Settling the score in critical thinking skills

1st February 2008 at 00:00
Shirley had been absent but was desperate to get the handout she'd missed. "You know," she prompted, "the one last week where you got to score everything out."

Last week, rushing to class, I found I'd picked up an outdated handout as we went through it. "No, that's not right - score that out," I said. We discussed the problem. Then there were other anomalies we had to score out. Soon the class were anticipating the damage we could do to the handout and taking the lead.

I'll be using the handout in future - so that we can score everything out. In the process, we'll be learning that you can think, argue, judge. The recent warning from Tara Brabazon, professor of media at Brighton University, is timely: too many young people are passive learners, unable or unwilling to question. They have survived on a cut-and-paste methodology.

It's a shame, though, that she appears to prejudice books, libraries and academic, peer-reviewed writing over internet material. For one thing, the books and articles she advocates can often be found in electronic format anyway; for another, it perpetuates a "them and us" that casts the lecturer as the fount of knowledge and the learner as passive receiver. Further education has always avoided that structure. Here, lecturers are often called facilitators because they try to help students to help themselves.

Competence-based learning has been a problem in the past, but units are no longer written around performance criteria and assessments encourage students to think for themselves. The units used on the courses I teach emphasise ideas of perspective, opinion, argument and debate.

Professor Brabazon's prejudicing of peer-reviewed writing is obviously an attempt to protect the student from the chaos of cyberspace until they are better equipped to deal with it. But such a tactic suggests to the learner that on the one hand you have the right stuff, professional and unquestionable, and on the other the amateurism of the internet, which is probably rubbish.

Such an approach would surely quench the critical thinking she advocates. Far healthier to encourage students to become information literate, to interpret, question and evaluate everything. In an information-rich age, how best can we teach students? I suggest a black pen and lots of scoring out. It gets everyone off to a good start.

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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