Critical thinking as a source of pedagogical renewal

 Authored by Hanna Posti-Ahokas

Reflexivity and critical thinking should be both the aim and the basis for teaching and learning in higher education. What can help us to become critical thinkers? How can we support our students’ and colleagues’ critical thinking? We suggest critical thinking as one of the core topics to discuss when renewing curricula and pedagogies for teacher education.  

The OLIVE project aims to create spaces for critical thinking as not only a theoretical/pedagogical principle but also as a practice in the project activities (see e.g. Online Teaching and Learning Environments). Defining critical thinking for different purposes brings out different aspects of being a critical thinker. A recent definition focusing on University learning is suggested in a pedagogical guide (Moate & Posti-Ahokas 2021) for the University of Jyväskylä, Finland:  

Critical thinking requires inclusion of multiple perspectives and acceptance of there not being a single, objective truth. It evolves through time and is never complete. It is about recognition of one’s subjectivity and positionalities of each teacher and learner; making assumptions explicit and asking difficult questions. It is an applied learning process that develops through practice. Thinking critically requires a combination of skills, such as inferring, analysing and evaluating, as well as open mindedness, self-efficacy and inquisitiveness. ‘Why’ and ‘How come’ questions can be a useful starting point for critical thinking.  

How do the current practices of teacher education allow critical thinking to evolve? Content loaded curricula, assessment systems based on command of a given content, performance evaluation and other practices can easily push us away from the goals of reflexivity and critical thinking. As this a challenge in higher education, how can the future teachers we educate be ready to fulfill the curricula objectives in basic education and help pupils to become critical thinkers? Bringing critical thinking to the core of teaching and learning in higher education is critically important to generate change in education.  

In the OLIVE workshop in May 2021 we discussed how critical thinking could be promoted in the practices of teacher education. We recognized that the change needs to start from ourselves, the teacher educators. We should be aware of the tensions and contradictions that arise from the topics that are taught and try to make these tensions visible in our teaching. Inviting colleagues to bring in their unique views to the discussion could be a way to include multiple perspectives and also make the critical reflexivity in academic discussions more visible. Teaching together with colleagues representing different traditions and approaches is also a way to reflect one’s own position and open up new avenues for thinking and transforming pedagogical practice.  

As teacher educators, we are responsible for opening up safe spaces for students’ dialogue. Making mistakes and change of opinions are part of the learning process. Listening to each others’ critical self reflections encourages development of one’s own critical position. Making space for critical reflexivity is a challenge for content packed programmes. In online environments, new dialogic spaces could be provided. Chats and discussion boards can allow sharing of thinking before, during and after lectures. This invites students to consider whether and how they agree or disagree with the ideas of others. It is sometimes easier for students to add their ideas anonymously. Some students can benefit from keeping the discussion open for some time to allow further development of ideas and working based on previously presented thoughts. Our previous research shows how moving between theory/readings, own reflection and dialogue provides a space for critical thinking.  

When critical thinking becomes a central objective and focus of teaching, the whole pedagogical approach is re-considered. This applies to selection of readings and other resources, types of assignments, working methods and approaches to assessment. Conducting self-study on what works in pedagogical practice can become a source of motivation and professional renewal, especially when done in good collegial collaboration.  

Some practical suggestions for University teachers:  

  • Use flexible online tools (e.g. Google jamboard, Flinga) for collecting questions, creating collective mind maps etc. These tools can be used anonymously and also through mobile devices.  
  • Select learning materials that encourage reflection and that provide multiple views 
  • Guide students to include constructive criticism in their written works. The Manchester Phrasebank offers some excellent advice for doing this.  
  • Ask students to audio/video record reflections on their learning process. These can be shared with peers or with the teacher to complement other assignments.  

Featured image credits: Hanna Posti-Ahokas

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