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Rethinking thinking

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"They're looking directly at the newspapers and not at a textbook," she says. "They find it difficult, but they end up liking it, and they feel more confident intellectually."

It's all part of asking students to hone their own thinking skills, rather than simply allowing them to absorb and repeat the material they find in their textbooks or absorb from lectures.

Unless the professor creates a situation where students are required to reflect explicitly on an issue, says Professor Kingston-Mann, "they don't necessarily carry it anywhere else; it's just 'something I took in that class.' "

Yet some say efforts like these are still the exception on many campuses - despite a decades-long discussion on the need for critical thought in higher education.

Buzz word of the '80s

At least since the 1970s, some college faculty have been calling for higher education to refocus on the "liberal learning" model espoused by John Dewey.

The philosopher argued that teaching students to be learners was the whole point of education. His belief that good thinkers make good citizens also seemed an apt message for the times.

Indeed, many seemed ready - even eager to inject critical thinking much more deliberately into higher education. Critical thinking became a 1980s buzzword in academe. Sometime in the 1990s, it lost its buzz - not because it was rejected, but because it was adopted wholesale.

Professors today often believe erroneously that they are already teaching critical thinking in their courses and that students are absorbing it.

But that's not necessarily the case, says Richard Paul, president of the Center for Critical Thinking and author of "Critical Thinking: How to Prepare Students for a Rapidly Changing World."

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