Lars Lindhagen – Teacher at Malmö University *

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Being a new student at a university is by definition somewhat challenging to many of our students. Some have the means to adapt and fit in fairly quickly, perhaps because they are familiar with the context from parents and siblings having attended higher education before them. For those of our students who may be the first in their family to ever move into higher education this adaption and fitting in will take longer.

It is then necessary for the university to create an open and inclusive learning community where there is room for students to make mistakes, learn from them and time given to get comfortable with the higher education use of language, terminology and ways of expressing information both internally and regarding how to assess knowledge in exams.

My university, Malmö university, has since start been highly focused on widening participation (WP). In fact, one of the key drivers for establishing the university in the first place was to attract students from so called “non-traditional background” to higher education. Being quite successful in this endeavor, Malmo university is now one of the leading higher education institutions in Sweden regarding how many WP-students we attract (UKÄ, 2021). This also means that Malmö university, as an institution, since the very start has been devoted to developing innovative ways of teaching and learning to provide students from different backgrounds with the opportunity to succeed in their education and eventually graduate. This is the context where I work and where CT needs to be promoted and taught in many cases to students that have no scaffolding from networks around them. Meaning that CT as well as basic introduction to academic work and terminology have to be clear and explicit. If we fail to make these individuals feel a sense of belonging we will surely lose a lot of the talent within this group mainly due to our own shortcomings as teachers.

The role of Critical thinking in Higher education

Critical thinking is an important feature of higher education. It is also acknowledged as a crucial component for upholding democracy and to challenge existing norms and paradigms and to bring about better opportunities for oppressed and marginalized groups (hooks, 2010 and Shor, 1999). Critical thinking is about becoming aware of assumptions that form our conceptions of our world and to challenge them with new perspectives and sometimes reformulate the way we understand ourselves and our surroundings (Brookfield, 2011). Educating for critical thinking and critical literacy is educating for change and sustainable development (Shor, 1999). My stance is that CT is possibly the most important feature of being a graduate.

Critical Thinking provides students with the ability to not only take part in the local, regional and global community but more so to be an active agent of changing it to something better. CT provides tools to recognize assumptions that are underpinning what is already in place and provide alternate ways to improve community in any way possible.

In Malmö university we highlight these abilities to identify, initiate and lead processes of change in our Strategy 2022 and thus acknowledges the importance of Critical thinking and it´s outcome (Mau, 2021).

Critical thinking and Swedish legislation

In The Swedish Higher Education Act chapter 1, section 8, it says that students, in first-cycle courses and programmes, in order to meet a changing work life shall develop the ability to make critical assessments, work autonomously with problems, remain updated in their field and be able to communicate their understandings and knowledge to others who may or may not share their field of expertise (UKÄ, 2019). This, all together, seems to stress the importance of developing an ability to think critically. Critical thinking can be seen as the base for much of what can traditionally be viewed as academic and should, properly developed within an academic education, not only serve as a way to improve your grades but eventually improve the way in which you live your life (Brookfield, 2011). Quality of life improves if you are able to uncover and make accurate judgements about your own assumptions on what is true and assess how valid alternate statements on reality are and then if needed reposition ourselves with new assumptions that fits us into life in a new way (Brookfield, 2011). To me the starting point, that we are never fully learnt is one that resonates well with the importance of developing critical thinking within higher education. bell-hooks (2010) puts this into words by saying that CT is about acknowledging what we don´t know and remaining open to this.

My experience from working in higher education for the last 18 years is that, even if critical thinking is indeed something that is highly regarded and definitely something that we do expect from our students when graduating it is also a fact that it remains somehow implicitly embedded in curriculum and even more so as a competence that we are actively assessing throughout the student life-cycle. CT will often be assessed without students being aware of what they are doing. Even so, there seems to be a lot of students “getting it” just by doing it but my assumption (pun intended) is that many students, predominantly from a non-traditional and WP-background, needs to be made aware of how to both think critically as well as how to assess it in exams. Many students might resist CT because it is harder and takes more effort than just consuming knowledge, but it is truly rewarding for both students and teachers if and when it is learnt (hooks, 2010). There is a great need for CT to be dealt with and taught more explicitly than it is today. Both since it is an overarching goal for all first-cycle programmes and more so because intentionally doing so would inevitably impact WP-students positively and lead to better retention and completion rates and in the long run also lead to better representation of qualified academics in the work force. It might even be seen as an investment in democracy and equality to teach CT more explicitly in HEIs. 

Recognizing that CT is an important goal of higher education it is clear that it is of equal importance to create a learning community that gives students from all types of backgrounds opportunity to develop these skills.

The base for this learning community is to make explicit statements about CT and how it is assessed in the syllabus and learning outcomes. Only after being explicit in these documents, we as university teachers, can start creating learning activities and develop ways of assessing CT in our courses and programmes. A good starting point for this work is to understand how students actually prefer to learn CT. Through collecting and analyzing data from questionnaires around this Brookfield (2011) describes five themes emerging. 

How Critical thinking is learnt according to Brookfield (2011)

  • First, it seems that learning CT is better done as a social activity in small groups with peers. It is hard to uncover ones own assumptions and challenge them with new perspectives but doing so with peers trying to do the same thing seems to be rewarding for students. It is important to create learning activities with clearly described ground rules and instructions around what shall be accomplished. 
  • Second, students look to their teachers to model CT by giving examples of how they try to use CT in everyday life as well as professionally. It is also important for the teacher to stay on top of the learning process and remain clear and explicit on what each and every activity is there for. By doing so the teacher will convey a sense of cohesion to the students which is important for the students trust in both the process and in the teacher as a designer of the process.
  • Third, students find it easier to learn and use CT in relation to concrete experiences or examples. It is always challenging to speak about assumptions but doing it in to general terms is almost intimidating. We should create learning activities that are based on cases, simulations, specific texts etc because this gives students better opportunities to practice CT.
  • Fourth, Brookfield means that students need to be shaken out of their comfort zone by a disorienting dilemma. In order for students to actually challenge their assumptions it is important for them to be made aware of them by having them unexpectedly challenged by thinking differently in connection to something that you up until that moment thought you had control over. 
  • Fifth, students attest that CT is learnt gradually over time. This is why it is crucial to make use of this time and start off with non-threatening exercises and over the time span of the programme move into more challenging and direct critical analysis of students own thinking and reasoning. At first it is important to teach what critical thinking actually is. 

Widening participation is about creating equal opportunities and empowering new groups of people with critical thinking, among other things. It is also about providing them with a language that enables them to create better equality and give them a voice in forums traditionally designated for the privileged. But granting access to new groups in our HEIs is not enough to contribute to this higher cause and to contribute to sustainable change. We also need to teach CT in new ways and not take for granted that all students will “get it” like they might have done previously. We need to promote CT explicitly in syllabus and figure out innovative ways of teaching it progressively over time in our programmes and courses. Teaching, learning and assessing CT is too important for it to be embedded implicitly and assessed randomly, without clarity and instructions, for new students.

References

Brookfield, S. D. (2011). Teaching for critical thinking : Tools and techniques to help students question their assumptions. ProQuest Ebook Central 

hooks, bell (2010). Critical thinking Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge, 7-11

Malmö university. (2021). Strategy 2022. Hämtad 2021-04-16 från https://mau.se/en/about-us/vision-quality-and-internationalisation/ 

Shor, Ira (1999). What is Critical Literacy Journal for Pedagogy. Pluralism & Practice 1:4

Universitetskanslersämbetet (UKÄ). (2019). The Swedish Higher Education Act (1992:1434). Hämtad 2021-04-05 från https://www.uhr.se/en/start/laws-and-regulations/Laws-and-regulations/The-Swedish-Higher-Education-Act/ 

Universitetskanslersämbetet (UKÄ). (2021). Statistik om breddad rekrytering. Hämtad 2021-03-30 från https://www.uka.se/kvalitet–examenstillstand/tematiska-utvarderingar/breddad-rekrytering/statistik-om-breddad-rekrytering.html 

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