What can bell hooks teach us about critical thinking?

Friday, June 23, 2023

This blog post is first in a short series of posts I wanted to write as I read Teaching Critical Thinking by bell hooks along with Dr. Marie van Staveren. I “met” Dr. van Staveren through the #ChemTwitter community and they have been an inspiration for the thoughtfulness they put in their lab teaching. Like me, I feel they have an interest in bringing some of the lessons from humanities into science teaching. I was very excited to meet with them every other week to talk about this book.

bell hooks is an author and educator well known for her writing about systems of oppression (capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy) and pedagogy. I gravitated towards her when I was engaging critically in my feminism and interested in bringing more intersectionality to my thoughts.

Like hooks does in the opening to Teaching Critical Thinking, I will state my own positionality with this work. I grew up in Tiohtià:ke (Montréal) and absorbed a lot of the idea that we had reached a point past the need for active feminist struggle. I clearly realized this stance was only valid for white women of upper middle class. Even though my grandmother was illiterate and my mother grew up in extreme poverty, my family benefitted from the socialist movements in Québec of the 70s that allowed a lot of upward mobility. I moved to unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) (Vancouver) for graduate school and through my graduate studies journey I also got to learn more about intersectional feminism (credit to Kimberlé Crenshaw who coined the term), decolonial ideas and got more interested in engaging in more equity work.

I first read another of hooks’ books on pedagogy (Teaching to Transgress) and was moved. It helped me put so many words on what I felt through my education journey: I was looking for freedom and knowledge of the universe in my study of chemistry. Through my own family history I knew the key to liberation was through education, my mother was a French teacher in adult education prior to her recent retirement.

I mostly teach organic chemistry laboratories. I think quite a few of my colleagues would resist the idea that we can engage the affective sphere in science, but I think the sense of wonder and curiosity is what attracted most of us to begin. Of course we engage cognition and motor skills when teaching laboratories, but without attunement to the emotional needs of our students, I think the laboratory space can become a space of harsh criticism and judgement. I experience bell hooks as a very open and emotional scholar and I was interested in seeing what I could learn from her thoughts on critical thinking, something I would associate more with the more “gatekeeping” types of scholars.

Early on, bell hooks shares the common idea that children are naturally curious, and that the structure of early education focuses on turning them into conformist members of society and asks them to be compliant instead of complicit with their teachers. In order to be a good critical thinker, one must be “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self-corrective” but I think our current high school teaching environment does not fully prepare students for this expectation.

This is where I first need to change my point of view. I expect student to have these self-directed traits, but do I encourage them to be more independent? Do I provide them with the resources and the environment for them to learn this self-discipline and self-monitored behaviour? How could I incorporate some elements of this “unwritten curriculum” in explicit learning outcomes and activities?

One observation I make when discussing with students, is that some do not think about reviewing their experimental background or lab notebook before writing the report. Of course, they consult their notes to see the data they acquire, but then would miss the observations they wrote in order to discuss the quality of their data. I provide checklists for students for each experiment, and before they go on to write the report I encourage them to review the report formatting guidelines. Would priming them to review the background material and their lab notebook help address this missed step that for me seems “natural”?

When teaching in first or second year of undergraduate degrees, I feel like incorporating more advice of how to better learn would be beneficial to my students. I am thinking about my colleague Julie Goll who incorporates resources about study techniques in her second-year chemistry course (she uses the Six Strategies for Effective Learning from The Learning Scientists), or how Dr. Joe Kim at McMaster focused his intro psychology curriculum (Mac IntroPsych) on teaching evidence-based practices for lifelong learning .

Chemistry often suffers from the reputation of being extremely content-heavy, and much of this is forced upon us by requirements of accreditation bodies on our curriculum. This is where I feel rather lucky to teach laboratories. There is already a limitiation of how much I could possibly be asked to “cram” into five sessions I have with my non-major students. I have focused my new sequence on getting students acquainted with basic techniques first (TLC, distillation, recrystallization and liquid-liquid extraction) before applying each of these techniques in experiments. I removed reports from the first two experiments so students could focus on pre-laboratory preparation before each lab. To encourage more thought, I continued on the ideas introduced by Julie Goll and Dr. Laura Ingram and ask students to design portions of each experiment. I hope the element of choice keeps students engaged and that performing experiments in which they had a role in designing will convince them of their abilities.

Some students’ largest barrier in becoming more independent is fear. They grow up as learners in environments where they are constantly monitored and the realization that no one in university will closely monitor them to provide external validation can be jarring. How can we convince them that this shift is liberating as opposed to terrifying?