College Course Advancement Team

College Course Advancement Team Lockup

Answering from the perspective of the CATs Team

1. Why Do You Think Applied Critical Thinking is Important in Your Domain?

When we consider Applied Critical Thinking, this really is the crux of teaching in 2020. We are all experts in our own fields – but we are not typically trying to bestow that knowledge unto others in times of crisis and uncertainty. We have all been forced to step out of our “every day lecture shoes” and step in to a world of constant change and, in many cases, an uncomfortable space.

If we consider the concept of applied critical thinking as being “careful thinking directed to a goal” – that is the definition of the CATs Team at RIT. We are working with faculty who have a goal, of varying loftiness, but the issue is not the goal itself, it is the path to the goal. We all know how to write an exam, assign and assess a project, lead a discussion in a classroom, and the list goes on. What most of us are far less comfortable with is how to get to that goal through social distancing, Zoom, myCourses, Slack, email, and the list goes on! When we have a clear goal, and the challenge is instead the path, we rely on others who have gone before, who have faced the gauntlet, to not only help us clear the path of obstacles, but also to remind us that this can be done! Applied critical thinking is the path to move higher education to its goal – preparing our students for an unknown and uncertain tomorrow. This goal is not different, but we must apply our deeper thinking skill set to get to the goal, and by doing so, we demonstrate to our students the application of critical thinking.

2. How Do You Encourage Your Colleagues to Teach Applied Critical Thinking, Regardless of Course Modality?

Thinking critically is never easy – but then again little that is worth the journey is easy. But rather than suggest that critical thinking is “hard”, we need to instead frame this as a way in which we better prepare ourselves for whatever the future may bring.  I often joke with friends that having a PhD does not mean that I know more than anyone else – what it means is that I have problem solving skills, and typically an ability to apply those skills in weird and wonderful ways (even 2020!)! But, this is not something that is readily taught, rather we look at this as an opportunity to teach by showing rather than telling.

Modality does not matter – courses can be in any shape or form and be successful with planning. We have to step back and provide opportunities not only for faculty to be critical thinkers in the course design, but also afford the students moments of “ah-ha!” and exploration on their educational journey within the course. Unfortunately for faculty, this may put them in an uncomfortable seat as they perhaps ease up on the reigns and allow students to help design the course syllabus (policies, expectations, etc.), to submit any format project they choose (written, multimedia, comic strips, whatever), or simply find their best frame of mind for learning, which likely is not in a synchronous anything (online or face to face). This take practice – for everyone! Students are uncomfortable with not have confinement / regimented structure, faculty are not comfortable being “out of control”.  But as soon as the experience is seen as a foundation rather than quicksand, that is when learning how to learn begins.

3. Can You Share an Example of Where Critical Thinking Has Helped You or Your Colleagues Develop Teaching Strategies During COVID?

While the short answer is “everything we have done in 2020!” – this is not reflective of the truth. Many came in to 2020 with teaching skills that surpassed, I will argue, those of many faculty around the world. What they likely did not realize is that they had hidden skills, foundational skills, that would allow them to deal with anything that 2020 could throw at them. The opportunity to hone those foundational skills has come out in wonderful ways across RIT, and has given faculty a new voice in teaching.

A recent example is a faculty member who is using all of the data that is coming out on wastewater testing for viruses as a way to expose his students to chemistry, statistics, levels of detection in instrumentation, and separating “popular opinion” from scientific fact all in one giant problem. The students have to take data and truly know what the limitations of the systems are, from all angles, if they are going to be able to draw their own conclusions on the validity of the approach. They have to take a path that would normally be blocked by “do not question authority of which you know not”, break down the barriers, and really dig in to their knowledge, and build new knowledge!, to solve the problem. The faculty member has always incorporated statistics and chemistry in to his course – but he has now taken something that the students are passionate about in their daily lives and made it a critical thinking-induced teachable moment.  These kinds of things are happening through RIT and higher education – and really must be celebrated as a new beginning to teaching and learning.

4. How Do You Use Critical Thinking as a Tool to Help Prepare Students for Life Outside of RIT?

The best way I have found to demo critical thinking to both my students and colleagues is through application of real world scenarios. We cannot prepare the students for everything that they will face in the future, but instead what we must do is build their foundational skills in problem solving so that when the winds of change are upon them, they do not panic, but rather open their critical thinking / problem solving toolbox and dig in to the challenge in front of them. How do we prepare them to do that? We have to give them practice at every turn! And showing them that failure is real, and the lessons learned are now part of that toolbox, is potentially the most important “practice” that we can give them. 

Think back to learning to tie your shoes or ride a bike. If your parents are still with us, ask them. I bet you were a mess!  Knots in shoe strings that had to be cut out … more Band-Aids than skin on your knees and elbows … but you are a stronger person today because of all of that! While these might not seem like the kinds of things that will get you a job, you are looking at this all wrong. You have perseverance, experience, and determination … those are skills that every employer wants. Empowering students to not overlook the little things that make them amazing at what they do, both along the path and when they reach their goal, is some of the best preparation that we can bestow upon our students.

5. Any Last Critical Thoughts You Wish to Share About Engaging the Entire RIT Community in Critical Thinking?

Too often we let terms define us. “I’m not good at math.” “I’m not an artist.” “I’m not tech savvy.” “I’m not a critical thinker.”  We need to stop this. Yes, we can apply even more terms here from pedagogy, psychology, and the far ends of academia – all with various implications and assumptions. But that is not what is holding us back. We have to practice failing. We have to practice picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, and confronting the next challenge. We have to recognize ourselves as being mistake-generating fallible humans, accept ours and look for a better approach. Let yourself fail! And make it ok for your students (colleagues, friends, bosses, neighbors, and family) to fail, too.

Some days, simply trying to define the problem to be solved is all we can do – and we might not even succeed at doing that. While other days, we will have make imaginative leaps forward in problem solving – seeing the world in a different way, and possibly even making it a better place. What we have to remember is that both of these days are equal. While some (many?) may argue they are not – you have forgotten the most important lesson. To succeed, you must fail – and to learn from failure, you have already succeeded. The only difference between these two days is the path of critical thinking that lies in between. May your path be rocky and your fails be extraordinary – only then will your successes be out of this world!

Sandi Connelly, PhD 
she/her/hers; ciswoman

Faculty, Thomas H. Gosnell School of Life Sciences
Leader Faculty, Online Learning in College of Science
Director, Fast Forward Summer Research Program in COS
Academic Director, First Class Academy
Director, College Course Advancement Team (CATs)

Office: 585-475-5602 (vm to email enabled)