Brian Barnes

Senior Lecturer, A&S Philosophy
Philosophy 211: Critical Thinking

In his course on Critical Thinking, Brian Barnes asked small groups of students who worked as teams to find examples of successful critical thinking and of critical thinking failures in the "real world"—in media (using documents posted on campus) and in architecture (using campus buildings). Students were charged with using and explicitly referring to the Elements of Thought from the Paul-Elder model of Critical Thinking.

When students finish this activity, they are better at using the Elements, better at working together in small groups on a time crunch, and better at thinking about why they are doing what they are doing.

—Brian Barnes

In groups, students chose both a document and a building which represented successful critical thinking and a second document and building which represented a failure in critical thinking. For each building and for each document, they first had to "go around the wheel" with the Elements of Thought to consider why the document or building represented a success or a failure. Examples of questions they could ask about a document they found posted on campus included:

  • What is one important Question that this piece of media addresses?
  • What is the Purpose of this piece of media?
  • What important Information informs the viewer about this piece of media?
  • What is the likely Interpretation the viewer will bring to this document?
  • What was the Point of View of the document's creator, or what Point of View will viewers likely bring to it?
  • What Assumptions are inherent in this document?
  • What Concepts are important to understanding it?
  • What are the likely Consequences or Implications of doing what the document suggests or for failing to do those things?

Students then put together their findings and wrote a paragraph collaboratively to explain why the media document or building is or isn't a success. Finally, the students answered questions about their own thinking as a group and the process they went through in order to assess their choices of critical thinking successes or failures.

Barnes explains that "In focusing students on their own processes or methods, and by asking them to choose their own topics from a very large field of choices, I am making the assignment learner-centered… students are given latitude to develop their own processes and to identify the important aspects of the assignment for themselves. I provide oversight, but I also give them all the tools they need to succeed." In this learning-centered approach, everyone has the opportunity to learn, even the instructor, as Barnes observes: "When I allow students to drive the bus for their assignments, I end up with learning opportunities, too, which is grand."

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