Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively: Considerations of a Theme

critical-creating thinking banner 2015by Debie Lohe, Director, Reinert Center

As we welcome new faculty and students to campus, the Reinert Center is gearing up for its focus this year on Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively. This theme will inform some of our regular programs, including workshops in our Certificate Program, our annual Winter Institute, and our Teaching with Technology series.  Each semester also will feature two new offerings: a faculty panel and a blog series; both will focus on thinking critically this fall and on thinking creatively next spring.

For some, these concepts represent “habits of mind” or “essential skills” or “academic mindsets”.  Some focus on the noun versions (critical thinking, creative thinking); some call them by other names altogether: entrepreneurial thinking, clinical reasoning, connective thinking, to name a few.

Public discourse periodically sees a spike in the number of commentators and researchers and employers who bemoan college graduates’ inability to think critically and/or creatively.  Such seeming intellectual failures often are viewed as key indicators of the decline of universities. Indeed, in articles from the Wall Street Journal and The Harvard Business Review and in how-to guides for Teaching Applied Creative Thinking and Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question Their Assumptions,  many both in and out of the academy are preoccupied with questions about what it means to think critically and/or creatively, about how and when people learn to do it, and about who teaches them to do it.

Numerous universities have named these (and other) core academic mindsets as ideal outcomes for all their students.  Most faculty on most campuses would likely rate critical thinking at or near the top of the list of skills they want students to excel at – but many also struggle to name what the features of thinking critically are, in concrete terms.  When we add creative thinking to the mix, new challenges arise, since many faculty may believe “creativity,” in whatever form, cannot be taught (or at least not taught by them).

As nouns, the concepts of critical thinking and creative thinking can be challenging to define, but many have tried. Perhaps one of the best-known efforts for those of us in U.S. higher education comes from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).   As part of its commitment to enhancing assessment, the AAC&U has overseen the development of VALUE rubrics on critical thinking and on creative thinking.  These rubrics are the product of input and samples provided by faculty members from across the country.  They define critical thinking and creative thinking as follows:

Critical thinking: “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion”

Creative thinking: “both the capacity to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images, or expertise in original ways and the experience of thinking, reacting, and working in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of innovation, divergent thinking, and risk taking”

As the AAC&U rubric suggests, critical thinking hinges on actions like suspending judgment, questioning evidence and considering complexities of context; ultimately, its purpose is to stake out a claim or perspective of one’s own.  Although it builds on similar mental activities, creative thinking, on the other hand, involves intellectual risk-taking, imaginative thinking, creative exploration of new solutions to old problems, “embracing contradictions.”

For me, thinking critically and thinking creatively are two sides of the same intellectual coin. When I suspend judgment, actively seek and question new information, and cultivate my own stance on an issue, I am thinking creatively – imagining myself living someone else’s experience, embracing contradictions to arrive at some innovative way of resolving a tension.  Obviously, there also are differences, but thinking critically is an inherently creative act.

In formulating a theme for this year, then, the Reinert Center has chosen to emphasize different approaches to thinking, rather than trying to define two discrete nouns.  This year, we invite all SLU faculty and graduate instructors to articulate what “thinking critically” and “thinking creatively” really look like in their disciplines and in their courses.  Once they name the features of these kinds of thinking, we hope they will also share strategies for teaching these skills.  Whether you are full-time faculty, part-time faculty, or graduate students at SLU, whether you are on the St. Louis or the Madrid campus, we invite you to add your voice to the conversation.  If you want to contribute to the blog series, let us know by completing this short form (LINK).

Ultimately, thinking critically and thinking creatively are essential for the kind of transformative learning we aim for at SLU.  The more entrenched we become in our own ways of thinking about the world, the more we need others to nudge us out of our comfort zones and entice us to explore old ideas in new ways.

As you head into the new academic year, we encourage you to find creative ways to dislodge your students – and maybe even yourself – from the usual ways of looking at a topic.  In doing so, you will promote learning that leads to change, and you might even find a renewed sense of energy and purpose in the classroom.

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