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Student-Centered Discussion: Providing Structured Space for Critical Thinking

When many faculty hear the term “student-centered discussion,” they imagine students leading a “discussion” that is really just a bull session.  In fact, this is typically the sort of discussion that happens when faculty allocate small-group discussion time in their classes.  Faculty will provide students with one or more questions to discuss, and students will speed through the task of answering the question(s) and will then return to checking their Blackberries or discussing last night’s episode of Jersey Shore.

The problem is that students are a great deal more creative and engaged than we imagine.  Most times, when faculty provide discussion questions to their students, these questions are not particular robust and do not meet students where they are.  Some students may not have a full sense of what is meant by the question.  Other students may be able to think more critically and deeply than faculty imagine and may therefore be bored by the question.  Faculty talk a lot about “critical thinking,” but do we make enough space in our classrooms for this sort of thinking to happen?

The holy grail of critical thinking can, in its essence, be stated as an ability to identify a range of possible explanations, answers, questions, or possibilities and then to weigh a set of options using a rational logic.  In the digital age, it may be that the ability to imagine and to judge a range of possible explanations is needed more than ever but made increasingly elusive by the very nature of our times:  in surfing the web, reviewing emails, or managing the untold other gigabytes of information that appears before us each day, we are constantly having to make quick decisions.  Which page will I surf next?  Do I respond to this message now?  Later?  Never?  The more that information can be made succinct, the more appeal it has to us.

Could this be why big, complicated issues seem, increasingly, to come down to “obvious” conclusions that appeal to the gut instinct:  (1) Vaccines are dangerous because big corporations are marketing them without sufficient testing so that they can maximize their profits—even if it means that kids become autistic; (2) The earth is heating up, and humans’ reliance on carbon fuels is to blame; (3) A child who abuses an animal will eventually go on to be violent against people because anyone that could abuse an animal must be a cruel and dangerous person?  In fact, all of these conclusions are hardly the only possible explanations for the concerns they address.  But, anyone who is in the business of peddling opinion is well aware that the quick “gut check” is crucial:  an explanation that “just makes sense” to people is easily received—even if it’s not the best possible explanation by which to understand the data/facts.  An expedient explanation is most appealing in an age when information is seemingly never-ending.

In an effort to meet this “digital native” generation where they are, many faculty now use things like PowerPoint slides, YouTube film clips, and clicker technology that periodically asks students’ opinions or tests their factual understanding of the material being covered so as to keep lectures interesting and engaging.  The basic classroom structure largely remains, however:  the lecture hall, which was designed for a time in which texts were scarce.  Professors would literally read from the text they had so that the students could hear what the text had to say.  Multiple choice tests place a premium on the ability to memorize information.  When did you last rely on your memory for anything?  Even if I think I have remembered something correctly, I nearly always check Google to be sure I am correct.

The 21st Century student always has access to any bit of information they could possibly want to know.  What is needed is an ability to imagine different possibilities and then to evaluate those possibilities—in effect, an ability to critically contemplate and examine the deluge of information that is constantly presented to us.  While these skills are not needed when deciding where to have lunch or which movie to watch tonight, these skills are what now distinguish the most valued workers from their counterparts and the most effective citizens from those who cannot seem to prioritize, communicate, and help to effect changes that resonate within their communities.

In the IF classroom, student-centered discussion is not characterized as students performing a teacher-generated task or series of tasks.  Instead, the students themselves are given the time and space to drive their own reflection of an area of concern—a broad question or concerns that relates to the course topic.  At first, students are very uncomfortable with the broad task at hand.  They fret:  am I doing this right?  Eventually, though, once reassured that the goal is to engage with the process rather than to do some specific task that is to be evaluated (i.e., write a quiz, test, or essay), students relax and engage with what is an exploratory, generative process.  Students are evaluated as a group by their ability to ask questions and to push their fellow students to think about the issue more deeply.

Once allowed reign to do this, students will make intriguing comments and observations and will ask provocative questions.  In fact, most faculty come to realize that a course is far richer when students are afforded space to ask questions and raise issues.  Faculty who view themselves as bearers of special knowledge who are meant to transmit insight to their students have difficulty in an IF classroom.  But, faculty who themselves as experienced mentors to their students know that students have a wonderful “beginner’s mind” and a capacity to ask remarkable questions.  The IF classroom allows students space to explore an issue and then to assess what would happen if various alternative paths were pursued.  Seldom are students given the time and space to do this sort of exploration, and yet this capacity for critical thinking is exactly the skill that they most need in the modern age.