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Wrestling with Criticality


Kashmir Kaur is a lecturer in English for Academic Purposes within the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies. Building on a PRiA (Pedagogic Research in the Arts) funded project exploring criticality in academic writing Kashmir used LITE's Supporting PedR Fund to deliver a Criticality Symposium. Here, she reflects on some of the findings and observations along the way. 

Criticality? What does ‘criticality’ in higher education conjure? How is it defined and taught? How do students learn ‘criticality’? What is their understanding of it? Why is it they have difficulty expressing ‘criticality’ in their studies? 

These are the questions that I’ve been wrestling with in my teaching and have kindled my interest into looking into this concept further. 

Although criticality is conspicuous in educational debate, experience shows that within education discourse it is more often than not viewed in a fairly narrow way in higher education. It’s often synonymous with critical thinking. Yet, criticality is so much more. 

Criticality is a complex, opaque concept as there are various understandings and interpretations. Different audiences such as epistemic communities and disciplines have their own forms of criticality. For example, a historian’s way of viewing criticality will be different from a biologist’s and even in the same school differences may occur. 

My take on teaching criticality has been to embed it in each lesson by teaching it implicitly through the Socratic way of questioning students and not accepting their short initial responses. I press them to provide a deeper response by requiring them to develop their reply by continuously asking questions such as why, how, justify and what about the other perspectives. Initially, this approach confused the individual but simultaneously engaged the class. When the student was unable to respond, another would chip in to expand and this usually resulted in further students taking part.

This outcome suggests students were demonstrating ‘criticality’. However, students need to engage with all aspects of criticality and demonstrate it in their writing too. So, it begs the question what is ‘criticality’? 

Conversations with colleagues have resulted in interesting and differing understandings from questioning information to “sharp thinking” linked to generating SMART aims and objectives, and finding a gap in existing literature with emphasis on how sources are utilised. They also revealed that the general understanding and interpretation of criticality appeared to be solely aligned to critical thinking, although no precise definition was forthcoming. 

Criticality comprises critical thinking, analytical reasoning, critical self-reflection and critical action and is connected to the domains of knowledge, self and world. So it is not just critical thinking but a way of being, acting and engaging. 

Higher education is not just a space for students to inhabit a different universe but also a space to be transformed as individuals. It then follows that the classroom or a lecture or a seminar are not neutral spaces but places for transformative learning where students are emancipated and not constrained. 

It’s curious that criticality is not interrogated in the classroom more as it is a primary requirement for success in academic disciplines. It is a quality that is a key competence in the world of work. Moreover, it’s one of the main challenges students from diverse educational, cultural and linguistic backgrounds and traditions experience during their studies. Research has shown that international students’ approach to and understanding of criticality can adversely impact their academic performance. So, are students being serviced adequately in developing their criticality skills? 

Critical thought in economic, political, social and cultural arenas is radical and emancipatory and there needs to be space and opportunities in higher education for disposition for criticality to develop. 

In today’s polarised world of misinformation and mistrust, it is more necessary than ever before for students to have the skills to navigate through the tsunami of information which they are deluged with, and challenge ‘fake’ news and ‘post truth’ dogma. They need these skills to view the world beyond their immediate lens of their ‘bubble’ to be conversant and engage with the opposing views in order to make the world an equitable place for all. 

So, higher education needs to do more than just tick the ‘critical thinking’ box. It needs to interrogate and review how criticality is taught and simultaneously draw attention to other aspects of criticality where graduates are emancipated to critique in a wider context. Criticality in higher education needs to be more than a benign form of critical thinking. It needs to enable critical individuals engage with the world, themselves and knowledge.

To view a bibliography and to see the presentations from the symposium visit Kashmir's Criticality page on the LITE Sharepoint site.