7/31 – The Undervalued Creative Thinking Aspect of Criticality in Online Graduate Education

Feature Articles / July 2020

Tracy Cooper

Tracy Cooper

“I’m no artist; I can’t even draw a stick figure!”  How many students have you known who say something like this? Too often students, by the time they are graduate students, have effectively sealed off creative thinking as occurring not only solely in the realm of the fine artist but also as something they are not good at, feel insecure about, and that they do not wish to learn more about.  In effect, we lose the ability to explore, to entertain new possibilities, and to be open to new stimulation at a fairly early age in life due largely in part to cultural conditioning that favors reductionism and reproductive education. 

Reductionism generally teaches that we can know more about a topic under consideration by reducing it to its component parts with the implicit assumption that the disembodied parts make sense and that one would be able to relate them to each other and to a unified whole (Allen, 2008), which is often not the case.  Couple that narrow approach with the emphasis on reproductive education where educators are often focused more on test results than on lighting the fires of curiosity and wonder and we have a paradigm with little creative thinking because it has been almost entirely devalued and deemphasized (Amabile 2010; Florida 2002, 2004; Friedman 2009; Gidley 2010; Jensen 2001; Montuori 1989, 2011a; Robinson 2001, 2009; Sardar 2010).   Reproductive education focuses on the supremacy of standardized testing (and test results) as markers for intellectual achievement while ignoring the practical reality that creativity and its inherent worth in generating new ideas, approaches, and viewpoints.  In a stable world where tried and true approaches may work well, reproductive education serves it purpose but in an unstable world, the kind we face now and, in the future, we cannot hope that students tasked with simple memorization, test-taking mastery, and an intellectual toolkit equipped with metaphorical “pliers and screwdriver” will be capable of meaningful innovation where much more sophisticated tools are required.   

In this paper, I consider the synergistic relationship that already exists between creative thinking and critical thinking but is largely ignored (Robinson 2001; Giroux 2007, 2010) while framing this discussion within the realm of online graduate education, though it is widely applicable.  In a previous article (Cooper 2018), I argued for the need to explicitly recognize creative thinking’s contribution to criticality; indeed, without creative thinking criticality has little to evaluate, assess, or rank.  While writing that paper, I felt that it would be useful to further describe the ways critical thinking is informed by and dependent on creative thinking but was more invested in overall description; now, I delve into the nature of give and take between creative thinking and critical thinking.  

Why is Creative Thinking Devalued?

Creativity, and the creative thinking embedded within it, is inherently a messy, ambiguous process that cannot be measured, cannot be contained, and cannot be reliably quantified.  Much of our society still subscribes to the notion of Descartes and Newton’s machine-like view of the world where creativity is only “gifted” upon certain unique individuals or that it exists outside of human lives.  Creativity also following a disorderly path of non-conforming exploratory and unpredictable pathways does not “feel” like a science or like something that can be taught in schools.  Teach students to be intentionally disruptive to the existing status quo?  Allow students to become individuals who question, take intellectual risks, and come to think of themselves as creative?  There is much to be feared for more linear, authoritarian mindsets in such people (unfounded, of course, because creative thinking simply expands the pool of potential options).  Further, if the goal of an educational system is to turn out order-takers capable only of conformity and minimal critical thought it would serve the purpose well to take the focus away from developing independent, often unruly, and unpredictable thought processes that thrive on novelty, spontaneity, and non-conformity; if you cannot think critically and creatively you cannot question authority and object to oppression, racism, sexism, and institutionalized inequalities that plague our societies.  

The “messy” aspect of creative thinking seems to terrify graduate students in many cases.  It is astounding to ask students to create something as non-threatening as a mind map and receive intense pushback from the fear of being asked to move out of one’s comfort zone and entertain unknown connections between topics.  The nature of many graduate programs existing in the online format complicates the teacher’s ability to alleviate anxieties by the asynchronous nature of online courses.  That is to say: the online format means students are in their homes while working through these processes with little to no face to face time with those who can provide immediate reassurance and support.  

One can mitigate anxieties to some extent by including short video clips (or meeting with a student via Zoom video conferencing) demonstrating how to go about an inherently messy process, but the groans of angst are almost audible to many of us when we know students will be reading the instructions for a project.  Students typically report they “can’t draw a stick figure” and, thus fear any form of exploration that involves them taking any kind of risk or involves them questioning their sociocentric views.  Students also inherit societal notions regarding creativity being the realm of the loner, the outcast, or the mentally unstable individual following his “muse.”  In such views, the creative is often inexorably linked to an artistic end-product: painting, sculpture, performance with little attention paid to the actual process of give and take between entertaining possibilities and judging from among those possibilities (a process that artists take for granted).  However, linking creative thinking to artistic end-product only is a mistake and fails to acknowledge the synergistic and symbiotic interchange between creative thinking and criticality.

By creative thinking, I mean the process by which we generate, produce, or explore new ideas and possibilities.  It truly is part and parcel of the creative’s toolkit but is also inherently present in the lives of all people everyday as this same process of producing and assessing, generating and judging continually take place as we work to solve the problems that present themselves on a daily basis.  How we think about creativity is changing and creative thinking can now be viewed as an everyday creativity where creative thinking applies to “everyone, everyday, everywhere” (Montuori & Donnelly, 2016).  For online graduate students engaged in challenging coursework designed to push their limitations in thinking and doing, the problem of unfamiliarity with the give and take between creative thinking and criticality represents a major obstacle we must work to mitigate if we wish to encourage a true criticality.      

Creative Inquiry

One approach that has been used to very good effect in empowering the creative is Creative Inquiry (CI) (Montuori 1998, 2005b, 2010a, 2011a).  Creative inquiry is a way of thinking about inquiry that values the role of the inquirer’s own passionate interests; that sees the creation of knowledge as an active endeavor rather than a passive paradigm of consumption of existing knowledge; and that views learning, thinking, and doing as a fundamentally joyful process where play is valued, creative thinking meets rigorous criticality, and where innovation and imagination coupled with discernment replace conformity, predictability, and rote learning.  In CI, the learner is, in effect, a creative process enacted, as learning is viewed as recursive and non-judgmental.  CI seeks to refrain from immediately imposing criticality before sufficient time has passed to allow for an open systems framework to induct a quantity of ideas, options, and possibilities.  As a fundamentally emergent process of discovery, wonder, and risk-taking CI moves us from a definition of creativity that is narrow and limited to one that is expansive and inclusive, yet that has an identifiable and communicable process.     

Creative Inquiry further proffers that life itself is a creative act with each of us as active participants in uncovering the grand mysteries of life couched in meaning, or what Frank Barron called the “cosmological motive” (Barron 1995).  CI acknowledges and values the social component of creativity and learning with realizations made through interactions and engagement in the world as an ever unfolding and dynamic process of inquiry, connecting and contextualizing, and participation in what is essentially creativity as an element of the universe itself.  CI moves beyond a mere open systems approach to one that challenges underlying systems of meaning and dominant approaches in search for what constitutes knowledge and what does not.  The psychology and sociology of knowledge both inform and illustrate how the social sciences engage in knowledge production and imbue our imperfect, fragile lives with meaning and the potential to arrive at better actions through this process of generating and producing ideas, options, and possibilities in service to our common good.  

Creative Inquiry is a powerful approach that integrates creative thinking with the intrinsic motivation that comes from exploring topics and interests one feels strongly about and is willing to delve deeply into in pursuit of new knowledge.  As our world becomes increasingly dependent on technology and is forced to reconfigure cultural systems CI provides one approach to inquiry that, while it is open and inclusive, is also rooted in discernment and understanding.  Creative Inquiry may be one strong component of a creative criticality that offers a way to conceptualize creative thinking as more than artistic end-product creation.  Indeed, CI raises the profile of creativity to the making of meaning, mirroring life’s own eternal essentially creative processes.   

One of the key aspects that differentiates CI from the dominant reproductive education paradigm, where society measures student success and achievement by testing and recall of facts, figures, and rote information (but not knowledge acquired by the students through their own careful reasoning and active participation in inquiry) in preparation for taking up a role in society rather like a cog in a machine, is in its learner-centered approach to inquiry.  In CI, the student is at the heart of inquiry and filters the learning through a personal lens that offers the potential for shifting perspectives and reframing worldviews.  In short, CI offers transformative possibilities for students due to its heart-centered approach; as opposed to a cerebral approach that denies the inward life so necessary to human growth and development and where society is stable and unchanging with knowledge needing only to be transmitted through simple storage and recall.  CI, in this sense, becomes an agent of transformation in which the students may transform and be transformed by the inquiries they are engaged in.  

Critical Thinking as Lifelong Practice

Critical thinking is the one aspect of education that there is broad consensus on regarding that we should be teaching it, yet according to research (Paul, Elder & Bartel, 1997) about 89% of us agree that critical thinking is important to teach, yet few of us do it daily.  In fact, from that same study, just 9% teach for critical thinking daily in our classrooms.  The reasons may be many as teachers are constrained to teaching for testing; trying to fit a discussion of critical thinking into discussions of history, science, or the arts; or simply because they do not possess an adequate understanding of critical thinking to teach it to students accurately.  Critical thinking seems to be something that all teachers will nod in agreement as important (even crucial) yet we do not have a concise definition because it feels mercurial, unclear, and subjective.          

There are a number of critical thinking models or approaches that provide a framework for rational thinking but the most familiar to educators will likely be the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Bloom, et al. 1956, 1979).  Bloom’s Taxonomy, as it is more commonly known, is taught in nearly all programs of education.  Teachers learn that to teach critical thinking we draw from a well of prefigured questions designed to provoke thinking in several domains: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy (2001) has, thankfully, evolved to some degree now recognizing “create” as its topmost segment of the pyramid but still seems to promote passive engagement through the use of carefully chosen prompts.  This approach is limited in scale and scope, is not viewed by many as a concise practice, and does not emphasize the role of the teacher in working through the rational thought process.

In real terms, students acquire knowledge through their own efforts, not the other way around.  We cannot impart knowledge using passive techniques that require little thinking on the part of the students nor can we expect that students will continue to construct knowledge on their own after graduation when we fail to frame critical thinking as more than a difficult process to be suffered through rather than one that is valued, necessary, and important throughout life.  We cannot expect students to embrace an approach to critical thinking that is unclear, mercurial, and that does not present critical thinking as a lifelong practice of self-monitored and self-correcting thinking that anyone can do.  Critical thinking is high level thinking capable of tackling and addressing the most complex problems; to confront those sorts of challenges we need an approach that is flexible, communicable to a broad audience, easily understood, immediately applicable, and viewed as a practice requiring real and sustained effort on the part of students to build and improve critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking should move beyond Bloom’s Taxonomy by not accepting that knowledge always corresponds to “reality.”  Whose version of reality we are presenting is always the question.  Reality is a perception based on an individual viewpoint that is subject to egocentrism, sociocentrism, and personal bias.  We each experience a different reality with many different interpretations of an identical event.  Even experts fail to agree on many topics and science moves forward in only the most painfully slow and laborious way.  To develop as critical thinkers, we need to encourage a certain “fitness of mind” that allows students to autonomously work through rational thought processes.  This very process, due its inherent originality and malleable nature is, in effect, a creative dimension of thinking.  Dr. Richard Paul stated:

“Like the body, the mind has its own form of fitness or excellence.  Like the body, that fitness is caused by and reflected in activities done in accordance with standards (criticality).  A fit mind can successfully engage in the designing, fashioning, formulating, originating, or producing of intellectual products worthy of its challenging ends.  To achieve this fitness the mind must learn to take charge of itself, to energize itself, press forward when difficulties emerge, proceed slowly and methodically when meticulousness is necessary, immerse itself in a task, become attentive, reflective, and engrossed, circle back on a train of thought, re-check to ensure that it has been through, accurate, exact, and deep enough.  In a sense, of course, all minds create and produce in a manner reflective of their fitness or lack thereof…creativity presupposes criticality and criticality creativity”

(Paul, 1990).   

In the Paul-Elder approach, one uses a reasoning process to better understand the logic of the problem at issue.  To facilitate this process, the model uses universal elements of reasoning:

  • What is my fundamental purpose?
  • What is my point of view with respect to the issue?
  • What assumptions am I using in my reasoning?
  • What are the implications of my reasoning, if I am correct?
  • What are my most fundamental inferences or conclusions?
  • What is the most basic concept to the question?
  • What information am I using in my reasoning?
  • What is the key question I am trying to answer? (Paul & Elder, 2014).

As we reason through the logic of a problem, we also use universal standards of thought to assess our reasoning:

  • Clarity
  • Precision
  • Accuracy
  • Relevance
  • Significance
  • Depth
  • Breadth
  • Logic
  • Fairness (Paul & Elder, 2014).

The continual practice of critical thinking utilizing this process of reasoning through a problem and evaluating the quality of our thinking is the crux of the Paul-Elder approach and is one that can be pout into immediate use in assessing our thinking, speaking, listening, and writing, as well as the thinking, speaking, listening, and writing of others.  Over time, it is postulated that critical thinkers develop what are thought of as intellectual virtues:

  • Intellectual humility
  • Intellectual perseverance
  • Intellectual courage
  • Intellectual empathy
  • Intellectual integrity
  • Intellectual autonomy
  • Confidence in reason
  • Fairmindedness (Paul & Elder, 2014).

The Paul-Elder approach to critical thinking is readily communicable to others, flexible in usage, and provides a framework we can employ in many aspects of life where we face complex issues requiring a similar complex thought process to effectively reason through them to better solutions.  

The Paul-Elder model is supported through Richard Paul’s legacy organization The Foundation for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University in California.  The Foundation holds a yearly world conference (and has for 39 years), yearly learning academies, and a certification process by which one can achieve higher levels of understanding and certification to teach the model to educators, the business community, government, military, etc.  The Foundation’s website at criticalthinking.org is replete with resources that support and extend the reach of this powerful model of critical thinking.  Though Bloom’s Taxonomy has undoubtedly raised the profile of what it means to teach critical thinking it falls short of providing a view of critical thinking as necessitating a lifelong practice; something that is integral to the Paul-Elder approach. 

Empowering Creative Thinking

The problem we must address in higher education is how to equip students with the best possible intellectual and creative toolkit to address the many problems in the world.  CI offers us a framework or perspective we can use to begin to move students from what is inevitably a bias against anything “creative” toward a broader, and more accurate, definition and understanding of creativity as inclusive of creative thinking.  Creative thinking can then be communicated as an essential skill that all people possess and can utilize on an everyday basis in every circumstance.  Everyday creativity is far more relatable than trying to pull apart creativity as identified with the arts.  Similarly, the goal is not to “unleash” creativity in our students because creativity was never leashed in the first place; it was misunderstood, not acknowledged, and misconstrued but creative thinking is present in all people at all times and expressed in varying degrees.  The goal is to raise awareness of creative thinking as a useful skill that is available to students and well within their grasp with a minimum of practice to both acknowledge when creative thinking is taking place and to hone it through practice.  One way to raise awareness of creative thinking’s utility, espoused by Adriansen (2014), encourages us to teach creatively rather than teach creativity or creative thinking, believing that students learn creative thinking without questioning it when they are taught in a creative way.  

What would creative teaching look like on the part of teachers?  What sort of processes and approaches to instruction impart what we intend?  Adriansen found that the role of generating questions is one key to stimulating creative thinking.  I offer the following addition: encouraging and stimulating a sense of curiosity and wonder is essential to any creative thinking.  Questions stem from curiosity, are further informed by curiosity, and are sustained by curiosity.  Curiosity is part of an open system dynamic in which we embrace divergence or openness without judgement to induct a quantity of new ideas or stimuli.  Once the ideas are within our open system, we can begin to work with them, explore the possibilities, and consider applications.  Without this necessary openness, there are fewer and lower quality inputs to work with. 

Curiosity leads quite naturally to greater complexity.  The more questions we think of the more we realize that the world is less binary and more inclusive of many possibilities, nuances, and permutations.  Similarly, good questions lead us deeper into the heart of a problem and through a careful process of generating ideas then evaluating and assessing what we’ve created we move further along the continuum to possible solutions.  Students (and faculty) often get caught at this point because they fear ambiguity or are intolerant for it.  Tolerance for ambiguity is second-nature to creative individuals but new and anxiety-provoking for those who habitually seek the shortest distance between two points.  Acclimating students and faculty to exploration and the inherent unknowns, and yet fantastic possibilities, is our task.  

Creative teaching would seek to embody this process in a way that simply embraces openness as a natural process; one that is non-threatening and that can be practiced by anyone at any time.  It is only when we succeed at removing this fear of openness that we can begin to appreciate the value of creative thinking as integral counterpart and ally to criticality.  We need to demystify creative thinking by making it explicit as a critical thinking modality that has value, worth, importance in students’ lives, and measurable utility in arriving at better solutions.

Application to the online graduate student format 

The online format of an increasing number of graduate programs creates further obstacles that faculty must contend with including, but not limited to student apathy, lack of face-to-face interactions, and psychological distance between student to student and student to teacher.  Student apathy may be fed by a number of sources such as not having enough time due to work constraints, home life, etc. that severely limit how much time a student has available to spend on coursework; let alone coursework requiring students to explore, experiment, and assess; isolation and anonymity may play a role in making the online course space seem sterile and impersonal (especially if teachers take few steps to personalize the space and build a learning community); all of which serves to create a psychological sense of distance between the student and what we ask them to do.  The single biggest issue online students must overcome is moving beyond a focus on the “right” answer to an openness to several possible perfectly workable answers that take into account a multiplicity of viewpoints, data sets, and possible solutions.  Finding ways to open students up to the exploratory process where curiosity is encouraged, even expected, is our first step in raising the profile of creative thinking as complementary and necessary for criticality.

People are naturally curious just by nature but may suppress it in service to accomplishing the task that is asked of them in as efficient a way as they are capable of at the moment.  Curious people do several things differently than others:

  • Spend more time in sheer exploration.  Whether it’s a walk in nature or reading books, curious people embody an openness to new experience and stimulation through a willingness (even an intentionality) to put themselves in situations and circumstances where they may encounter fresh ideas, learn to think in a new way, or simply absorb influences that they catalog away for a future possible need.  
  • Are less judgmental.  In order to be more open, it is necessary to refrain from quick value judgements that might preclude explorations.  Curious people leave the judgements behind as they are willing to listen, see, and experience freely and openly.  
  • Tolerate ambiguity well.  Curious people are comfortable in not knowing or in engaging in an exploratory process that may not be the quickest or most efficient but may lead to some better actions.  Learning to tolerate ambiguity requires some practice but once benefits are seen, tolerance generally increases for an exploratory attitude.
  • Are less egocentric or sociocentric.  Curious people are less interested in being misled by their own self-centered desires, wants, and needs and more interested in an expansive view of life that allows for no need to control the outcomes.  Similarly, curious people maybe less focused on society’s dictates regarding acceptable beliefs, values, and norms as they freely explore, experiment, and assess.  That is not to say that we are ever able to exist completely apart from either; just that there is a lessening of both in service to a greater potential good.  

To encourage greater curiosity in students we have to create spaces, environments, and circumstances where students understand that they are not expected to deliver the quickest response to problems.  Rather, they are free to examine divergent possibilities and options as they work through complexities and nuance.  This works best when the process is modelled by a teacher who can embody curiosity and wonder and is familiar with divergent and convergent thinking and can communicate exploratory processes fueled by curiosity.  As students see this process modelled, and learn that it is one they can emulate, it is easier to implement for students going forward.

Exploration

In the online course space, we have many opportunities to encourage curiosity in the way we design assignments.  Building in the necessity of exploration requires students to do more than select the right answer or provide an expected and rehearsed but superficial reply.  Assignments should ask of the students that they seek out a variety of materials and resources to complete an assignment while considering how knowledge itself is constructed.  For instance, one might ask students to source several peer-reviewed journal articles from divergent disciplines or create a response to a prompt using means other than the written word: short films they can record on their phones, artworks, or other mediums that will pull them out of their comfort zones and require that they try something new and different.  If we design a set of canned assignments each with identical parameters, expectations, and deliverables it is not likely that students will return with anything other than the minimum we have specified to satisfy the requirements.  When we challenge students, however, they will respond with engagement as they encounter new and unfamiliar tasks that are well-matched to their nascent skills and abilities.  To develop challenging assignments means we have to intentionally encourage flow experiences for our students.

The way to grow while enjoying life is to create a higher form of order out of the entropy that is an inevitable condition of living.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

Flow states constitute a range of conditions while engaged in the task: the goals are clear at every step; feedback is immediate; our skills are matched to the task (neither overmatched or under-matched); we find that our attention becomes intensely focused on the task; all other concerns fall away; we lose all self-consciousness and fear of failure; we often lose track of time; and the task becomes autotelic (worth doing for its own sake).  It’s fair to say that many online assignments fail to place students in the flow zone, instead leaving students either bored, which means they are not being challenged, or anxious, because the task is not well-matched to their abilities.  Knowing what our students are capable of and engaging that capacity and potentiality is key to growing and developing students who come to learn that curosity is a desirable and rewarding trait to cultivate in their very characters.  

Non-Judgement

The tendency for many students is to rush to judgement as they speed straight toward a solution and on to the next thing.  In this approach, judgement seems to come first, even before the student has inducted any ideas at all.  Mediocrity can be the only result of early judgements that fail to entertain new ideas, concepts, and approaches.  Teaching students to become less judgmental before they have anything worthy of assessing requires that we model the same, as teachers setting the example.  The use of case studies, examples, and scenarios where hasty judgments have resulted in poor outcomes or actions is a great way to enable students to appreciate the value in refraining from early judgements.  Hand-in-hand with becoming less hurried in our judgments is learning to hold a space within our minds where outcomes and connections are unclear for a time.  We have to learn to teach and embrace a certain tolerance of ambiguity.     

Learning to Tolerate Ambiguity

Why do we fear ambiguity?  Why do we rush to quick judgements before gathering facts, data, and spending enough time so we can make well-informed judgements?  Partly, we can say it is human nature to think poorly and partly the hustle and bustle of modern life pushing us on at an ever-increasing pace to accomplish task after task, leaving us with little time to consider implications and consequences of poor planning.  Too often, its only when a plan has flopped spectacularly that we realize we should have planned better.  

Think of the potter, for a moment, as he takes a malleable piece of clay and through a process of carefully timed movements on a potter’s wheel shapes and forms the clay into a cylinder.  From that humble cylinder shape one can make any other final form.  Clay by itself is just shapeless, formless wet, processed earth but in the hands of a potter it becomes something of great utility and beauty.  The ambiguity is in the clay itself as it resists the potter’s efforts to squeeze, pull, and shape it into a particular configuration: bowl, cup, plate, etc.  Artists often engage in a play process of beginning a project without knowing exactly where it will lead.  The intention is often to experiment, to see what happens if I do this?  The potter might choose to throw 50 pounds of wet clay on the wheel and create a huge 24-inch wall platter, or the painter might choose to begin with a random color and build everything based on that one color.  The painter Philip Pearlstein often begins his nudes at a random point on the model’s body and draws everything proportional to that point, with the result that the model’s faces or entire heads are off the canvas.  They both follow a process of not-knowing and being comfortable in that space, so ideas and inspirations have time to occur before they begin assessing what they’ve created for worth.  

There is a point at which even the artist begins to step back and consider critically how well certain aspects of a painting seem to be going and what needs to be done next but, in the beginning phase especially, it’s all about tolerating some ambiguity in service to a better outcome.  Similarly, for students, we must teach them that to create good work requires that they learn to work with a process before they rush to a conclusion.  It can help to expose students to particularly well-done examples of work they will be asked to create themselves.  Conversely, it can also help to allow students to see particularly poor examples of past work (remove all names and identifying information of course) so they can see for themselves why it is poor work.  In the online course environment, all these techniques and considerations are even more important because students spend most of their time working away in solitude in their own homes and only reach out when they are already frustrated.  Online students also tend to work through assignments too quickly and turn in mediocre work that is not necessarily indicative of their best work.  In that respect, teaching students to tolerate ambiguity is equipping them to produce their best work while challenging them to grow and develop as lifelong learners.

Learning to tolerate ambiguity may be more comfortable for some and less so for others, depending on their backgrounds and belief structures.  As educators, we should be sensitive to the sociocultural implications of a given student’s background so we can adjust how we teach to each group of students.  Some classes will be composed of more students who are already familiar with creativity and creative thinking and have few issues with ambiguity, while others may be quite inflexible in their willingness and ability to forgo quick judgements.  It always returns to what the teacher is able to embody to and for the students.  If we show our students that tolerating ambiguity leads us to better action plans and results, it is more likely they will feel more comfortable in the same.  If we are complacent and allow for easy solutions to complex problems the students will learn that minimal effort is adequate.   

Becoming Less Egocentric and Less Sociocentric

The Paul-Elder approach to critical creative thinking emphasizes two main limitations to effective thinking: egocentrism, or the human tendency to think of ourselves first, and sociocentrism, the tendency to go along with group norms, values, and beliefs, even when it conflicts with our own.  Let’s begin with egocentrism first: egocentric thinking prizes the benefit and gain that will come to an individual before considering how actions may affect other people.  To think egocentrically is to forgo fairmindedness in favor of self-centered and often selfish thoughts and actions.  We are all egocentric to some degree, but curious people tend to forgo egocentrism in favor of a more inclusive range of possible ways of being.  The curious person is a true lover of knowledge, in many cases, and will follow an idea wherever it wishes to go for its own sake.  There may be some conscious awareness that creating original work may benefit the individual but curious people tend to naturally focus less on personal gain and more on entertaining possibilities.  

Helping students develop an awareness of our egocentric tendencies helps to limit its destructive and detrimental effects on society but it is through teachers modeling less egocentrism in the class space that students learn what it looks like in action.  Thus, while we can instruct and inform, it is up to each of us to embody lessened egocentrism, which is a key tenant of servant leadership, a key underlying philosophical basis for many educators who are committed to serving others.  The Paul-Elder approach to critical thinking posits that we will develop intellectual traits of the mind as we maintain a practice of critical thinking over time.  Intellectual empathy, intellectual humility, intellectual courage, intellectual perseverance, independent thinking, intellectual curiosity, intellectual civility, and faith in reason are all crucial components of servant leadership and indicative of an overall attitude toward lessening of the ego as we seek to become rational creative thinkers.  

Authentically embodying servant leadership also enables us to more effectively help students develop as independent thinkers, apart from the dictates and various dogmas of society.  Sociocentric thinking, or thinking that focuses on group values, norms, and beliefs rather than individual choices that are at arrived at by thinking, represent weak-sense critical thinking precisely because the student has not arrived at choices on her own.  Creative thinking, and the curiosity embedded within it that fuels and sustains it, are social acts and achievements of a continuing dialog between a student’s interactions with themselves, other students, teachers, and other people who have inspired them to remember bits and pieces from different influences.  None of us think or create in a vacuum; there is always a dialog ongoing that seeks to connect concepts in a system of meaning.  Too often, we seek to attach meanings to ideas based on sociocentric programming but, as with a lessening of egocentrism, a reduction in sociocentrism will help students arrive at more original and meaningful work.     

Exposing students to a variety of approaches to view an issue or problem may help them to begin broadening their own viewpoints and choosing from among a wide array of possible methodological perspectives.  In a Creative Criticality, students would both be less influenced, controlled, and guided by egocentrism and sociocentrism and begin to define for themselves how they create knowledge and what it will mean in their professional and personal lives while self-constructing an ethical framework for inquiry that is fairminded.  

Discussion

Critical thinking is needed now more than ever in our society to discern fact from fiction, to take thinking apart and put it together again, and to arrive at workable action plans that are fairminded.  Within critical thinking, the role of creative thinking has long gone unacknowledged and undervalued as the emphasis has been on logic and argumentation (forensics), but what we need in order to have a truly holistic critical thinking is one that makes explicit the interdependent and synergistic relationship that critical thinking shares with creative thinking; in essence, we need a Creative Criticality.  To move from a simplistic online course space where students engage in reproductive learning to one where a creative criticality is valued requires that we approach the design of the course space and assignments from a different viewpoint.  

Too often, in online course spaces, instructors come to view the space as a sort of self-service proposal where students simply complete a slate of introduction, instruction, and applications modules for each week with little meaningful interaction either between students or students and teacher.  Breaking that paradigm, and the mediocre education that accompanies it, is at the heart of a free-flowing exchange between all members of a course space.  The creation of a learning community by virtue of meaningful personal contact and thoughtfully designed assignments and instruction, even in the online world, contribute to lessening of emotional distance, a greater sense of intrinsic motivation, and connectedness between students and teacher.  Teachers must be selected and brought along in their development as effective instructors committed to an ever-increasing improvement of how they provide instruction and mentoring to online students.  In that regard, teachers must buy in to the idea and possess a deep understanding of, and respect for, critical creative thinking as a lifelong practice they will model to their students.

On a programmatic level, embedding coursework with critical creative thinking requires that we stick with the key concepts from Creative Inquiry and critical thinking, or what we term here a Creative Criticality.  In that regard, coursework and instructors should reflect an awareness of and commitment to:

– creative thinking as an essential, independent yet interdependent component of critical thinking that can be taught to students.   

– critical thinking as a lifelong practice of self-monitored and self-corrective thinking using the Paul-Elder approach.

– course design that allows students to explore, take risks, and engage their creative faculties in concert with their critical capacities.

– collaboration should be built into assignments utilizing technologies that connect students and make group editing possible.

– deep engagement as an instructor who is able to model curiosity, tolerance of ambiguity, and openness while experiencing joy and wonder in the learning process. 

The intangible aspect of weaving a creative criticality into our programs is the students themselves.  Depending on the type of program, you may attract students expecting and prepared to stretch themselves quite far, while in other programs students may bring a minimalist approach that will be hard to overcome.  We need to bear in mind that all students can improve their critical and creative thinking skills over time and that it is the way we are able to demonstrate to the students the worth and value of critical creative thinking that will matter significantly in their attaching significance to this approach.  

Conclusion

In an ever-increasingly complex, distracted and distracting world, the need for people who can effectively think critically and creatively has never been greater.  Online education presents several hurdles that we must work to overcome as it will soon be the dominant model in much of higher education.  Critical thinking has long been a focus of most liberal arts university’s mission statements but has largely been given short shrift due to approaches that are overly complex, focus on logic or argumentation, or due to teachers not understanding critical thinking as a lifelong practice that is easily communicable, immediately applicable, and flexible in its ability to address many situations.  The Paul-Elder approach has provided us with just such a model that we may improve upon by raising the profile of creative thinking as Creative Inquiry, thereby linking it synergistically with criticality.  

A creative criticality provides teachers with a perspective toward the creation of knowledge that privileges the knower as the center of inquiry and allows for a dynamic interplay between creative thinking and critical thinking that will provide marked improvements in the quality of student’s work and their long-term potential as critical creative thinkers in the world.  In a larger sense, to be educated implies that we are able to think carefully, thoughtfully, in a fairminded way, and are capable of both generating options and assessing them before arriving at solutions and actions.  To be educated should not mean “able to recall the correct answer” because there is no original thought process in that approach.  It is presupposed that we have already attained a fair degree of memorized knowledge and have the ability to read and comprehend what we’re reading but to synthesize and apply requires another skillset: a creative criticality. 

In conceptualizing how we should implement a creative criticality, it is always easier and simpler to begin with young minds and model creative teaching than it is to start with older minds full of bias’, egocentrism, and sociocentrism.  In a larger sense, it is society that will have to choose a fuller realization of human potential over the current paradigm that seeks to perpetuate a limited status quo.  If we truly subscribe to the notion of developing each person to her potential it seems to be incumbent on us to implement a creative criticality for future generations in the hope that the problems of tomorrow will be met with minds developed and equipped today with creative and critical thinking skills.

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 Tracy Cooper is the Program Chairman for the Master of Liberal Arts at Baker University where he oversees a cadre of scholars in an interdisciplinary, broad-based, applications-oriented graduate degree. He continues to conduct new research into multiple areas of relevance to highly sensitive people (those who have the personality trait Sensory Processing Sensitivity) and has written two books to date: Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career (2015) and Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person (2016). Additionally, Tracy was invited to appear in the documentary film Sensitive-The Untold Story (2015). Following a multifaceted approach, he also have a website at drtracycooper.com where he offers consulting services for individuals in career transition and crisis as well as high sensation seeking highly sensitive people. Address correspondence to tcooper@bakeru.edu.

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