Grand Challenge for SoTL #1
SoTL practitioners study postsecondary teaching and learning to better understand and improve how to develop critical and creative thinkers. Critical and creative thinkers recognize and use reliable, relevant information and synthesize ideas in new ways to better understand and imagine ways to address complex phenomena and problems.
What is it?
“Critical thinking” and “creative thinking” are broad terms for complex concepts that resist simple definitions. They are generally understood as distinct and complementary ways of thinking. Most explanations of critical thinking point to the ability to discern before making a decision or the process of sorting, evaluating, and sharpening one’s thinking. A few examples are below:
- “reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe and do” (Ennis 2011, 10)
- “learning to recognise or develop an argument, use evidence in support of that argument, draw reasoned conclusions, and use information to solve problems” (ACARA)
- “a habit of mind characterized by the comprehensive exploration of issues, ideas, artifacts, and events before accepting or formulating an opinion or conclusion” (AAC&U)
Creative thinking, on the other hand, is typically described as the ability to generate new ideas or the process of unleashing, experimenting, and expanding one’s thinking. A few examples are below:
- “the development of ideas that are novel and appropriate” (Catarino et al., 2019, 7)
- “learning to generate and apply new ideas in specific contexts, seeing existing situations in a new way, identifying alternative explanations, and seeing or making new links that generate a positive outcome” (ACARA)
- “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” (AAC&U)
People who think both critically and creatively are able to both narrow and enlarge their thinking, or to make careful, informed decisions and produce new understandings. More importantly, they have integrated what began as practiced skills into habits of mind that guide them throughout their lives.
Why and how is this Grand Challenge important?
Critical and creative thinking are essential for responding to the complexities of the 21st century. The circumstances of this century are often described as “wicked problems” because they have multiple causes, are interconnected with other complex issues, are often understood incompletely, and thus defy clear solutions (Rittel and Webber 1973). Indeed, Randall Bass has even encouraged SoTL practitioners to recognize learning in the 21st century as a “complex, wicked problem” (2020, 5). The internet’s explosion of readily available information and the accompanying pervasiveness of misinformation are just two characteristics of this era that factor into complexity of learning and, more specifically, the importance of critical and creative thinking.
Critical and creative thinking are grand challenges for several reasons. The first is definitional. Despite decades-long recognition of the importance of developing critical and creative thinking, educators have struggled to agree on clear, consistent definitions (Heft and Scharff 2017; Blakey, Golding, and Wilkinson 2022). This lack of consensus around their basic meaning creates challenges for identifying effective teaching practices and for developing a body of research focused on these essential skills.
Next, critical and creative thinking are too often discussed separately and even hierarchically, rather than as complementary and equally essential skills. Critical thinking is often framed as the rational or logical approach of intellectual people, whereas creative thinking is seen as beneficial but simply the work of artists, writers, and composers.
Critical and creative thinking are also grand challenges because they are so difficult to teach. Logistically, they can’t be taught in a single class period, or perhaps even in a single course. They require ongoing practice and feedback, learning by doing, research, reflection, and the creation of learning environments that foster risk-taking. These approaches require time and resources, all of which are hard to implement through conventional pedagogies. Many postsecondary learning environments are based on models of instruction that envision teaching as transmitting information from teacher to student, prioritize content coverage, assess learning with just a few summative or high-stakes exams, and enroll high numbers of students. In these contexts, the time-intensive activities that foster critical and creative thinking are seen as inefficient.
What’s needed to address this Grand Challenge?
In light of these challenges, we need to be bold. If critical and creative thinking are 21st-century skills that take time to learn, and time-consuming learning activities are considered “inefficient” in the current model of higher education, we need to change that model. The deep teaching and learning necessary for practicing and internalizing these skills should be priorities. They should be broadly implemented and then given greater protection and support in educational contexts with limited resources and support. Course design approaches guided by essential ways of thinking or habits of mind should replace approaches that prioritize covering large amounts of content. Critical and creative thinking need to be understood as teachable, made up of component skills or moves that students can practice and apply through various pedagogies. They also need to be integrated into all levels of learning across the curriculum, rather than relegated to upper-level courses and divided with critical thinking appropriate to some disciplines and creative thinking to others. Finally, postsecondary educators need ongoing professional development in these course design principles, pedagogies that support and scaffold critical and creative thinking, and the cross-disciplinary relevance of these habits of mind. In contexts with limited resources, these needs may seem out of reach.
How might SoTL practitioners study this Grand Challenge?
Scharff, Lauren, Holly Capocchiano, Nancy Chick, Michelle Eady, Jen Friberg, Diana Gregory, Kara Loy, and Trent Maurer. “Grand Challenges for SoTL #1.” International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, November 2023. https://issotl.com/grand-challenges-for-sotl/gc-sotl-1/