By Mary R. Vermilion, Ph. D., Assistant professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology
In thinking (critically and creatively, of course) about the issues of critical and creative thinking, I have come to the conclusion that they are intrinsically tied. I will elaborate on this idea later. First, however, I want to discuss the particular issues surrounding critical and creative thinking in my particular discipline and, second, share a few of the methods I have used to engage students in these thinking processes. As an anthropologist, I work in a discipline that presents some interesting challenges in terms of how one evaluates research, publications, and presentations because the nature of the data we deal with is fluid (e. g., cultural anthropology, anthropological theory), often incomplete (e. g., archaeology, human evolution, linguistic anthropology), and extremely complex (i. e., what it means to be human). These challenges are inherent in anthropological course work as well, but they are certainly not insurmountable.
While there are dozens of textbooks written on the principles of critical thinking, few (if any) provoke enthusiastic responses from the students expected to engage the material. How then do we entice students to view creative and critical thinking in a positive manner? At heart is the charge to learn HOW to think, not what to think. Learning what to think is a passive exercise, referred to as the “sponge” learning style by (Browne and Keeley, 2010, p. 3). Learning how to think is an active exercise and, like any physical challenge we attempt to master (sports, musical instruments, dance, etc.), it requires training and consistent practice.
The methods I use to teach critical thinking in my “Science vs. Pseudoscience” course begin with developing the skills necessary to recognize fallacies, errors in logic, deceptive reasoning, and obstacles to critical thinking, and can be applied to any discipline. However, training students to recognize and define fallacies is itself a passive exercise. The real value underlying this passive knowledge can only be attained through application of that knowledge through analysis and the active exercise of critical thinking skills. This is where creative thinking comes into play and the point at which the implementation of critical thinking skills can be demonstrated to be rewarding and of significant value.
First, however, the preconceived notions that students bring with them must be identified and dealt with. One such notion is the tendency, when reading opposing views on a topic, to feel that one must side with one viewpoint or the other. This hinges on another misconception: that there can only be one ‘right answer.’ This is generally not the case, but the mindset inhibits students from thinking about alternatives. An additional misconception is that ‘skepticism’ implies cynicism and a knee-jerk reaction to negate any claim that crosses your path.
There are creative ways to mitigate these issues. Rather than plodding through the standard exercises at the end of each chapter in a critical thinking text, I find it beneficial to challenge the students using current issues and claims. For example, one of the texts I use is Taking Sides: Clashing Views in Anthropology, edited by Welsch and Endicott. Students read essays defining both sides of a particular issue (e. g., climate change, ape ability to learn language, genetic basis for human violence, Elvis sightings [!], etc.) and are challenged to locate the issue and the conclusion and then to evaluate the writing in terms of any errors in logic, misused or withheld evidence, the strength of the evidence presented, alternative explanations for what is being claimed, etc. They are not asked to choose a side. (Note: There are 52 titles in the Taking Sides series covering a wide range of disciplines, providing plenty of food for thought.)
In class, we also review films concerning various claims (e. g., the Bermuda Triangle, the Shroud of Turin, Creationism, etc.) and the students are asked to think critically about how this type of media is used to shape our thought processes. Interview techniques, background music, and film techniques are critically analyzed in addition to the verbal content.
As the end of the semester approaches, each student presents a current claim that is of interest along with the evidence presented in support of the claim. They then use the skills acquired to critically analyze the claim, identify the motive for making the claim, evaluate the evidence presented (or withheld), and propose creative but sound alternative explanations for what is being claimed. Using the above techniques combines creative and critical thinking skills and, according to the feedback I get, utilizes an active knowledge process that is engaging and applicable to any line of inquiry.
One final thought on thinking critically involves acquiring a healthy dose of skepticism. It is important to communicate to students that skepticism is a part of the scientific method, not an automatic reflex to debunk claims you encounter. As Michael Shermer states, “In principle, skeptics are not close-minded or cynical. [Rather] a skeptic is one who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it.” (Shermer, 2002, p. 17). Skepticism should be at the heart of any evaluative process and provides the framework within which one can actively exercise critical and creative thinking skills.
Browne, M. N., and Keeley, S. M. (2010). Asking the Right Questions. A Guide to Critical Thinking. New Jersey, Pearson.
Feder, K. (2014). Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries. Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. (8th ed.). New York, McGraw-Hill.
Fisher, A. (2006). Critical Thinking. An Introduction. Cambridge, University Press.
Gibbon, G. (2014). Critically Reading the Theory and Methods of Archaeology. An Introductory Guide. Boulder, Altamira Press.
Shermer, M. (2002). Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time. New York, Henry Holt and Company.
Welsch, R., and Endicott, K. (2013) Taking Sides. Clashing Views in Anthropology. (5th ed.) New York, McGraw-Hill.
Mary Vermilion has been a full-time non-tenure track Assistant professor of Anthropology at Saint Louis University for five years. She teaches across the discipline including classes in Human Evolution, Forensic Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Archaeology, Archeological Lab Methods, World Prehistory, Science vs. Pseudoscience, the Archeology of Death, Cultural Anthropology, and Native Peoples of North America among others. In addition, she has been a researcher at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where she has conducted field work for 16 years.
To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?