critically reflective teaching
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Have you ever thought you knew something, only to discover, with the passing of time and the acquisition of experience, that there was more depth, breath, and nuance to the idea or situation than you had previously thought? Or, worse yet, have you ever found out that something you thought ...
Critical and Creative Thinking: A Brief Guide for Teachers
Date Reviewed: September 7, 2016
As teachers in religious studies and theology departments, one of our principal pedagogical claims is that we teach students to think critically and creatively, but we are not always clear on what this means in practical terms. This readable book by Robert DiYanni helpfully gathers research and writing from a wide variety of disciplines to help teachers define and apply critical and creative thinking for themselves. The book’s organization makes sense as it leads the reader through concepts, practical concerns, and application. Brief “interchapters” unite the flow of the book around one master of critical and creative thinking, Leonardo da Vinci. Each chapter ends with a well-crafted list of writing prompts to help the reader – both teachers and students – to apply the chapter’s concepts. For example, chapter 4 focuses on strategies and applications of critical thinking, and so the end-of-chapter prompts call on the reader to analyze arguments, evaluate scenarios, and deploy specific critical thinking strategies. Chapter 5, which examines approaches to creative thinking, provides prompts that invite imagination, innovation, and inventive solutions to problems.
Essentials of critical thinking such as asking questions, seeking clarification, gathering evidence, evaluation, and reflection are discussed at length with colorful examples from notable historical events and popular culture. For instance, one chapter features a collection of headlines and other snippets of news coverage of the murder of Kitty Genovese. DiYanni invites the reader to consider what sorts of inferences and judgments various news sources made in response to this famous case (71-74). Another section examines the methods that Sherlock Holmes used in his legendary detective work (109-112). DiYanni argues, however, that critical thinking is not sufficient by itself and can even be reductive and dangerous (xi) if it is not joined by robust creative thinking. He persuasively shows that creative thinking is a necessary adjunct to critical thinking and leads to innovation and whole-minded approaches to problems. DiYanni’s coverage of creative thinking likewise draws on a wealth of examples from creative people such as choreographer Twyla Tharp and checklist-innovator Atul Gawande.
DiYanni’s book thoroughly covers critical and creative thinking, but it may not live up completely to its subtitle, A Brief Guide for Teachers. There is not much by way of specific advice to teachers on how to teach students to be more critical and creative thinkers. Rather, the book reads like a textbook for a class whose subject matter is creative thinking itself. As such, the exercises in the book would have to be adjusted for application to religious studies and theology courses. Another small critique is that DiYanni argues early in the book that cultural forms and social locations, including religion, are “blocks” to critical thinking (10). While we can agree that people’s contexts can limit and define their worldview, religion professors know that it is not particularly helpful to consider religion as a hamper to thoughtfulness. These criticisms aside, this book is a helpful addition to the literature on critical and creative thinking, and its focus on application – even if not explicitly linked to pedagogical advice – provides welcome tools to promote critical and creative thinking in ourselves and our students.
A Toolkit for College Professors
Date Reviewed: September 7, 2016
This book is pitched to college and university faculty at all career stages, and it stands out from other books in this category because of its research-based findings and its thoughtful case studies. The authors based their guidance on a year-long research study of 688 faculty from a wide range of institutions as well as on years of personal professional experience. The book covers the major aspects of an academic career: effective teaching and promoting student success, defining and facilitating collegiality and positive relationships within departments and with administration, conducting research, performing effective service to the institution or guild, and moving through the ranks to tenure and beyond. This book’s strengths include the liberal use of longer case studies and shorter scenarios, each of which works through a series of questions and proposed resolutions (for case studies) and a challenge question and outcome (for scenarios). The initial warm-up questions are often quite broad (for example, “Is there any general advice you think might be helpful to your friend?” ) while later questions tend to be more specific and thoughtful, requiring the reader to consider multiple factors and angles within one scenario. These vignettes were well written and thoughtfully prepared, and on the whole they engage the reader quite effectively. That the scenarios are so clearly taken from actual experience makes them more valuable, especially to newer faculty members who haven’t yet seen it all.
Two chapters of this guide focus specifically on teaching. The first, titled “Teaching Effectively in the Classroom,” strongly promotes active learning over lecturing. The case studies in this section deal with common problems, such as how to respond to poor results in student evaluations and what to do when the entire class fails an exam. This chapter emphasizes the importance of learning how to teach large courses effectively, although the authors do include a section at the end of the chapter on “teachniques” for teaching smaller courses. Many new faculty and older faculty who are retooling will find this chapter a useful primer. The second chapter focuses on “Promoting Student Success and Engagement,” with a focus on developing friendly but not-too-familiar relationships with students. Using research and experience, the authors explain the pivotal importance of faculty in shaping students’ lives and ways of thinking well beyond the classroom.
Taken together, these two chapters address many issues of interest to readers of this journal, and the remainder of the book is equally valuable for those looking for guidance and food for thought. As a guide designed for all faculty, this book necessarily elides issues of race and gender, for instance, that significantly shape faculty experience. That said, the book accomplishes much in a short space, and each chapter of the book is short and well-structured. Above all, this book uses the very techniques it suggests for effective teaching, and new faculty members in particular will find themselves better prepared for everyday faculty life after thinking through these realistic case studies.
I am starting a new job at Union Theological Seminary in New York city. It is a joy beyond measure for me. As we know well, when we start a new job, our new position comes with lots of expectations, insecurities, hopes, and power. It is incredible how an institution ...
In Defense of a Liberal Education
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
The argument of Fareed Zakaria’s book is precisely what the title indicates: a liberal education is worth defending. Zakaria begins by describing the oft heard opinion that studying the liberal arts, especially in an age of technology and global business, is a waste of time, and how in India, a skills-based education is valued much more than one centered on the study of history or philosophy. He himself intended to focus upon maths and sciences, but wound up a history major because of an elective course.
The book provides a brief but helpful history of liberal arts education, focused upon the United States, then turns to what Zakaria thinks is the “central virtue” (72) of such an education: it teaches one how to write, which in turn teaches one how to think. The other two main advantages of such an education are that one learns how to speak, and how to learn. Zakaria elaborates on how such abilities are requisite for obtaining a job, and important for the modern economy. He also maintains that education should be much more accessible and affordable, and that university education, at least in the United States, should be more rigorous. Thus, while extolling the importance of a liberal education, he recognizes that it is currently deeply flawed in its implementation. We need more, and better, liberal education (105).
Subsequent chapters further discuss the need for greater accessibility to higher education (Zakaria believes MOOCs can make a contribution here), and the significance of knowledge for power, especially political power. Zakaria thinks the liberal arts are crucial if we want more just societies and a fairer distribution of wealth. His final chapter is a defense of today’s youth. There have been several recent books lamenting the lack of curiosity and selfishness of young people. However, Zakaria cites surveys that indicate that concerns about being a community leader and helping others have risen among students in university, and education, poverty. and the environment are their top concerns. However, at the close of the book he grants that all of us need to spend more time thinking about the meaning of life, which is precisely what a liberal arts education encourages us to do.
Zakaria’s book is informative and engaging, and I appreciate his call to make education more accessible for those facing economic hardship. Some might find that the examples and citations from capitalist icons who endorse the liberal arts undermine other aspects of Zakaria’s argument given that one hopes (and Zakaria appears to share this hope) a liberal arts education would encourage a more reflective critique of economic systems in which people are able to amass so much wealth, often at the expense of others. Such examples might also reinforce the notion that success is measured primarily by wealth, which many dimensions of a liberal arts course of study would challenge. But those interested in a history of higher education in the United States will find this a good introduction. The more positive, or at least, sympathetic, attitude towards contemporary young people evident in the last chapter is welcome in light of how anxious and debt-ridden so many of our students are.