The term critical thinking has been bandied about in academic circles for some time now, and the concept often serves as a warrant for incorporating writing into a syllabus. It is taken for granted now that teachers across the disciplines want their students to do more than merely mouth the “right” answers to well-posed questions. We want them to interrogate the material they are required to learn, to develop their own questions through a process of reflection and informed inquiry. In other words, we want to teach our students how to think instead of what to think.
Recognizing the value of critical thinking in a writing-to-learn course is one matter; acquiring the skills necessary to engage in the process of critical thinking seems to be another matter entirely, a matter that provides some real challenges not only for the student but for the teacher as well. The essential question may be: How can we actively engage our students so that they can begin to critically think for themselves?
Central to the notion of critical thinking skills is the process of inquiry. George Hillocks (1995) points out that “[i]f we believe that knowledge is not simply imported from the outside, but constructed by us even when we borrow the constructions of others, then writers must have the means of constructing their own knowledge” (100). Students are in the process of building concepts when they evaluate knowledge from the outside. They need to find appropriate techniques in order to assimilate that knowledge into appropriate structures. Inquiry becomes the “means” whereby students, through writing, can engage in the process of critically constructing thought. But how does one teach inquiry? Hillocks (1982) defines a “strategy of inquiry” as “a consciously adopted procedure used to investigate phenomena in various unrelated disciplines” (662).
In Hillocks’s model, the basic strategies of inquiry can be identified as observing, describing, and comparing/contrasting. These three strategies will then lead to generalizations, definitions, or hypotheses. The end result is not necessarily a final and definitive set of beliefs or a structure of knowledge, but rather what Dewey called a warranted assertion. A warranted assertion leaves the door open for further inquiry, stressing the importance of the constant and on-going process of inquiry. Enumerative generalizations (statements about commonalities), hypotheses (statements of explanation), and definitions (statements about commonalities and differences involving the use of criteria) are all subject to a reexamination through further observation and description in order to test for reliability and validity. The process of inquiry, then, is not a linear, lockstep sequence, but is recursive, returning to previous steps, folding back on itself as a way of testing and verifying data.
Hillocks points out that this model of inquiry is used not only in the natural sciences and the social sciences, but also in fields like literary criticism and philosophy. Even though non-scientific writers “tend not to use an empirically quantifiable data base or experimentation in the same way as scientists . . . they do observe systematically, compare and contrast instances of phenomena, generalize, and test the generalizations by means of further observation” (664).
Given, then, that there is a model of basic inquiry that applies widely to a variety of disciplines, a model whose strategies can promote critical thinking and effective writing, how can we, as teachers, impart these strategies to our students? Hillocks identifies three modes of instruction: nondirectional, presentational, and environmental (667). The nondirectional, or expressivist mode assumes that students will “intuitively” learn these strategies through the process of writing. The presentational (i.e., traditional) mode assumes that students, like dry sponges, will soak up the strategies that the teacher explains to them. In contrast, the environmental approach is one in which teachers “design materials and activities which involve students directly in the use of these strategies” (667).
Hillocks presents a good case for using
the environmental approach. In this model, teachers invent activities that
directly engage the students in a particular strategy of inquiry that involves
their “current levels of interest and skill,” moving from what “they can
already do to new understandings and skills, all the while maintaining
a high level of student engagement” (667). The problem in teaching inquiry,
then, becomes not one of what to say, but of inventing successful activities:
“what might students do to learn x?” Hillocks provides some basic
guidelines. If, for example, you want your students to learn how to generate
criteria, one must consider several questions:
What kinds of phenomena might students compare and contrast, and in the process learn how to generate criteria?
Does the activity involve use of the strategy to be learned?
Is it likely to promote and maintain a high level of student involvement?
Is it likely to help students move to greater independence and sophistication in using the strategy?
Are the activities and their parts sequenced from simplest to most difficult? (668)
Hillocks, then, provides a model of inquiry that can lead to greater analytical thinking. But it is not enough to merely present that model to students. If we truly want to develop critical thinking skills in our students, we must actively and creatively invent strategies that will engage our students in the meaningful application of each step in the process of inquiry.
Hillocks, George, Jr. “Inquiry and the Composing Process: Theory and Research.” College English 44 (Nov. 1982): 659-73.
---. Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, 1995.
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