Thursday, June 07, 2007

Critical Thinking Skills for Everyone

Currently, I am reading about the effects of college education on the expanding critical thinking skills of students. And when I saw today Jacqueline Sage's article "Do You ThinkYou Can Teach Our Students?" from the Chronicle of Higher Education I wanted to see how she addresses the question of teaching critical thinking at all levels. Sage is currently job hunting, with her Ivy League degree, and considering teaching positions at community colleges, where, she senses from their attitudes that the focus for (and maybe from) students is on practical vocational training and not abstract reasoning. She says:

I had thought that my upbringing would help me relate to students both at community colleges and at the state university where I have been teaching as a lecturer. After all, I come from the same urban, working-class background as many of the students -- with one glaring exception. I was the self-motivated overachiever who ended up in the Ivy League. I may have worked my way through school, holding two jobs in addition to a full course load, but I also ended up in graduate school rather than a practical profession. I am already committed to learning and, particularly, to a type of learning with which many of the students at community colleges and at my state university are unfamiliar.

She wants to share with her students now the advantages in learning that she received in the Ivy League. She wants them to move up to her level of critical thinking. And to do this, she says:

I structure my courses to teach students how to think critically and argue logically about social issues. It's an approach that students at more elite universities simply take for granted as the proper structure of a course. The same is not true of my state-university students, who constantly ask me, "Why are we learning this?"

Apparently, then, the students do not appreciate her efforts. And for Sage, another dilemma arises: If the students say "Why are we learning this?" she feels "Why am I teaching this?" given that the students don't seem motivated the way she was. She worries about the effect on her of these unmotivated students. She says:

In addition, I began to ask myself whether I could be happy teaching courses geared toward a more practical level of knowledge rather than philosophical principles and the evolution of ideas. I didn't think I could. I could only imagine my boredom,

Clearly, if she feels she would be bored trying to help less advantaged students move into the higher realms of critical thinking, then teaching at a community college is not a good fit for her. In fact she says she already feels a mismatch at the state university where she is currently teaching:

I already faced a communication and expectations dilemma at the state university where I teach and to which many of those same community-college students would transfer. Not only did many of my students complain about the workload, but I had some who thought my vocabulary was too difficult, my expectations too high, and my style of teaching unclear because I tended to ask questions within my lectures and considered multiple authors in one argument rather than going in a strictly linear mode from author to author.

If I already face obstacles in the classroom at a state university, I reasoned, how much worse would it be at a community college?

Anyone with such an attitude would clearly not be happy teaching at a community college. Maybe Sage needs to read Alfred Lubrano's book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams where, reviewer Richard Jensen quotes:

"I am two people. I now live a middle-class life, working at a white-collar newspaperman's job, but I was born blue collar. I've never reconciled the dichotomy. This book is a step toward understanding what people gain and what they leave behind as they move from the working class to the middle class" (1). Lubrano's goal "was to write a book about an existing social class, the white-collar children—first-generation college graduates— [End Page 440] of blue-collar parents, and to write one that would be accessible to those without a Ph.D." (1).

Maybe Sage needs to read Mike Rose's Lives on the Boundary: variously subtitled A Moving Account of or The Struggles and Achievements of America's Underprepared. According to the blurb on the MikeRose.Com website posted by his publisher Penguin, Lives on the Boundary adresses the issues that Jacquelline Sage raises in her job hunting dilemma, but from a different, more generous perspective.

Remedial, illiterate, intellectually deficient--these are the stigmas that define the educational underclass to which Mike Rose once belonged. Here, he tells of his personal journey from inner-city Los Angeles to a major research university, bringing a vital challenge to those who must shape America's educational agenda.
Rose has continued to write about the intellectual capacities of all our students and would surely hope that Sage could see her way clear to tackle the important task fo sharing critical thinking with all students. Or, if she thinks she would be bored, then she should stay away, as her articles concludes she will.

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