Critical Thinking Not Just for Fourth Years

In just a week I will be entering my fourth year as a student at Queen’s University. Fourth year is lauded as the year in which students can finally sink their teeth into critical thinking. They challenge professors in seminars, take advantage of smaller classes to have true discussion, and begin to mold their own hypotheses. Though I’m excited to finally critically engage with course material, I can’t help but wonder why it wasn’t possible earlier in my education. Thus far, my classroom experience can best be characterized as a transfer of information from professor to student. This approach is counterintuitive from a critical thinking perspective, as it creates a disincentive for students to challenge classroom material.

The concept of conflict in the classroom is a topic that Parker Palmer, an academic at the Centre for Courage and Renewal, talks about quite frequently. In his article “Good Teaching”, Palmer writes about the concept of conflict in a consensual classroom. A consensual classroom is defined as a classroom that expects conflict to occur. Proponents of this teaching method argue that conflict can lead to a truer illumination of knowledge than the traditional lecture. Palmer writes in his article,

“A consensual classroom assumes that truth requires many views and voices, much speaking and listening, a high tolerance for ambiguity in the midst of a tenacious community. Consensual truth is not the outcome of majority vote. It is a continuing revelation that comes as we air our differences in public, pay special heed to those who dissent, and seek deeper insight…”

I can honestly say that in my three years in university, I have not experienced a classroom where dissenting opinions and a robust conversation have occurred. Now, this isn’t necessarily the fault of the professor. Large class sizes, limited time together and the sheer volume of material that must be covered all inhibit the culture of a consensual classroom. However, these obstacles should not prohibit discussion and debate from permeating all levels of education, as it does currently. I should not have to wait until fourth year to experience a classroom that encourages critical engagement.

As students we move from a high school model where asking questions is often encouraged to a university model where the first few years of our university education are spent memorizing textbooks and theories. Students tend to believe that they are so stifled under the “burden” of learning that they are unable to stop and ask “why?”

In Taking Stock, Dr. Joy Mighty talks about how good teachers introduce new concepts to students. After explaining the substance of the concept, the professor will show the student how it was discovered. The next and final step is to challenge the concept and only through the introduction of opposing theories does the student begin to understand the concept in a full context. In the traditional lecture, this doesn’t occur. For some reason, we have opted for a model where we spend whole credit courses during the first first three years of university explaining, with only one year dedicated challenging what we’ve learned.

Educators must focus less on viewing the undergraduate experience as wedded to simple information transfer. We need to structure our system so that students can be engaged throughout the process. This means shifting our expectations and our practices to accommodate a model that we are, to date, uncomfortable with. This journey into new models of learning is starting to occur on small scales across universities. At Queen’s we have professors who feature their normal lecture content online and use class time to provoke conversations and study new models. We have professors who break their classroom time into a lecture format that follows Dr. Mighty’s concept of deep learning, where a concept is presented, derived, and then challenged. Throughout Ontario there are professors who are exploring new ways of learning and it falls on our entire system to take a note out of Dr. Palmer’s playbook and look to these small experiments. We might find something that works – and engages us.

Kieran Slobodin

Vice President (University Affairs, 2011-12)

Originally posted at


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