As a scholar and lover of learning I have constantly been asked how I manage to learn, remember, and understand so much. Quite honestly its through a very particular form of critical thinking that is heavily influenced by brilliant minds like Paulo Friere, bell hooks, and the research skills I learned from the amazing staff of the Ronald E. McNair Program at UB. So in this blog post I quickly run through some of the key components that underline the theory and praxis of critical thinking that I employ. This post is designed to be introductory, it requires that you move forward on your own to engage in practically applying critical thinking. This means you should check out the literature suggested here, pay close attention to the charts and try everything out on your own.
What’s wrong with the current way we learn in the West?
Quite frankly, education in the West, especially the U.S. is used for the purpose of socialization into hegemony, mainly settler colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, & ableism. What I mean by that is education and the very particular form of learning that public education institutions fosters is one that teaches you how to be a predictable citizen, one that is barely capable of being a low wage worker once you graduate from high school. You learn the rules of society, how to listen and obey authority without question, and to hold dear to the exact same characteristics that society cherishes. With that being said, let’s look at what the current education model is in the West according to Paulo Friere:
This excerpt outlines what education is currently like in the West, this is what we want to avoid at all costs because instead of being an actual learning experience, it is an act of passive memorization. What this program aims to do is teach education as cultural action through the act of knowing. Below is an excerpt from Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” p. 73:
“On the contrary, banking education maintains and even stimulates the contradiction through the following attitudes and practices, which mirror oppressive society as a whole:
(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
(b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
(c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
(d) the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly;
(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
(f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
(g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
(i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
(j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.
It is not surprising that the banking concept of education regards men as adaptable, manageable beings. The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them. The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed. The oppressors use their “humanitarianism” to preserve a profitable situation” (1970:73).
What is critical thinking?
The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.’
Critical thinking is about active learning. It is about more than the hierarchical banking model of education we are all used to that tells students they are empty & teachers have the sole authority to fill their empty minds with information. Currently Western intellectual traditions utilize the banking model of education to create individuals who passively repeat what they are told as a means of creating a society of well adapted obedient marginalized peoples. You have to move beyond that, learn to question EVERYTHING & find out the truth for yourself. Critical thinking is a form of learning that engages the individual in questions, inquiry, and research. Critical thinking works with creativity as well as imagination. Education is not intelligence. Not all who are educated are intelligent or able to think critically, and some of the most brilliant intellectuals lack formal education. YOU ARE CORE PARTICIPANT IN YOUR LEARNING PROCESS. Question everything!
This definition is sufficient enough for me but I will add some more practical descriptions of how I think critically. When it comes to processing information or approaching any topic I have 3 main goals:
- UNLEARN fallacies & oppressive constraints on their learning
- LEARN to ask questions & critical thinking, ENCOURAGE curiosity/research
- RELEARN step 2
Each one of these goals is underlined by main: QUESTION EVERYTHING. Also a KEY tool for myself is understanding that things do NOT operate in binaries or dyads. Its not always either or. Meaning that topics are more complicated than good or bad. The majority of the things we come across in life are in some form of a gray area, not always black or white. This means that the majority of topics/issues require that you think about them as pluralities or in other words, they require that you think dialectically. Dialectical materialism is a method of investigation that is a tool to see the world as knowable and changeable. It informs us that we can understand the world and have a responsibility to change it. A dialectical method sees all beings and phenomena in the world as interconnected, in constant movement and undergoes constant change. There is nothing in the world that is static and unchangeable. In other words, dialectics is intersectionality. Everything is everything. Everything intersects. This means that when you think about topics you need to be able to think about them on every level and from every possible perspective, see the topic closely and also see the bigger picture. Every topic/issue has social, political, and economic meanings. This means that being aware of the political, historical, social, and economic components to a topic is KEY. You can not ignore these spheres and sectors of information when researching a topic, they help highlight the what, why, and how behind the phenomena that we are interested in understanding. And “when” and “where” also matters, they help provide more contextual information. You do not want to be good at memorizing or thoughtlessly repeating things, you want to be able to have a thorough understanding of topics/issues so that you can have a complex as well as simple conversation about them. In the words of Dr. Henry Durand, “If you can’t explain it to my grandmother, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Which means that understanding, knowing, and critically thinking about an issue/topic requires knowledge of the complex things as well as the simple, but most importantly the ability to communicate to different audiences. When you are capable of discussing or thinking of a topic in 2 minute elevator speeches but also can be invested in conversations and studying about it for hours, you’ve reached a point of saturation with that knowledge, you know it and you can share it. Thinking critically is the only method that can get you there.
Friere’s concept of “popular education” is the one that I employ. The whole point of popular education/critical thinking is to move the user from being an object (a person that is acted upon, that only adapts) to being a subject (an integrated person). Below is an excerpt from “The Critical Classroom” by Project South (p. 25):
Below is an excerpt from Paulo Freire’s “Education for Critical Consciousness” (1974, 4). This excerpts outlines engaging critical evaluation and thought throughout the learning process:
The Praxis: How do I even start to think critically?
Now that I’ve run through the theory and background of critical thinking and popular education, its time to see what this all looks like in practice. Nobody can engage in critical thinking without employing research skills and abilities. To put it simply, you should always have receipts for everything. Have receipts, demand receipts. Whenever I come across a topic that I am unfamiliar with I ask myself a couple of questions:
(1) What the duece is _____?
(2) Do I have an idea of what it might be?
(3) Oh shit, lemme Google it!
No, but seriously, Google it. People for some odd reason don’t have an appreciation for looking shit up when they don’t know what it is. Look its either you Google it or open your mouth & talk about something you don’t know which will lead to certain embarrassment. Google scholar is a key tool in my repertoire. & never forget the throwback: take your ass to the damn library!!!!!! Get a library card if you don’t have one!
(4) What have the experts said about _____? This means you review all sides of the topic, multiple opinions. You need to find out the meaning, history, and the processes behind the logic/rationale of those said experts. & don’t take anything for face value, question it, consider other possibilities.
(5) Find out what books, research articles, book reviews, book summaries, & blog posts are saying about the topic/issue. Look at the things that appear to make sense, question them. The things that don’t make sense should be further prodded.
AN UNDENIABLE FACT: YOU HAVE TO READ!!!!!! BOOKS, NEWS ARTICLES, RESEARCH ARTICLES, EVERYTHING. READ, READ AGAIN, AND READ MORE!
Another way to think about this process is in the image below.
Critical Thinking Reading List:
Education for Critical Consciousness by Paulo Friere
Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere
Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation by Sarah Knopp & Jeff Bale
Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks
Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom by bell hooks
Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope by bell hooks
The Critical Classroom by Project South
Now go into the world asking all the questions! Question Everything! Learn information for yourself! Be an active participant in your learning process!!! Criticize All The Things!!!!!
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