Teaching Critical Thinking

In our college program that prepares Health Care Assistants for their role in the health care system, we talk a lot about the importance of being able to problem solve. Health care deals with people, who are always dynamic and changeable. No cookie cutter clients. No foolproof formulas. So it is important that caregivers can think through new situations and apply knowledge and experience to make decisions and take actions that support the health and safety of clients and workers. As faculty we have noted that this is easy for some students, and very hard for others. We frequently encounter students who want the ‘one right answer’, and we reply with some version of ‘there are many ways to do most things, and the important thing is to be able to see which ones are good and which ones are not’. Our approach is to teach principles of good care, and support students to use those principles to analyze and choose what they will do.

I was very interested in Brookfield’s chapter on teaching students to think critically. He highlights that we each carry assumptions as we approach any situation or topic, and it is foundational in critical thinking to bring those assumptions to light and subject them to ‘appraisal’ – checking if they are ‘accurate and valid’ (p. 115). He says “They do this by looking at their ideas and decisions from different perspectives.” (p 155)

Brookfield reflects on 5 themes he heard from students (through their weekly Critical Incident Questionnaires) about how this process is supported in their learning. These themes are: observing the instructor model critical thinking, discussing ideas in small groups with alternate viewpoints, working with case studies, being supported to be open to new learning through moments outside their comfort zone, and having learning activities sequenced so that they build from ‘non-threatening settings’ to more challenging and personal activities.

I take away from this chapter several applications to my own teaching.

  1. I want to be more thoughtful about when more modelling of problem solving would support students in developing that skill (specifically in 1:1 instruction in the care skills lab setting).
  2. I will continue to use small group discussions in class, and be more explicit in explaining the purpose of sharing multiple, and possibly contradictory, view points: that we benefit from “shedding light on assumptions … and introducing new perspectives that have not been previously considered.” (p 156)
  3. I will continue to use case scenario activities and build in questions to uncover the assumptions each person brings to the situation and consider how those assumptions may impact their choice of actions. And I will be more explicit is explaining that the point is not to find the ‘right’ answer, but to help each other to think more broadly.

The most important insight I take from this chapter is that we each have assumptions, based on our individual life influences and experiences, and critical thinking requires that we become aware of those assumptions so we can decide if we want to continue to have them lead our actions or want to change. This can be a very uncomfortable, unsettling, and challenging process. I am challenged to think more deeply about my assumptions about teaching and my students, and consider if alternate ideas would help me support their learning better.

Brookfield, S. D. (2015) The Skillfull Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (3rd ed). Jossey-Bass

What next??

Vision and Professional Goals for 2021-2022

Four factors are primarily impacting my vision and goals for the next 5 years.

  1. Our college recently established a Center for Teaching and Learning Innovation (CTLI). I have had the opportunity to attend many of the sessions on a variety of topics hosted by the CTLI. I have also joined committees and working groups considering how the college can move forward on several initiatives.
  2. I have taken on the role of Department Chair in the last year, which has given me opportunities to learn more about how our college functions, and to consult and collaborate with others beyond our college to promote high quality education for our students.  So, I now see the work that we do daily with our students in class within a broader context and see alternatives to our standard delivery methods.
  3. The number of students taking our program has increased dramatically over the last 3 years.  This means we are called on to be creative with delivery and scheduling, and that we have hired several new faculty.
  4. Along with many others around the world, our college and department made a quick switch from in face classroom teaching to online delivery in 2020.  I am proud of my colleagues for taking on this challenge so intentionally.  We learned that many of our assumptions and fears about online delivery were not true and have realized that online delivery has a significant impact on accessibility, a challenge we had been trying to address in other ways prior to the health restrictions. 

So, my vision is to that our college will offer our program in ways that increase accessibility and success for students from across our region, and that faculty will be well supported to maintain high quality instruction.  Within that context here are my professional goals:

  1. Continue to participate in the committees and working groups I am on for the 2021-2022 year, and share things learned with the department team.
  2. Continue weekly 45 minute check-in meetings with our department to promote sharing of ideas and decision making as a team, and to promote relationship development between department faculty and staff.
  3. Hold 2 full day department meetings through the 2021-2022 year.  The agenda will include input from CTLI and time for discussion and planning for changes in the program.
  4. Gather feedback from recently hired faculty to help refine the orientation material and process so new instructors have the support they need to be successful.
  5. Attend provincial articulation meetings in fall 2021 and spring 2022, and continue consultation with colleagues across the province regarding best practices in online delivery and using a preceptorship model in practicums. 

Reflections on Resistance to Learning

I identify with Brookfield’s descriptions of the joy of learning, and also with the tendency to assume that my students all feel the same (p. 214). I also have experienced resistance from students. I appreciate Brookfield’s descriptions of reasons students may be resistant, as well as some strategies for responding.

The three primary points I take away from Chapters 16 and 17 in “The skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom” are:

  1. Pay attention to the pacing and build in early opportunities to acknowledge the students’ success. I often have students who arrive with uncertainty about their ability to be successful. And, as Brookfield describes, learning presumes change, and moving into the unknown” (p. 219) and “the fear of the unknown is often a massive inhibitor to learning.” (p. 219) So I see the value of having a small assignment or activity at the beginning of a course that has a high likelihood for success and opportunity for positive feedback. Brookfield also reminds me that my eagerness to see my students progress might lead me to “push too far, too fast” (p. 224) and not be sensitive to their need to adjust to and consolidate the recent learning before stepping ahead again. This may mean I need to stop and ask “are you ready for the next step?” before diving ahead.
  2. Deliberately share the purpose of the learning activities. Repeatedly in reading this book I am reminded that, though the learning activities I prepare for students are grounded in intentional thought and rationales, this is not obvious or clear to students unless I also tell them not only ‘what’ I want them to do but also ‘why’. I commonly give students permission early in a course to ask at any time ‘why do I need to know this?”, but I have not also acknowledged the need to ask ‘how will this activity help me get there?’ I see that I get bored with repeating myself, and assume that students understand when they may not. So I will remind myself to provide instructions more than once and in more than one medium with more details about what I hope will be gained in the activity.
  3. Consider the reasons for resistance by reflecting on my own experiences of resistance to learning and on student feedback during the course. I have had recent experiences with great frustration in tackling tasks as an online student. I have also been the sounding board for my son as he began his postsecondary education in an online format. I see that this can help me to understand some of my students’ struggles and look for ways to support them in their work. I appreciate Brookfield’s list of reasons for resistance to learning. I can be more conscientious in using the strategies I have control over as the teacher: using a variety of techniques, being clear with instructions and expectations, building incrementally, asking for feedback. I can also be more thoughtful and sensitive to the various fears related to learning and the potential costs of change for some individuals.

Perhaps the most striking quote in these chapters for me is “any teacher who invites people into learning by emphasizing its power to change them is unwittingly strengthening their resistance.” (p. 219) My hope about the learning process is that we all grow and change because of it. But this can be reframed as “learning … as a quest for certainty, for a system of beliefs or structure that they can commit to for life.” It is still growth and change and can be open-ended (ie life long learning) but provides something more solid to aim for.

Brookfield, S. (2015) The skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (3rd ed.) Jossey-Bass

Reflections on “Teaching About Racism”

In the ninth chapter of his book, “The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom”, Brookfield discusses how racism exists in education, on systemic and individual levels, and suggests how racism can be the topic of teaching.

In my field the expectation is that every person, no matter how ‘different’ they are from you, is to be treated with respect and given the best care you can provide. In my role as an educator, we include discussion about diversity and cultural sensitivity in the core content. We do activities to increase awareness a variety of perspectives (cultural assumptions, sexuality and gender expression, age/generational differences, …). . The premise of this approach is that having some awareness of how and why others may perceive and respond to things differently will help you avoid assumptions and ask appropriate questions to adapt care giving for individuals.

We look at stereotypes (broad assumptions based on minimal information) and how they can lead to prejudice (value laden judgements) which can affect how we treat someone (discrimination). The goal is to not treat anyone with discrimination that is based on prejudice related to stereotypes, but this also depends on the person’s desire to be nondiscriminatory.

What is highlighted to me in Brookfield’s writing is that he recognizes we all have thoughts and assumptions ingrained in us through the multitude of influences and experiences in our lives (p 113), and we may not be consciously aware of how our actions reflect micro-aggressions (p. 119).

This means that wanting to treat others well (ie without racism, or a number of other ‘ism’s), and being armed with some generalities and strategies for learning about and understanding the individual you are providing care for, is not enough. A deeper and ongoing consideration of assumptions that have been “internalized as a deep level” (p. 113) must be considered, recognized, and challenged.

This is hard work. Brookfield says the work starts with accepting that ‘it would be remarkable if racism was not alive and well within” and leaving behind ‘the dead ends of endlessly agonizing over White guilt and constantly attempting to prove your goodness.” (p. 113)

So, how do I support this kind of growth in my students? Brookfield is clear that the work must begin with myself as a teacher, to unpack and challenge my own assumptions. Then his suggestion is that sharing my own process with my students, through “narrative disclosure” (p. 113) is a way to” help students understand how racism works.” (p. 123) This is not easy, and not without potential risks. But no one said teaching is for the faint hearted.

Brookfield, S. (2015) The skillful teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (3rd ed.) Jossey-Bass

Thoughts about Brookfield’s Assumptions about Teaching

Stephen Brookfield discusses his four core assumptions about teaching and the skills and attitudes necessary to make it effective in Chapter 2 of his book “The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom” (2015).  His thoughts carry the weight of years of experience with teaching and practicing these skills.

His first assumption places the focus squarely on the student and addresses the reality that any group of learners will include individuals with a diversity of experiences and preferences.  He prioritizes their learning, above conventions or what feels comfortable or familiar for the teacher.    His fourth assumption asserts that students should be treated with respect, again acknowledging that the expectations about how that is expressed can be very diverse.  The second and third assumptions point more directly to the attitude of the teacher and the skills involved in reflecting on what they are doing as a teacher and assessing how it is aligning with the particular students in the current class.  All these assumptions affirm that the key to effective teaching is being aware and understanding your students in order to adapt your teaching.

I recognize in myself the tendency to “approach teaching a new class with a collection of biases, intuitions, hunches, and habits” (p. 16) that direct my planning.   This is based on experience with previous classes and also reflects my own preferred learning style.  I tend to prepare a class I would like to be a student in.  Brookfield acknowledges that this may come from our best intensions, and may be effective, but also says it may ‘get in the way’ (p. 16) and be unhelpful to students.

A couple of words from other discussions I have participated in lately came to mind as I was thinking about Brookfield’s assumptions:  humility and service.  The teacher role inherently carries power.  Without an outlook of service and an approach of humility, that power can be oppressive rather than inspiring.  Therefore holding our own plans ‘lightly’ and our intentions to do what is most helpful for our students ‘heavily’ is imperative in walking out the teacher role responsibly. However, teaching is also a leadership role. In conversation about her studies, a friend of mine reflected on the qualities of leaders that engender confidence and stability in a group. She noted careful, calm listening and thoughtful responding rather than impulsive reacting as a key quality. I think this applies to Brookfield’s suggestion to assess students’ experience of the learning situation and reflect on our own experiences as guides for our teaching practice.

The key message I take from this chapter is that I must get past the assumption that what works to promote learning for me and has worked for my students in the past will work for all students, and be adaptable to new students’ needs. Two key skills in this process are openly and critically reflecting on what I am doing as a teacher, and assessing how students are experiencing the learning activities I design.  This takes deliberate effort, which leads us into the third chapter where Brookfield provides tools for collecting the inside scoop on how the students are doing.

Brookfield, S. (2015) The skillful teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom (3rd ed.) Jossey-Bass

Teaching Values and a ‘Truth’

Completing the Teaching Perspectives Inventory (http://www.teachingperspectives.com/tpi/) and the Philosophy of Adult Education Inventory (http://www.labr.net/paei/paei.html) provided me with food for reflection about my values related to teaching and the realities of the context in which I support students. My health care students must learn skills. These skills must have a base of knowledge that can guide application and problem solving in new situations. But knowledge and skill alone can only deliver task completion, not compassionate care giving. That requires personal development and growth. So in my work with students the focus is sometimes transmission of information, other times it is apprenticeship to mastery, and other times it is nurturing and developing attitudes and awareness. This reflects the progressive, behaviorist and humanistic philosophies of adult education. One ‘truth’ I know is that it all weaves together, and each student will make the connections differently. Another truth I have come to see is that both health care and education are relational practices. Another way to say that is that who I am with my students is more important that what I know- they will not receive the content I want to give them without a context of trust.

May 12, 2021 – About This Photo

This is a picture I took on a visit to somewhere warmer and drier than Vancouver Island. I was intrigued by the bark of the palm trees. It is made up of overlapping, intersecting, layers. It reminds me of growth and learning – building on previous experiences and making cross connections.

May 11, 2021 – Introduction

Hello. I am a learner and a teacher and a nurse. I entered nursing school interested in learning about people and how to support their health. After years of working in that field I realized that I enjoyed orienting new staff, and I had an opportunity to take that interest in sharing my knowledge and experience into a classroom setting. Since then my love of learning, and my values and skills from nursing, have been melded with the adventure of sharing that with Health Care Assistant students. The current situation around the world has shifted this from a face-to-face classroom setting to the online/digital delivery mode. So there has certainly been learning and adventure in this last year. I look forward to discussing the topics that will arise in this course with you all, and strengthening my practice as an educator and compassion nurturer.