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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

Kathleen Belew provides an elegant reminder that we have to help students know how we want them to think.

January 25, 2022

Professor Kathleen Belew, a leading historian of the white power movement and author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, wanted to illustrate different historical methodologies to her students, and so she asked historians on Twitter a question—essentially, how would different methodologies approach answering the classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

This got me thinking about thinking.

I think just about everyone in higher ed thinks that helping students improve their critical thinking is a core part of the educational experience, but thinking about critical thinking can be tough, because it often has an “I know it when I see it” quality.

But how do we see it? How do we know it? Belew’s question can help us answer those questions.

Critical thinking can take the form of a kind of logic problem. Everybody’s current favorite daily obsession, Wordle, requires a systematic critical thinking process to determine the correct answer. Critical thinking can also be manifest in the creation of knowledge, or if that’s too bold a term, the creation of an insight.[1]

These insights need not be new to the entire world to be the product of critical thinking. In my text The Writer’s Practice, I describe the experiences as exercises in solving writing-related problems. The goal of each exercise is to force students to think critically by writing. I tell students that a good check if they’re doing it right is if they themselves learned something during the writing process.

I’ve found it pretty easy to get students thinking on the page. In my experience, they’re eager to do so but are not always confident if original thinking, as opposed to information regurgitation, is actually welcome.

Also, they sometimes don’t have a lot of practice in how to think in academic contexts, mostly because that kind of thinking is not actually incentivized in our current system of schooling.

Even worse, even when we think we’re teaching critical thinking, it may not be transferring beyond a momentary engagement with a particular assignment. Some years ago I had this epiphany when a first-year writing student asked me a question about a challenge they were having with a writing assignment in a different class. They had been tasked with choosing a particular fashion designer (they chose Alexander McQueen) and producing an analysis of the designer’s work.

The only instruction on the type of thinking they were being asked to do was an “analysis,” and this student had no idea where to begin, what the purpose or objective of the analysis might be. I think it’s likely that this had been demonstrated in class, but the connections between that and what the student was being asked to do on the writing assignment were not being made.

Before I get too critical of that assignment design, however, I must confess that my student should have known how to do that analysis because just the week previously they had done a nearly identical exercise in my class, a rhetorical analysis of a television commercial where the goal was to analyze how the commercial used imagery, messaging and cultural tropes in order to reinforce a particular message about American culture.

It was a multiweek process where I modeled making observations, drawing inferences from observations and then shaping those inferences into a message—fresh insights—about their chosen commercial. This student had gotten an A on that assignment.

And yet this student could not see the connection between the kind of critical thinking I’d been asking her to do on the rhetorical analysis of a commercial and the nearly identical analysis being asked of her for the essay on Alexander McQueen.

This was my fault. At the time, my pedagogy was much more prescriptive. I had been focused on driving students towards writing a decent rhetorical analysis of a commercial, less on making the underlying critical thinking context clear and legible to them. I assumed that once I’d showed them this one application, they would see its use elsewhere.

Bad assumption, and not because students aren’t bright. Fortunately, it was an easy fix in subsequent semesters as I brought in that deeper context of critical thinking as a process of observations, inferences and insights. We worked on helping students recognize the by-products of this process in what they were reading and then practice it in different contexts of their own to see how adaptable it is to different demands.

What I love about Belew’s question is that—as the answers demonstrate—it is relatively easy to make how different disciplines think about a particular question readily transparent.

Personally, I was not even aware of some of the methodologies that came to represent themselves in the answers, but in seeing how they would tackle the question, I instantly understood their particular concerns.

I strongly encourage anyone who’s curious to read through all the replies and then consider how you might make how you think inside your own discipline similarly transparent to students.

If we want students to think, we have to make sure they know the rules, the territory, the questions that go along with the type of thinking we’re asking for.

[1] Everything I post here requires a critical thinking process, because I never have a thesis when I sit down to write. I have a notion, a glimmer that is sufficient to get started—in this case it was a tweet from Kathleen Belew—that got me thinking about thinking, but I don’t yet know what I have to say about it. Once I make a discovery for myself, I’ll know I have a post that I can use. Doesn’t happen every time, but so far, this one feels pretty good. If you’re reading this, turns out my instinct is correct. If it’s not correct, you’ll never know because this won’t see the light of day. Also, part of the critical thinking I want students bringing to their writing is this kind of metacognitive reflection—thinking about thinking—that I’m indulging in with this footnote. Most of the time I just have these thoughts privately, but since I’m thinking critically about writing about critical thinking, I figure I’ll leave this in.


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