That’s a good question

Sometimes in a seminar, lecture or discussion, if we don’t know the topic we feel like we can’t really participate or engage. We might know nothing about postmodern accounts of learning, for example, or the learning styles of accounting students, so we feel like we can’t say anything useful, nor ask any questions. However, there are many ways to engage intelligently with a topic, even if it is unfamiliar. There are techniques for asking intelligent questions that do not require a deep understanding of the topic.

Some questions are about substantive aspects of a topic and can only be asked if you have some understanding of the topic. For example, how is Lyotard’s perspective related to Smetsky’s account of learning without a learner? But other questions simply ask for further thinking about a topic, whatever the substantive topic might be:

  1. What do you mean by x?
  2. Can you give me an example of x?
  3. Can you say more about x?
  4. Why do you think x?
  5. What would be your recommendations about x?

I sometimes call these thought-encouraging questions because they encourage further thinking about any topic: You simply replace the x with something that has been said. For similar reasons they are also called Socratic questions or critical thinking questions.

Thought-encouraging questions are useful for critical analysis or exploration of any topic. In fact, these are the questions I ask myself to assist me to dig deeper into a topic I don’t fully understand – they force me to reflect and clarify my ideas.

Asking a good thought-encouraging questions is simply an expression of puzzlement about what someone is saying; you ask the question that flows from your puzzlement:

  1. If I wonder about what they mean, then I might ask: “what do you mean by x?” OR “can you give an example of x?”
  2. If I’m puzzled by why they think this is true, or I wonder what their justification is then I might ask: “why do you think x?” OR “what evidence is there to support x?

Questions like these are useful tools for engaging in any seminar, lecture or discussion. However, you might also be reluctant to ask questions if you are concerned that only stupid or ignorant people ask questions. However, this is not only a limiting concern, but it is inaccurate. Only the intellectually sharp can ask probing question, and asking these questions is the sign of reflective engagement, not stupidity. I frequently ask these questions, especially when I don’t know much about the topic under discussion. I listen carefully to the speaker, and if I wonder what they meant, or how their idea would translate into practice, or what their reasons are, my first reaction is simply to ask them to explain further, and I express this as a thought-encouraging question. I think that they have not explained themselves, not that I must be stupid if I don’t know.

Posted in Higher education, Reflection and improvement

Building a shared conception of critical thinking

If every teacher and every paper in a multi-disciplinary course uses their own conception of critical thinking, students end up more confused than critical. So how do you build a shared understanding of critical thinking in a multi-disciplinary course?

Go concrete: Find agreement about what a critical thinker does. For example, they give reasons and explanations, they uncover and question assumptions, etc. It will be virtually impossible to get agreement if your discussion remains solely in the abstract realm of terms like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘reflection’. Instead look at what thinkers do – their thinking moves or thinking behaviours.

Agree on a developmental core: Find agreement about the developmental core for students learning to be critical thinkers, rather than trying to find agreement about the final, expert version of critical thinking. The critical thinking of a scientist is different from the critical thinking of a health professional. But the path to learn these expert kinds of critical thinking is similar, and there are developmental stages that all students need to go through. Find agreement on the critical thinking needed for a first year student, which will be the basis for eventually learning to be a doctor or an anatomist, or a physicist, etc.

A doctor has to judge likely diagnoses based on what they observe, and what they know about potential conditions. A scientist has to evaluate the evidence from multiple studies in order to make an informed conclusion. However, at the start of the developmental process, a six year old critical thinker merely has to learn to use the word ‘because’ appropriately in a sentence. A first year student at University is at a developmental stage between these two extremes. What is the developmental core of critical thinking that builds on using ‘because’, and which can equally lead to thinking like a doctor or thinking like a scientist?

For example, perhaps first year critical thinkers need to explain, justify and apply. Firstly they have to explain and justify their answers (rather than merely repeating the answer they memorised), and secondly, they need to apply what they learn in lectures so they can solve problems. If they learn these two aspects of critical thinking in their first year, they have the foundations for later learning the more specialised versions of critical thinking.

Stick to a small developmental core: If you stick to what critical thinkers do, and the developmental core of critical thinking, you are likely to find agreement about critical thinking even in a multi-disciplinary course. However, don’t try to include all aspects of expert critical thinking, but only the developmental core.

Having a few core thinking moves or thinking behaviours like justifying or applying is more useful than trying to include everything. Learning to be a critical thinker is like learning to be a great pianist. They both require lots and lots of practise doing ‘scales’ where students are asked, again and again and again, to explain, justify and apply. For example, for every answer you give, you might ask them “why is that the correct answer?” By regularly and frequently engaging in this thinking, students internalise it until it becomes second nature to them and they are critical thinkers. They will learn more by repeating this simply prompt than they will by frequently adding in new prompts and new aspects of thinking.

Assess critical thinking moves and behaviours: You can assess their thinking based on whether they do the core thinking. Do they give reasons or not? Do they apply their knowledge to solve novel problems?

Design assessment tasks that cannot be completed except by using the critical thinking moves. Students should be unable to give an answer by remembering the lecture or the text-book, or by googling. Tasks that involve evaluating and applying are useful for this purpose.

When you assess make sure you distinguish between assessing whether they have said the right thing (you agree with them) and whether they have done the thinking (they have given reasons to justify their answer). Just like assessing mathematics, you need to assess whether they have the right answer independently of whether they have demonstrated their working or their thinking. For example, they might have the right answer but have not given any reasons or explanations to back this up. Alternatively they could have the wrong answer but demonstrated excellent explanation and justification based on a false premise. The second example shows good critical thinking, but the first one does not, yet we are likely to only reward the first answer. When assessing critical thinking we have to put aside whether we agree or disagree with their answer and instead look for the thinking. For example, if they give us the wrong answer, we ask them “Why do you think that is correct?” and if they give us the right answer, we ask them “Why do you think that is correct?”

Posted in Planning teaching

Higher Education research and development … as a movie

I work in Higher Education as a researcher and academic developer, and I also love movies. So, obviously, I began to wonder what kind of movie best represents my work. I originally wrote this for HERDSA News to share my reflections with my colleagues in the same field.

What kind of movie encompasses our various activities: offering workshops for staff and students, teaching on a diploma in HE, developing institutional policies, researching, writing resources, and offering advice on academic practice? Here are some of my thoughts.

Are we in a mystery movie, perhaps? At least part of what we do is identify and solve the puzzles of scholarship and practice – how do you foster engagement in first year students? How can formative assessment best support learning? But higher education research and development is not a Psycho type thriller. Perhaps it’s more like the early Harry Potter movies before they got too sinister (though in our more paranoid moments we may suspect dark, market forces working in the background).

Are we the laconic gunslinger, like Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of dollars? Or, because our work is very much a team effort, perhaps higher education research and development is more like The Magnificent Seven? Exciting, yes, but I think this is a damaging metaphor to adopt (and probably sexist). This makes us the good guys, but others have to be the bad guys. This metaphor would mean our colleagues are either villains to defeat or victims to protect, and neither of these are healthy relationships.

For the same reason we are not in a crime movie like The Untouchables. The lecturer that fails to engage their students is not Al Capone. We are not the higher education police. Nor are we in an adventure movie with some black and white story of good vs. evil. We are not Superman and this is not Star Wars. I don’t see us as cleaning up a corrupt town, policing crime, or fighting evil. In fact I don’t see anything wrong in higher education. There are things that can be improved, of course, but this doesn’t mean that we should see them as bad, evil and wrong. Our colleagues, our institutions, and their leaders are not the enemy, not criminals, and not evil.

Even if we’re not in a Western, it might still be important to see ourselves as higher education action heroes. This would certainly make our work meaningful and help us to keep going in the face of the inevitable slog, resistance, and the looong time it takes to make substantial changes. Yet I can’t see myself as Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider or Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, though perhaps I can identify with the hero in a teaching movie. Like Sidney Poitier in To Sir with Love, Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, or Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, we make an inspiring difference (without demonising anyone).

What about a sports movie? Our work in higher education could be nicely framed as the struggle to transform a disorganised team into a winning team, like the Bad News Bears (OK, they didn’t actually win at the end, but they did improve beyond all expectations, and that might be enough). Perhaps we are like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid, providing training and development for our colleagues, students and institutions? (Though I am dubious about portraying us as the master to our colleagues). The dull drudgery of some of our work—marking, transcribing, addressing the same issue again and again—could be nicely captured in a sports movie. Ideally it would all be portrayed in a montage of shots set to stirring music like Rocky training for his big boxing match (and hopefully unlike the soldiers slogging forward, constantly under fire in Saving Private Ryan where almost everyone is killed).

Higher education research and development might sometimes feel like a serious life work, but maybe we would be better to treat it more like a comedy (Back to the Future perhaps), or better still a musical like Singing in the Rain – There are problems to overcome, but let’s sing and dance while we deal with them.

Posted in Higher education

Thirsty learners


Cooper drinking from his cat fountain

They say you can lead your students to knowledge but you can’t make them drink. True, but misleading. You can also make your students want to drink by offering them a tantalising and intriguing fountain, and by giving them salty problems that make them thirsty for the knowledge needed to solve them.


Posted in Learning, Planning teaching, Students

Reinvigorating reading


I recently discovered that reading a good book about teaching revitalised me when I was tired. So now, rather than shelving my reading because I have other work to do, I sometimes pick up a book so I can build the energy to do my other work. As Schwartz (2007) suggests, I am better off managing my energy, not managing my time.

Tony Schwartz (2007) Manage your energy not your time. Harvard Business Review, 85 (10), 63-73.

Posted in Book review, Higher education

Disobedient Teaching

disobedient teaching

Welby Ings (2017) Disobedient Teaching, Otago: University of Otago Press.


Welby Ings doesn’t tell you how to be a teacher, he shows you who you can be.

Disobedient Teaching was profound not because of what Ings was saying but how he was saying it. He pointed out many examples of wonderful teaching or leading educational change, often involving persisting for what was right despite resistance, anger and even threats. But more importantly, the examples were inspiring. In one example Welby describes how he helped hide Pacific Island students under a classroom so immigration officials would not deport them under the draconian New Zealand laws of the time. In another example he describes how he enabled his students to deeply understand prejudice by asking them to walk through town, each student on their own, dressed as ‘losers’. This was a risky but well-planned and weighty learning experience for the students.

I can’t do justice to what he shows the reader. You have to read and feel for yourself.

Posted in Book review, Learning to teach

Big picture or detail? Where to start course planning?

Blooms taxonomy

Sometimes we organise our courses according to a hierarchy of learning outcomes, such as Blooms Taxonomy of Learning Objectives. We use the hierarchy to identify the level of outcome we want from our students: Do we want them to merely comprehend what we teach, or do we want them to apply this knowledge to solve problems, or even to create new ideas and solutions?

These hierarchies imply that the higher outcomes are dependent on the lower outcomes. For example, students can only apply their knowledge, critically analyse, evaluate and create once they have they know, remember and comprehend the basic knowledge of the field. This is often thought to also imply that you should first teach students the knowledge they need, and then later you can ask them to analyse this knowledge or create with it. The assumption is that students need the basic knowledge before they evaluate it or apply it. While this second implication is true, it is also fundamentally mistaken and leads to poor course design. In fact, we should start our courses at the higher level before going back down to the bottom.

Start at the top so that learning is meaningful for students

If students first learn isolated bits of knowledge, what they have learned is inert. It is stored as meaningless fragments that are effectively useless. For the knowledge to be useable it has to be stored in meaningful chunks. Once students have learned isolated bits of knowledge, they find it difficult, if not impossible, to arrange these into meaningful categories. Learning is more effective if students first understand the meaningful categories and then, as they learn new bits of information, they organise what they learn according to these categories. For example, you don’t learn a lot of facts about what people do in different countries and then create a concept of culture. You learn what culture is, and then each isolated fact you subsequently learn makes sense as an illustration of differences in culture. In a second example, you don’t ask students to memorise all the parts of a cell and then expect students to put them together to understand cell function. You start by enabling students to understand the function of a cell within a body, and then they learn how all the parts fit together. In both of these examples, it is best to start with a broad synthesis or analysis of fundamental concepts and principles, and then go to the detailed knowledge that will fit within this meaningful big picture.

Start at the top to engage your students and motivate their learning

Starting at the bottom of the hierarchy also gives no motivation for students to learn. Why would they care to remember a whole lot of meaningless facts? Instead, you motivate learning by starting at the top, where you can engage students and inspire them to inquire. For example, if you start by showing students a big, interesting problem, case or question that needs some complex analysis and evaluation to solve, and you show them why this problem is important so they want to solve it, then they will then be motivated to learn all the little bits of knowledge they will need for a solution. Even though the students cannot solve this problem at the start of the course, the problem provides a meaningful context for their learning, so when you teach them the detail it is no longer unrelated info to try to remember, but meaningful data because of its usefulness in solving the problem. They understand the facts because they see it within the big picture of solving the problem they are engaged with.

Posted in Planning teaching