Drilling Holes in Critical Thinking

August 8, 2012

Writer: Danae Romrell – Winter 2012 Issue of Perspective Magazine

The Learning and Teaching Committees provide a variety of resources and activities that facilitate faculty efforts at BYU-Idaho.  For instance, the Collaboration Committee coordinates Learning Communities and oversees the Spori Summit retreats, while the Dialogue Committee organizes brown bag discussions and the annual Faculty Conference.  All of these provide valuable opportunities for faculty from all disciplines to come together and share their current insights and best teaching practices.  For its part, the Travel Committee helps enhance the quality of learning and teaching at BYU-Idaho by sending groups of faculty to teaching conferences or training workshops that occur off-campus at a variety of locations around the country.  Over the past three years we have sent 123 faculty members to 22 different conferences or workshops.  All of the conferences have been attended by interdisciplinary groups of faculty from across campus.  Some of the conferences have included presentations and talks on a variety of topics relating to the scholarship of teaching and learning, while others have focused on a specific topic, such as "Critical Thinking" or "Learning and the Brain".

This past July, I was one of five faculty members who attended the 31st International Conference on Critical Thinking in Berkeley, California.  The other faculty members attending were from the physics, religion, communications, and chemistry departments.  My experience attending the conference was beneficial not only because of what I learned, but also because of the relationships I forged with other faculty members from across campus.

While attending the critical thinking conference, I heard a fabulous story from another conference participant who teaches in the automotive department at a community college in Alberta, Canada.  During a lunchtime conversation he shared the story of a student who was learning to patch a tire.  The automotive shop at the college had tires mounted on rims, attached to the wall that were intended to be used by students to practice patching a tire.  A student would remove a tire from the rim, drill a hole in it (so that they would have a hole to repair), and then patch the hole and remount the tire.  This particular student had finished the training, had demonstrated proficiency in all of the steps, and was very capable of repairing a hole in a tire.  One day, he asked if he could bring in his personal vehicle and use the shop to repair a leak in his tire.  The teacher agreed.  The student brought in the car, raised it on the lift, removed the tire, and then proceeded to drill a hole in his tire.  It was clear that the student knew the process of repairing a tire, but didn't have any idea why the process worked.

As a math teacher I think my students often approach solving a math problem by "drilling a hole in it".  They learn all the steps to some mathematical process and show they are able to follow all of the steps.  But then in a different context, they use that technique without making sure they understand whether the technique is appropriate for that situation.  For example, students learn that 2x / 2 = x, so they incorrectly assume that 2x + 1 / 2 = x + 1. I want to encourage my students to think critically about a mathematical process.  I want them to understand why it works.  When they understand why it works they will better understand when it is appropriate to use that method in other contexts.  At the critical thinking conference I gained a few ideas about how to help my students think critically.  I have been working with my students on "critical reading".  Using techniques I learned at the conference, I am trying to help them carefully read each sentence of a given passage, paraphrase it, and elaborate on it before they move on to the next sentence.  I am also encouraging metacognition skills with my students.  Metacognition is defined as the process of thinking about your thinking process.  I hope that as my students consciously make an effort to think about the process of their thinking, they will learn to better recognize when they don't understand the concept behind a mathematical process.  Recognizing when they don't understand a concept helps them avoid "drilling a hole" by applying the concept incorrectly.

I love attending conferences because they give me the opportunity to think critically about my teaching.  I return excited and encouraged to improve and try something new.  I hope I am never guilty of "drilling a hole" in my instructional methods.  I hope I don't choose to teach a particular way just because that is how I have always done it.  I appreciate the opportunity that attending a conference gives me to step back and examine my teaching from a new viewpoint.

For more information on the Learning and Teaching Travel Committee and upcoming conferences, please contact a member of the committee or visit the Travel Committee website at http://beta.byui.edu/learning-teaching/faculty-committees/travel.