Growing up here in the Naked North, we were free range kids. In winter, we played hockey, in summer we paddled canoes (clichéd, yes, but we did). We got pretty good at them too, as if they were just a natural part of being. When I went away to university, of course, I met kids who had never done these things. What I really noticed, was how hard it was for them to learn, and more to the point, how hard it was for me to teach them.
How do you skate? I honestly have no idea, I just do it. I can cobble together some awkward description like “well, you sort of hold one foot at an angle, and push it out the side...” But when my listener does what I’ve described, the result is an ungainly wobble. Dozens of other little motions must be subtly performed by minor muscles that balance the leg, angle the blade, and direct the force. Only then does that wobble becomes a graceful glide. The motions are subconscious. My leg just does them.
Or rather did. I haven’t skated in years, but I’m pretty sure I could lace up the skates tomorrow, and the rust would fall away in a few laps of the rink. In five minutes I would be out-maneuvering the midlife newcomer who’s been taking lessons for a month. Of course the shoe (skate?) is on the other foot for some things I never learned as a kid. It seems like some things are just easier to learn when you are young.
I’ve started to wonder if some of the things we are supposed to teach students in college aren’t like this. We often hear talk that university is the place one ‘goes to learn critical thinking’, as if it doesn't happen beforehand. Is critical thinking something one can 'take up' as an adult? It sometimes seems as if what I do when I read a paper involves dozens of little mental connections that aren’t adequately described when I tell a students to "ask yourself whether the authors has given good evidence to support their conclusion." I'm not sure when I 'learned' it. Like skating, it always just seemed natural. Some students arrive with a modest, or even quite developed ability to do this. In practicing with these students on more advanced material, they develop better, more rigorous analytical skills. But those for whom this is a new activity seem to flounder, and I'm not really sure how to show them.
Q: Is critical or analytical thinking a skill that can be introduced in college?
Can we teach the absolute beginners while still offering a university level course?
Brief update: I don't mean to suggest that anyone 'just naturally' knows how to think critically. I certainly had to learn (in part from parents who called me on my BS, and in part from being free range kids which let me practice exploring the world), just like I had to learn to skate. But I wonder whether these things are easier to learn while you are still a kid. College seems like a great place to hone/refine/extend critical thinking, but I'm not sure it's the best place to introduce critical thinking. Yet that sometimes seems to me to be implied in statements that College teaches critical thinking