March 2017


Unfortunately, I grew up in a culture that lacks critical thinking inherently. In the past, many sages told people how to adapt to the society which they don’t like and to be “happy” with a miserable living. Even at recent decade, I got to know the world “critical “after entering college. As a freshman, how I wish I can think independently and not take any information as given like a fool! So I asked one of my favorite professor: “professor, how can I be thoughtful and think independently?” She didn’t answer my question directly, but said:” when freedom of speech is protected by the Law, and when people are not afraid to doubt anything because their thoughts and pursue of truth won’t be punished. There are many wise people in the world, but they are afraid to make a different voice.” At that moment, I realized that critical thinking is much more complicated than I thought before. It not only depends on how we train ourselves and the next generation, but also is affected by culture, power, social status, etc.

Let me focus on education in this post. When I read The Banking Concept of Education by Paulo Freire, Freire compares “banking” education with oppressive society. The general idea makes sense to me but I think the problem is over simplified. Based on my understanding, banking education means that the instructors treat students like objectives and fill knowledge into their brains. While Freire’s solution is problem-posing education–through dialogue, teachers and students learn from each other.

However, before using this approach to achieve critical pedagogy, a few prerequisites should be carefully considered. Firstly, I don’t believe that simply change teaching method can achieve critical thinking from my learning experience. For example, if the instructor is not very open-minded, he or she tends to seek the answer closest to the “standard” one in his or her mind through dialogue. If the students realize this, they are likely to guess what the instructor wants to hear instead of thinking independently. Secondly, I think dialogue-based approach may be good for a teacher with rich experience, who is highly respected by students and has good control of the classroom and conversation. While a beginner instructor may need to take this approach with caution. Why it can be a problem? Critical thinking is very appreciated in academia. However, in some cases, people criticize other’s work not for the sake of pursuing truth but to show off themselves. For instance, some reviewers make every effort to criticize their assigned papers without providing any constructive comments. In a seminar, some “critical” participants focus on a few limitations of that study to show how smart they are, and make the presentation hard to continue. The same problem may happen in classroom. Therefore, instructors should be careful to develop a collaborative and respectful environment—a safety zone for critical thinking to grow.

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  • Henry Smart

    I think you made some valid points, especially in the last paragraph. I just returned from a conference and witnessed the same behavior. Instead of the attendees providing the presenter helpful/useful feedback, they provided spiced up comments about what the presenter failed to do. While I think this type of back and forth is important for some scholars, it should be blended with constructive feedback as well.

    Thank you for the post!

  • Brett Netto

    Like Henry, I have also seen cases where “people criticize other’s work not for the sake of pursuing truth but to show off themselves” at conferences, in the classroom, and in other aspects of graduate student life at Virginia Tech. This is all part of what is considered academic bullying.

  • Thanks for this post!

    What you are describing in the last paragraph is, like Brett said, a sort of culture of academic bullying that has become the norm. I appreciate the intersection of critical thinking and critique so long as it is a collaborative means to arrive at a more thoughtful answer.

  • Thanks for this, Rouding! You’ve drawn some important distinctions we all should attend to.

  • Over the past week, I have come to realize that critical thinking skill development is the most important thing that education (especially engineering education) should deliver, and critical thinking includes learning to criticize and ask uncomfortable questions, although not for the sake of the author’s vanity (which I had not considered until you mentioned it!)

    On my weekly trek down I-81 this week, passing through West Virginia, our conversation in the car turned to power distribution lines. Thinking about this in relation to oppresive power relationships, I started to tell my son about the infamous 765kV power line that was constructed through West Virginia to deliver power from the WV coal plants to the northeastern population centers. Googling 765kV, I didn’t find very much about it. Apparently, the social, political, and educational establishments have erased the controversy from society’s collective memory, and West Virginians and the environment came out on the losing end of that power struggle over power, energy, and money.

    I did find a seven-year-old blog post ( which pointed out some non-sequiturs in AEP’s “The Map,” which ostensibly presents a way forward for a wind-powered nation, but features mainly 765kV network from the coal fields and ignores wind resource areas. I thought that this is the kind of map I should present to my own students, and let them tease out the non-sequiturs as an exercise in critical thinking. Wanting to see more of this blog, I found the home page, with the final post, an obituary for the author, Bill Howley, who died in an accident two years ago. Bill was a DC-born, Yale-educated West Virginia farmer and energy activist. My son asked me if Bill’s death was due to foul play. Yes, we are learning to think critically and ask uncomfortable questions today in the car.

  • I’d like to echo everyone else, it is important to make a distinction between thinking critically and being critical. While all things (studies, models, etc.) have their limitations and are all subject to errors, it is important that we (the researcher, presenter, etc.) acknowledge these limitations up front and openly and take the power away from Reviewer 2 on their soapbox 😀
    Great post, thanks for sharing.

  • galen

    I agree with some of your points. The worst feedback is the kind that gives you no direction.

  • ezgiseref

    I think you have a good point in critiquing the duality between the banking pedagogy and the problem-posing approach. Without any doubt, we need to think about what we miss to conceive when we reduce complex processes such as teaching and learning to models. Nevertheless, the gap between the educator and the student, the precedent and the successor, an experienced and a fresh mind, and memories of past and aspirations for future requires us to come up with strategies to fill this gap.

    My learning experience was closer to the banking pedagogy. Before I was introduced to the concept of critical thinking, all I knew was trying to improve my memory. I was aware that what I knew and how I expressed it had a value in my social and cultural exchanges. I think it is valid for all cultures and societies; however, it is shaped in different ways in accordance with the historical development of social organization within a particular society.

    I observe that the form of banking pedagogy is embedded in our pragmatic and economical thinking, which aims at accumulating our knowledge capital to exchange it when necessary. It ensures to reproduce and reinforce cultural values as it is narrated by the constituting ideology. Freire urges us to challenge this structure and rehumanize this process.

    Although I am critical of the discourse on humanity and tolerance, I think he addresses an essential dynamic which is critical for all relationships and all forms of social organization. The teaching process should have a horizontal structure, where the teacher and student will shape the process together, rather than a vertical one, in which the exchange value is set by the those, who have a hierarchically superior position. – Ezgi

  • Thank You for share great article…keep it up.

  • Really cool! Thank you for such a good blog!