Sandi Connelly

Sandi Connelly Headshot
1. How Do You Teach Applied Critical Thinking?

It has always been a struggle for me to really define how I “teach” critical thinking. I believe for the students, they have the same stumbling block … “How do I learn critical thinking?” We all know that it is an important skill, but it is not something that you can pick up from reading a textbook, or watching a training video. The first step in teaching and learning critical thinking in my opinion has to be a strong belief that critical thinking matters, and regardless of what you call it … everyone is doing some type of critical thinking, teaching, and learning every day. If we take the literal Oxford English Dictionary definition of critical thinking (“the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment”) I would argue that the times during the day when you are thinking critical outweigh the times you are not – especially in academia – and especially in science.  With my students I do not start with “in this class you are going to learn how to be a critical thinker”, but rather I start with “in this class, you are going to learn how to think like a rigorous and ethical scientist – whether you are a science major or not”. Critical analysis of journal articles – what did they do, why did they do it, and what could be done better – is an everyday thought process in science, but we have to learn to be good at it. That is what takes training through practice. Empowering students to constantly step back and say “I know how that thing / experiment / result can be improved” and have the backing to support that knowledge gives them an opportunity to become a critical thinker – and perhaps most importantly in science, a critical doer. 

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

We talk a lot about silos in education. In my work as a molecular ecologist, I cannot afford to stay in my silo. My expertise is limited in fields that I need in my work. I am not an engineer, I am not an expert in hydrology, and I am certainly not a statistician or mathematical modeler. But in my research to understand the impacts of anthropogenic and natural stressors on freshwater ecosystems, I need this expertise, and I need the insights of others to drive the work forward. By this, critical thinking must become a “team sport”. In order to answer the big questions in the world – and in my opinion the most interesting questions – we have to work together, and we have to push ourselves to be analyzers and evaluators of the problems / questions at hand. To do this, we need  one another, and we need to work together to be the critical thinkers that the world needs to be a better place tomorrow.

3. Can You Share a Story Where Quality Applied Critical Thinking Was Key to Your Success?

I was never the smartest in the class. I was never the prettiest or the most popular or the most athletic (Lord knows!). I never had the best hair, the best fashion sense, or the best shoes. I was never the most talented, the best clarinet player, or the shining star on the stage. I was never the best cook, baker, and to this day I hate cleaning windows, probably because I am not the best at it. I was not the best student, the best teacher, or the best researcher. I was not the best colleague, the best employee, or the best boss. I was not always the best daughter, the best friend or the best wife.  But, what I can bring to this world is passion.  Passion for every one of those things at which I am not perfect. Passion for trying to do better every time. And the way I pick myself up and try to better is by analyzing what has gone wrong, what could be better, and another way to try. Life and being better at life every day is about problem solving. There is nothing that I can do to better myself that does not involve analyzing, evaluating, and thinking critically about myself, my world, and everything in my world. I stopped doing things in my life because I was not the best at those things. I gave up clarinet after high school.  I stopped drawing and painting because I just was not that good at it. But the one thing that I cannot give up is teaching. Not because some days I don’t want to (we all have those days).  But because every day – good at it or not – I need to be there for my students who are not the best at something. I need to be there because they need to know that being the best does not make you happy. They need to know that sometimes just showing up and playing the game of life – playing the way you have decided is the best way for you to play – is the best gift that they can give to themselves and to the world. This is applied critical thinking to me. And this is why I may not be the perfect teacher – but I believe that I am a successful teacher. I show up and together we play the game – the best we can that day.

4. How Do You Use Critical Thinking in Other Areas of Your Life Outside of RIT?

The world of online instruction is not new. And online teaching / learning is not new at RIT.  However, we are finding ourselves in a time when higher education is becoming a burden (financially, and other) for many. Historically, higher education has gone through ebbs and flows. We have seen times when only the richest and most elite were formally educated. We have seen times where more individuals are being formally educated – post WWII through the 1990’s/early 2000’s – but the world is changing too fast to keep up. While the system is not perfect by any means, and many will argue that it is still only the most privileged that are formally educated, we are beginning a swing away from formal higher education as a fixed path following high school in the United States. What does this mean? Yes, the population of 18-22 year old’s is decreasing, but we also have done a poor job of justifying the purpose of formal education to many. That is our bad. But maybe it is also our savior. How will we think about formal education 20 years from now? Many of us are not close enough to retirement to say “it is the next generations problem!”.  We have to figure out what it is about formal education that can help others – and not just 18-22 year old’s. 

The world is changing, our need for particular skill sets is changing. We have to embrace this change to help those around us – and help ourselves. What role can online learning play to open up education, critical thinking, and problem solving to the world?  I believe that it can have an enormous role in making the world a better place – not only for professional growth, but also for personal growth and well-being. What a time we live in that you can take a Master Class online in Cooking Techniques from Gordon Ramsey or Thomas Keller … or a writing class from Margaret Atwood (author of The Handmaid's Tale if you have forgotten!) … or the fundamentals of gymnastics from Simone Biles (the most decorated World Gymnast with 25 Olympic and World Championship medals!)!! Seriously?! While we may not all be coordinated enough to learn a balance beam routine in our living room while being instructed by Ms. Biles … we are all creative enough, smart enough, and worthy enough to critically think about what these kinds of engagements and interactions mean for our personal well-being and the world around us. We need to open our intellect and our hearts to learn every day … not just in a formal classroom. And we need to embrace what that means for the betterment of the world. Everyone should be learning something new – big or small is all relative – every day. THAT is how you think critically about life, about your contribution to life, and your impact on life. And THAT is how you become the best that you can be. Being a critical thinker … scratch that … being an evaluator and an analyzer … scratch that … being filled with the wonderment of a child seeing anything for the first time every time we look around us … is something that we all deserve.  I wish that for all of you.

5. And Any Last Critical Thoughts?

Look at the world around not as you know it to be – but as you want it to be – for you and for all life, human or not. Now take the steps you can to make it THAT world.