Cultivating the Intellect
The Key to Substantive Learning
Critical thinking is not a concept to be devoured in a single sitting nor yet at a single workshop. It is one to be savored and reflected upon.
It is something to live and grow with. It shows us that part of our minds that enables us to think things through, to learn from experience, and to acquire and retain knowledge. It is like a mirror to the mind, enabling us to visit that part of our minds that is home to the instruments that drive our learning. It enables us to visit and revisit our purposes (and how we define them), our questions (and how we have framed them), our information (and where we have gotten it), our concepts (and how we have formed them), our inferences (and where they are taking us), our assumptions (and what they are based on) and our point of view (and how they may blind us). To think but never to think of how we think is a tragic waste of our potential as learners and knowers.
The Intellect is That Part of the Mind With "the Power of Thought"
It is the basis of intelligence and cognitive ability. It contrasts with mental process is guided by irrational feelings rather than by truth-seeking thoughts. Critical thinking is the process that grooms the intellect, develops the intellect, enables the intellect to do what it exists to do---serve the mind to make sense of the world through the construction
of substantive knowledge. Students cannot develop intellectual interests if they have no sense of the nature and significance of their intellect.
Yet most students have never thought about the intellect. Most students (and many teachers) reserve the "intellectual" for the elite student, or they dismiss it as an educational waste of time. In fact, insofar as they even have a concept of the intellect, it is vague and ill-formed---as such it cannot be actively developed.
When we target the intellect as the instrument of learning, students can begin to construct substantive knowledge,
When we use the intellect to acquire substantive knowledge, we acquire effective organizers for the mind. These organizers enable us to weave everything we are learning into a tapestry, a system, an integrated whole.
Substantive knowledge is based on the most fundamental concepts and principles at the heart of the subject or discipline. Through deep understanding of these concepts and principles, we are able to understand everything else in the discipline. We understand everything within the discipline- all ideas, all information, all assumptions, etc. - as linked together in a system of meanings. For example, if you understand deeply what a biological cell is and the essential characteristics of all living systems, you have the substantive knowledge that leads you to ask vital questions about living things. You begin to think biologically. You begin to link ideas together.
When we understand critical thinking, we have tools for understanding content, for thinking through subjects and disciplines as organized systems of meaning, for connecting ideas within a system with every other idea within the system, and with ideas within other systems.
Every field stays alive only to the extent that fundamental knowledge is generated and taken seriously as a driving force in thinking. When a field of study is no longer pursuing significant knowledge, it dies as a field.
The knowledgeable mind, the developed intellect, is essential to formulating, analyzing, assessing, and settling primary questions. The knowledgeable mind develops and uses a range of question frames in seeking knowledge, understanding, and insight.
"Knowledge that" and "knowledge how" are inextricable and interdependent. "Learning" and "learning how to learn" develop best together. We gain knowledge only through the acquisition of indispensable intellectual tools, tools acquired through critical thinking.
We cannot be skilled at thinking unless we are skilled at acquiring knowledge. We cannot be skilled at acquiring knowledge unless we are skilled at thinking.
A similar paradox. We cannot gain knowledge without learning how to use it.
In fact, if we truly know something, we have worked it into our thinking, using our thinking. And we truly "have" it in our thinking only when we use it to think through issues and problems.
If we want students to think critically, we must help them discover their intellect. But they cannot discover it if it remains unnamed. It must be explicitly used, explicitly trained, explicitly grounded and cultivated.
When students use their intellect to respond successfully to new experiences; to read and write closely and substantively; to think biologically, geographically, mathematically, sociologically, and historically; to "open" subjects they study; to see those subject as systems, and take command of them — then and only then are they using their intellect in keeping with its potential as the ultimate driving force of the life of the mind.