Engaging difference as a critical thinking skill

6 Feb

Stanford is recommending changes to its undergraduate curriculum to prioritize teaching skills such as critical thinking, rather than disciplinary content.

I’ll admit I was underwhelmed by this announcement (published on January 26 of this new year in The Chronicle of Higher Education). Somehow, I expected Stanford to be more cutting edge–and less dull butter knife–in matters of teaching and learning. So I double-checked the date: yup, 2012. The year critical thinking finally made higher ed headlines.


This is, of course (regardless of year or century) great news. Stanford came to its recommendations after visiting Harvard, Princeton and other peer schools: it appears there is consensus among these august institutions that critical thinking is critical content.

I was particularly interested in the “seven skill areas… important for students”:

  • aesthetic and interpretive inquiry
  • social inquiry
  • scientific analysis
  • formal and quantitative reasoning
  • engaging difference
  • moral and ethical reasoning
  • creative expression

While engaging difference is explicitly called out as a skill area, I see core diversity skills and habits of heart and mind all over this list. The other six skill areas rely to some degree on awareness of individual self as well as cultural (disciplinary or regional) norms and biases, epistemology and effective communication with others: all cornerstones of engaging difference. In this way, I consider engaging difference to be both a discrete area, as well as a lens for each of the other areas, helping students to inquire, reason, analyze, express and engage more critically and compassionately.

Like the professors at Stanford, I’m excited to see what curricular rethinking this recommendation inspires, and how these areas can be interwoven, layered and used by students to investigate how they think and what they think about.

* Thanks to my colleague SK for this article.

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