Critical Thinking and Creativity

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you have had some sort of PD focused on the importance of critical thinking and creative thinking to long-term academic success. As a gesture, I am fully on board. One of my biggest annoyances as a university instructor was the often limited analytical skills my students possessed. They could drown you in quotes and evidence, but offerred little in the way of exploring their meaning in order to progressively develop a thesis through analysis. With few exceptions, the best they could hope for was to “prove” their thesis, which aside from being weirdly positivist, is the academic equivalent of writing stereo instructions. 

Yet, much as I support the general tennor of this discussion, I have serious pedgogical concerns about the conflation going on here between critical and creative thinking. Both are essential, but treating them as interchangeable, as many do, means you are likely to foster the latter without any of the former.

Allow me to demonstrate. One of the most common assessment tasks given in intermediate history classes these days is the soldier’s letter home. In this scenario, students pretend they are a soldier writing back home and describe the conditions of their existence on the front as well as their feelings. Certainly this assignment leads to some absolutely lovely journals. Some students even rub tea on the paper to give it a weathered look. It’s all so amazing. That is, until we consider the fact that all the student has done is written a short story using facts and information supplied by a textbook. Creative it may be, in some limited sense, but it is little better than a fill in the blanks worksheet. Unless we think history is all about memorizing established facts, which it very much isn’t, than this is a pretty poor example of a rich task.

So how could we make this better? It begins with drawing clear distinctions between creative cognitive processes and critical cognitive processes. Creative thinking is about conveying meaning in new forms. However, the hard work of determining what that meaning is and deciding what is meaningful belongs to the realm of critical thinking. Creative thinking is about representation. Critical thinking is about analysis. Critical thinking must occur first to enrich the creative process, otherwise you are getting work that merely parrots the meanings made by others in a new form or style. Creativity as an end in itself is nothing but vapid aesthetics.

Let us revisit our sample assignment and revise it in light of the above paragraph. In practice we could still have the student write the letters home. However, rather than have those letters follow one perspective, it would be better to have the correspondence occur between two individuals such as the soldier and their offspring, a battlefield nurse and their spouse or offspring, or the soldier and their spouse. This allows students to begin to consider conflicting perspectives on, and experiences of, the war.

In order to write these letters, students should have to work with primary evidence, not their textbook. They need to see that the experience of soldiers and civilians was not uniform or easily reducible to a coherent narrative. Thus, it forces them to make choices about who they will represent and how they will represent them. This is where we can insert some research and analysis into the process of developing the letters.

Finally, students need to respond to their own production. They should explicitly analyze what they chose to include and what they chose to leave out and discuss the impact this has on the version of the past they present. They should comment on the conflicting perspectives of different group during the war and how these are faithfully (or not) conveyed by their series of letters. They should compare their letters and primary research to what their textbook says and discuss how their understanding of the war is similar and/or different than the formal version their ministry-sponsored tertiary source provides. The format of the response doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are evaluating their own reconstruction of the past in light of competing evidence and competing accounts. This is critical thinking. 

Many teachers will complain, I am sure, that there simply is no time for this kind of depth. My response would be that less is almost always more. With an assignment like this, do you really still need that unit test? Do you still need so many paragraphs regurgitating basic facts?

To put it succinctly - should your students be spending their time learning history or being historians?

© Braden Hutchinson 2014