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Learning to Think Critically

April 22, 2009

Mark Hoffman typically begins his elective course in Critical Thinking (CRT 100) by asking students what they did during the first hour after waking up that morning.

“Invariably, the first thing they did was make a decision—whether or not to get out of bed when the alarm went off,” says Hoffman, a lecturer and coordinator of the Reading Program in BMCC’s Developmental Skills department.  “More decisions follow—what to eat for breakfast, what to wear, whether to come to class.” While some decisions are instinctive, some require real thought. “In all cases, it’s important to be mindful before we make a choice or decision—not to act impulsively, but to approach it logically.”

A double objective
Such mindfulness, he says, is the essence of critical thinking—an approach to learning and decision-making that has direct applications in the classroom and the outside world.  In point of fact, Hoffman’s critical thinking course has a two-pronged focus: In addition to building students’ awareness of the need to make logical, carefully considered decisions, the course helps them develop practical academic skills, such as outlining, note-taking and time management.

Along the way, students learn to question their own hard-wired assumptions and prejudices, such as a reliance on stereotypes.  “Stereotyping helps us makes sense out of a complex world, but it represents mushy thinking—a reliance on easy answers,” says Hoffman.  “We can put people everyone in a group and walk away saying, ‘I understand you,’ but in truth we don’t, because by stereotyping people we’re not seeing them as individuals. While I’m a college professor, I would not like to think I’m just like every other college professor.”

Beyond selfishness
Critical thinking “helps us avoid the pitfalls of irrational or impulsive thinking and helps us get beyond stereotypes and our own prejudices,” says Hoffman.  It also leads people away from selfishness, “making us realize that academically and in private life our decisions have consequences beyond ourselves.”  A case in point: Early in the semester, he assigns his students to write an essay and then pair off in class with a peer editor. “The exercise emphasizes the need for cooperation and taking responsibility for your actions,” he says. “If you come to class without having done the assignment, you disappoint your peer editor. The point is that our actions—and inactions—have results.”

While many colleges offer courses in critical thinking, they are often weighted toward the theoretical—an approach Hoffman carefully avoids.  “We don’t leave it in the realm of the abstract,” Hoffman says. “In class, we do individual and group exercises that reflect the real world. We also try to use actual assignments from other classes as examples of how to manage time and develop good study skills.”

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