Friday, February 8, 2013

A Prime Value: Critical Thinking

My father taught me to 'always examine the premise' of an argument.   He explained that if you accepted someone's premise you could be easily convinced they were 'right'.  If you looked skeptically at the basis of their argument  you would think more clearly and argue your for your position more effectively.  Dad wanted me to become a lawyer. I almost did, but chose education instead.  I wanted to work with people when they were at their best.

I've been fortunate   I've had many great teachers. The one that had the biggest impact on my 'critical thinking' was Dr. Richard Paul.

He was the keynote speaker at a education conference I attended in the late 80's.  His talk was challenging.  He took the crowd to task and spent an hour beating the educational establishment like a cheap drum for not systematically teaching critical thinking. I loved it. It felt good to have my own beliefs validated in a dramatic and Socratic manner

Dr. Paul's ideas and passion lit me up.  I was lucky to run into him in the hotel bar. We had 2 hours of fascinating discussion, part debate, part conversation. This talk changed my teaching life. I learned I could hang in with a heavy weight thinker.  I saw a way to make a change in my classroom.

Richard Paul was a man who made me think.  And it was good.

I bought his books.  I used his Socratic questioning methods in class. I printed and hung a banner that said:  Learn how to think! on my classroom wall. This became one of my foundation values as a teacher.  It remains so to this day.

Feeling the Heat

One of my most cherished memories is of being pilloried in the principal's office by an outraged parent. This particular father had a truly brilliant daughter. She had a hungry inquisitive mind. Critical thinking gave her a way to understand her world.

Dad didn't like it. His voice shook with anger as he pointed at me and shouted:

"How dare you teach my child to challenge authority!"  
I'll admit that I was very upset by this at the time. It didn't change my teaching methods but it did make me aware that some folks believe that critical thinking is dangerous. Over the years that encounter has become a badge of honor. 

Richard Paul's work clarified by thinking about teaching. I wanted to attend the summer session at his Foundation for Critical Thinking in Sonoma California but simply couldn't afford the time or money.(Being a young teacher with a growing family and a pitiful pay check had it's limitations.)  Now, I truly regret not following that path. 

Recently I found a great two part video from Richard Paul that reminded me why I wanted to learn more from him.  I watched both videos several times.  Once again his ideas lit me up.

Critical Thinking - Standards of Thought - Part 1

Critical Thinking - Standards of Thought - Part 2 Foundation for Critical Thinking:

Dr. Paul was a lot more interesting in that bar in Arizona than he is in these brief lectures. Still he lays out the foundations of critical thinking in less that a half an hour.

As I wrote this, I  thought about my access to professional development education and the long drive to Sonoma that kept me from attending Paul's training in the 1980's,  "I wish there had been an online option back then."

So I just checked and found there are two online courses offered through Cal-State Sonoma on critical thinking for instructors.  I'm tempted!

Dennis O'Connor -- Thinking about thinking in La Jolla CA while the piano player echos the halls with fine music.

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