Connectivism as a solution to the “critical thinking crisis? My humble view.

This is a very interesting concept in education–one I have found to be very effective in the graduate university courses and seminars I have taught. The style I have found most beneficial to my students learning complex and controversial material is to: (1) I begin each course period with an overview of the concepts to be learned and applied in that period [Students are warned in the initial introduction class that a if they fail to complete the assigned reading in advance of attending the class, there is little chance for mastery of the material.]; (2) After completing my lecture and handing out to the students copies of my lecture materials, I randomly and arbitrarily assign each class member to a group of 3-7 students, depending on class size [To assure the best random sample possible, I base placement into groups on arbitrary, meaningless criteria such as zodiac signs, favorite cartoon characters, and so forth.]; (3) I then pass out to each “small group” a written hypothetical statement of facts, prepared in advance of class and using the students names as the “characters” in my “stories” (and given that I have primarily taught environmental/natural resource courses, the characters are typically engaged in activities viewed as compliant or non-compliant with statutory and case law and guidance and regulations, in numerous ways); (4) Each small group is required to appoint a spokesperson and then provided a given length of time (typically limited to 30 minutes to avoid extemporaneous conversations) to IDENTIFY each relevant issue spotted in the hypothetical story, IDENTIFY each character's culpability listed in the story (liable versus compliant, etc.), and PROVIDE A WELL-REASON CONCLUSION FOR EACH ISSUE; (5) I reassemble the small groups back into their ordinal seating configuration, and then I ask each group leader to identify each issue in the “story”, the potential fate of each character–all supported by a reasoned conclusion, and I then ask which issues were most controversial among the group, (6) Finally, we have a general class discussion in which I answer any questions, point out issues which every missed (and explain why those were important enough to be identified and analyzed).

I am not suggesting my teaching technique is unique, that I “invented” it or that it isn't less effective than other teaching styles. All I can say is that the rapid evolution of the students' critical thinking skills and mastery of the materials throughout the semester is shocking to me each time I teach a new course. I have been told by students in every class, who come into my class with diverse educational backgrounds (degrees in Biology, Engineering, Occupational Health and Safety, Geology, Teaching, Law, Political Science, and Physics, to name only a few), that my course is the first course, at any level, that they have ever been made “to think”, rather than memorizing copious amounts of information and “puking it out onto an exam” –never to think about how it might be applied in “the real world” or ever thinking about the material again. I am also frequently told, particularly by those students with a physical science background, that at the beginning of the course they felt I was being evasive by refusing to reveal “the correct answers” to their questions, but instead suggesting to them that there is “no” wrong answer, provided the answer is responsive to the question and backed by a strong, well-reasoned analysis. Typically, those students would tell me the lightbulb came on just about at the midpoint of the semester, and that they then became comfortable with working with subject matter that is very gray, as opposed to the black and white world through which their physical science courses were taught.

In order for the small group discussions to continue to be dynamic, I must reassign students to new groups each new class–so they can experience the collective experience with all of their classmates (and to avoid the problems with cliques, but exposing them to the real world working environment by rquiring every student to work collectively, toward a common goal, witth students from diverse educational, socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic and racial bakgrounds).

I realize that I have used, actually overused the term “critical thinking” in this post and it is now fashionable in academia to bemoan the inability of this current generation of students to critically think, but rest assured, I slowly developed my system of teaching over the last 15 years because I observed first hand the students in my graduate classes the dearth of students possessing the ability to critically think. I was caught completely offguard 15 years ago when an entire class of students (except one, whom I will list by name–Cory Wilson) would respond any time I asked a question that required an answer based on reasoning and analysis, “What page is that on, Professor?” In any event, I am not simply jumping onn the bandwagon decrying the loss of critical thinking skills nor do I even have a working defintion of the term. I simplistically view the term “critical thinking” just as did U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart viewed hard core pornography in the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964), in which he infamously and imprecisely stated, “I know it when I see it.” Only in my case, the reverse is true: I know it when I don't see it.

I am always interested in learning of teaching styles which require students to “critically think” in an effective and enjoyable way . . . so please feel free to share with me any tecniques that have been beneficial in your teaching experience.

Below is a link to an excellent article written by Robin Bartoletti regarding her experience with connectivism.



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