatrician. So, despite my lack of a medical education, I never leave the thinking or the decision making entirely up to his doctors. If I had let the doctorís advice go unquestioned in this case, my child would not have received the proper care, which included regular monitoring for anemia. Some combination of love, prudence, and a confidence all out of keeping with my actual knowledge of medicine led me to pit my critical thinking skills against those of the doctor. This time, I insisted that the hoof beats signaled the presence of a zebra, not a horse, which meant risking the doctorís scorn. Right or wrong, Iím sure thatís a risk Iíll take many more times before my son is grown. Because being a good mother means being an advocate for oneís child, oneís critical thinking skills are constantly tested.
Asking questions, being observant, taking a stand when necessary--all of these things are a part of what we mean when we invoke the phrase "critical thinking." Unfortunately, these are not necessarily generalizeable skills, readily transferable from one situation to another. My ideal hairstylist might make a horrible mother. I would absolutely make a horrible hairstylist. Further, though these skills can certainly be studied and developed, it is practically impossible to pinpoint the moment at which they are learned. It is undoubtedly possible to graduate summa cum laude from beauty school and still be a perfectly awful hairstylist. It is certainly possible to bear a child, attend parenting seminars, and still be a perfectly awful mother. You can read all the right books, take all the right classes, and go through all the right motions but still end up not being good at whatever pursuit you choose.
Critical thinking is perhaps our politically correct phrase for intelligence, good judgment, or even wisdom. As parents and teachers, we know only how to create environments where such things are likely to thrive; we can never guarantee them. Indeed, there is something subjective about the whole notion of critical thinking, perhaps because it is so situation specific. The hair style I end up loving might strike others as messy or silly. The hairstylist who is a complete failure in my suburban salon might work out beautifully in an urban salon with a younger clientele. The mother who questions her childís pediatrician might be an intelligent advocate or a paranoid pain in the rear--as I would have seemed had I been wrong. Since we can judge the presence of critical thinking only by its results, defining the term is something of an exercise in futility. How then, can we suggest that there can be any reliable method of delivering this skill?
When we do try to concoct recipes for critical thinking, they generally look something like this:
CRITICAL THINKING GINGERBREAD PERSONS
(AKA "Smart Cookies)
One Cup Each:
Clean and Safe Living Environment
1/2 Cup Each:
Membership in Groups that Share Interests
1/3 Cup Each:
Self-Esteem (must be warranted)
1 Tablespoon Each:
Extract of Pure Maturity
(Do not substitute above ingredient. Imitation maturity will adversely affect flavor.)
1/4 Cup Each:
Communication (Reading, Writing, Oral Skills)
Instructions: Mix liquid ingredients well. Gradually blend in dry ingredients until mixture forms a large ball (mixture will be lumpy). Refrigerate in primary school. Roll and cut into desired shapes in secondary school. Bake for four to eight years in preheated 451į institute of higher education, constantly checking for doneness. Cool on career rack. Decorate as desired. Serve at corporate teas.
Like all recipes, this one leaves some intangible thing out. For years, my Grandmother used to send us two tins of her famous chocolate chip cookies every Christmas. They were perfect, not dry, but crisp--just right with a glass of cold milk. When I finally convinced her to give me the recipe, I figured I would then be able to enjoy "Gramma Cookies," as we called them, whenever I wanted them. Wrong. I followed her recipe to the letter every time, but even though my cookies were perfectly adequate, they were nothing like hers. At first, I figured she must have deliberately misled me in an attempt to keep the secret for herself. Then, I realized that the missing ingredient was Grandmother herself. From watching her bake, I learned that she never measured anything. She just knew what to do. Experience and instinct gave her that most mysterious of skills, the ability to add a dash of this and a pinch of that with utter confidence in the result. Then too, she loved to bake, where Iíve always regarded it as something of a chore. In short, the missing ingredient was magic.
Thatís the way with learning, too, I think. Whether we want "critical thinking," intelligence, good judgment, or wisdom, we have to understand that good recipes canít ensure good results. Learning, finally, isnít a product, and neither Maslowís Hierarchy of Needs nor the typical general education curriculum are recipes we can use to churn out self-actualized people. Sometimes, we canít acquire the necessary ingredients. Occasionally, the recipe turns out fine even when we break the rules and make do with what we have. Often, people resist being cut into the shapes we desire. Once in a while, what we thought would be a disaster turns out to be wildly successful.
Those within the corporate community who want to place an order for several hundred thousand critical thinkers must come to realize that there will always be something intangible about learning. If they want to help schools and parents do their best to create the "smart cookies" that will be assets to their businesses, they can work to provide us with the best possible ingredients by supporting such things as mentoring programs, community health services, work/school cooperatives, environmental protection plans, on-site daycare centers, etc. They can, as parents and teachers must, work to make themselves (and their businesses) models of the kind of critical thinking they seek. Finally, though, there is no reliable method of mass producing "smart cookies." Mass produced Oreos will never rival home-made "Gramma cookies" because they lack that dash of magic only Grandmother could add. Similarly, mass produced thinkers will never entirely satisfy our corporate customers. Albert Einstein once observed that "the holy spirit of curiosity" is at the heart of learning. Like my grandma, this most revered of critical thinkers knew about magic.
Copyright © 200-2002, Kathy A. Fitch
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FitchK@cdnet.cod.edu ∑ Disclaimer ∑04 January 2002