What if critical thinking was not about what we know, but about what we don’t know? Emily Cousens argues that dominant understandings of critical thinking focus too much on performing knowledge. Drawing on feminist pedagogy, they suggest that cultivating ignorance in the classroom can foster more collaborative and reflexive ways of thinking critically.
If there is one thing that educators, politicians and employers can all agree on, it’s that critical thinking is a good thing. It’s what good teaching should foster, says former education secretary Nadhim Zahawi. The proponents of critical thinking refer to it as the elixir of modern education, and, according to Pearson Education, 81% of employers look for critical thinking skills when hiring. However, digging into what critical thinking is, how (and if) it can be taught, and whether it can be measured, yields much less consensus. In this post, I will highlight some recurrent themes in the critical thinking debate and argue that we are thinking about critical thinking wrong. Employing the perspective of feminist pedagogy, I propose, perhaps counterintuitively, that rather than understanding critical thinking as related to the acquisition of rational knowledge, we would do better to prioritise the cultivation of ignorance. Here’s why.
Performance or development of knowledge?
Dominant conceptions of critical thinking in Higher Education tend to associate it with the realm of reason and logic. According to education philosopher Robert Hugh Ennis, critical thinking can be defined as ‘reasonable reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe or do’ (p.6). Meanwhile, father of modern-day critical thinking, John Dewey, defines the process as ‘Active, persistent, careful consideration of a belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends.’ According to such perspectives, the classroom is a place where beliefs can be refined and challenged through rational reflection. What is at stake here is the pursuit of knowledge, understood as justified true belief: We know what we know, and we can defend how we came to know it.
In these frameworks, the classroom becomes a performative site where knowledge can be staged and contested. Both teachers and students are required to adopt an air of confidence and assertiveness in interactions in order to state and defend their beliefs. For example, a typical question from a seminar teacher might be: ‘What does Aristotle mean when he says X?’ This creates the space for a set of opinions to be aired, justified and contested.
However, performing knowledge does not mean developing it. A student might be able to put forward an answer to the question of what Aristotle means, but in reality, they are unable to know for certain what he really means.
There’s no doubt that a valuable debate and lively classroom can begin from this point, and that the skills of critical thinking, understood as thinking rationally or reasoning well, could be practised in such an environment. However, as Donald Rumsfeld famously reminded us, knowledge is as much about what we don’t know as what we know. The classroom needs to become a space not only for ‘known knowns’, but also for ‘known unknowns.’
Another problem is that such a view of the classroom greatly benefits students who have experience with performative displays of knowledge. Typically, white, middle-class, privately educated students, and students from the UK will be more likely to be familiar and comfortable with such a setting. The emphasis on performing knowledge thus feeds into the UK’s attainment gap, with BAME students 13% less likely to graduate with a 1st or a 2:1 degree. As long as critical thinking is closely aligned with the performance of knowledge, the classroom will fail to be inclusive and nurturing of real knowledge.
As long as critical thinking is closely aligned with the performance of knowledge, the classroom will fail to be inclusive and nurturing of real knowledge.
I propose that we change our conception of what critical thinking looks like in light of the contributions of recently deceased, brilliant, feminist theorist and pedagogical scholar bell hooks. For hooks,
‘Critical thinking is radically questioning to rid ourselves of our attachments to our own viewpoints. It requires us to understand that not all of us can be right all the time, and that the shape of knowledge is constantly changing. Learning to see the whole picture and the connections is a basic tenet of critical thinking.’
Here, the idea of ridding ourselves of our attachments to our own viewpoints is particularly relevant. Critical thinking, in such a view, is the radical openness to alterity – altogether different perspectives – rather than a repetitive assertion of partial knowledge. It is an openness to being wrong, and to learning from one another.
This notion of critical thinking can be underscored by the cultivation of epistemic humility in the classroom. I am facetiously calling this ignorance. For philosopher Erinn Gilson ‘to be vulnerable is to be open to being affected and affecting in ways that one cannot control’ (p.4). I propose that epistemic humility, or ignorance, requires the cultivation of a vulnerable disposition in the classroom. This entails changing the assumption that to participate in the pursuit of knowledge requires beginning with what we do know. Instead, I want to suggest that Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknown’s’ might have a surprising place in the cultivation of a feminist approach to critical thinking.
Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknown’s’ might have a surprising place in the cultivation of a feminist approach to critical thinking.
As a lecturer in Gender Studies, cultivating epistemic humility among my students and getting the classroom to be a space where we can explore what we don’t know, or perhaps know that we don’t know yet, becomes an important way of fostering critical thinking in line with bell hooks’ reconceptualisation of the term. Recognising, as hooks reminds us, that we cannot all be right all the time and that the whole picture is necessarily bigger than any one mind can grasp, provides space for peer-to-peer learning, the holy grail of the seminar format. When teaching small groups, I begin classes with students taking turns to outline one thing that they didn’t understand or found confusing in the reading. This small shift in the focus of a seminar, from performing known knowns to centring known unknowns, enables students and educators to work together to grapple with the problem in question. For example, canonical feminist theorist Judith Butler’s work is famously difficult. Enabling a student to start with ignorance – ‘I don’t quite understand what the materialisation of matter means’ – signifies openness to the rest of the class, and begins the process of knowledge as a co-created pursuit.
This method of fostering ignorance also has the benefit of ensuring that all students are actively engaged in contributing to the seminar from the start, and has been successful in achieving parity of participation between students of different genders, cultural backgrounds and socio-economic backgrounds. Going forward, I want to learn from feminist pedagogy what other techniques can be applied to ensure that the classroom is a space where people are encouraged to speak, knowing that they will be met with intellectual generosity and compassion.
A sense of struggle
Recent years have witnessed a discourse emerging that laments the loss of critical thinking skills amongst graduates. Richard Arum and Josipa Roska’s provocative book, Academically Adrift, has popularised the idea that students are spending tens of thousands pounds on an academic education that is leaving them with no tangible increase in skills. Some respond by arguing that educators need to do more to teach students to think critically, and to inspire the cultivation of this practice in students going forward. However, from a perspective of feminist pedagogy, this focus on skills for the workplace misses the key value of education. For bell hooks, ‘feminist education – the feminist classroom – is and should be a place where there is a sense of struggle’, and a place ‘where we work together as teachers and students’ (p.51). Reconceptualising the classroom as a space of struggle and for the co-creation of knowledge, rather than perpetuating a fantasy of its dyadic transmission, involves cultivating ignorance. Attending to what we don’t know, what we struggle to understand, and recognising the epistemic privilege that our peers and students may have on the basis of their lived experience, can be the basis for a feminist conception of criticality.
Note: A version of this post first appeared on June 7, 2019 on the Contemporary Issues in Teaching and Learning Blog, part of the PGCertHE programme at the LSE.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
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