Research Notes: If X, Then Y - Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

by Gwynn Powell

It is a crazy business, summer camp. You spend nine months planning for three, while trying to keep other programs running at the same time. You seek to hire the best staff you can find; then after a week or less of orientation, you put them in positions of responsibility asking them to do what no one else can - be a friend, parent, counselor, and guardian all in one!

It is impossible to teach staff everything you want them to know in terms of content, so shifting the emphasis to thinking skills may serve them better. Essentially, you want the staff to know the framework (goals/philosophy, policies, procedures, and participants) and then implement the program within that framework as safely as possible. The primary skill in being able to accomplish that immense responsibility is the ability to make decisions in a wide variety of circumstances. More specifically, the ability to assess a situation critically (using judgement, not negativity), to generate appropriate alternatives, and then to make a decision as a result of critical thinking (Halpern, 1996).

Components of Teaching Critical Thinking

Work in the field of psychology relating to the transfer of critical-thinking skills across contexts offers an examination of the process of critical thinking and the skills needed to accomplish the task. Halpern (1998) outlines a model for teaching critical-thinking skills that is grounded in research and theories of cognitive psychology. The four components are:

  • attitude: a willingness to recognize critical thinking as a skill and use it; it does take effort and is worth the investment of energy
  • instruction and practice: extending the attitude to take time to learn the skills and practice them so that they become familiar and realizing the benefit from the investment
  • structured facilitation of transfer to new contexts: taking the elements of a problem and placing them in a new context to see how the decision is affected
  • meta-cognition: reflecting and thinking about the process

Characteristics and Skills of a Critical Thinker

Halpern continues the model by outlining the dispositions, attitudes, and skills that critical thinkers exhibit, such as

  • willingness to engage in and persist at a complex task
  • habit of using plans and suppressing impulsive behavior
  • flexibility and open-mindedness
  • willingness to abandon nonproductive action plans
  • awareness of the social realities that need to be overcome (consensus or compromise) in order to allow ideas to become actions

By looking for evidence of these characteristics, camp professionals can better support staff by providing positive reinforcement when critical-thinking skills are observed. In addition, by overtly discussing and offering opportunities for practice, you are helping the information and process to be stored in long-term memory, based upon the process cues not the context cues. If memories of actions are stored based upon how and why, as opposed to when and with whom, then you are more likely to recognize the circumstances that call for a similar process.

Teaching Staff to Think Critically

The following activities and ideas are effective for teaching and emphasizing the importance of critical-thinking skills during staff orientation.

"If, then" role-play format
How many times have you been in the situation of watching a staff member role-play a situation in the exact opposite way you had intended? One way to minimize this potential and increase the depth of the learning activity is to apply critical-thinking skills. For example, role-play an incident up until the critical point of decision-making and then freeze the action; at this point, a solution needs to be generated. Lead a discussion around the following issues:

  • What do we know?
  • What are the relevant issues?
  • What else do we need to know?
  • What are possible alternatives (force the group to generate at least three acceptable courses of action)?
  • What are the criteria to evaluate the alternatives?

After the discussion, ask staff members to role-play one of the alternatives. The final piece of the model is to reflect upon the action chosen by discussing the resulting action and/or diagnosing how the situation could have been prevented (an example of learning from hindsight to improve future decisions). The purpose of this change in the type of role-play format is to focus on the process and encourage asking for help instead of solving problems in isolation.

Discuss developmental needs
Take a developmental needs session a step beyond discussing only campers' developmental stages. Include the age group of the counselors to allow for a reflective piece on both the decision-making styles and life stages of young adults. One example, divide the staff into smaller groups (designate an age range of no more than two to three years) and lead them through guided imagery of what it was like to have been that age. Then have them discuss, visually represent, and then present their conclusions about the age group in regard to social, emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual stages. Don't forget the opportunity to include a discussion of the importance of working on critical-thinking skills in the young adulthood stage.

Invite a parent panel to camp
Being able to understand the reasoning behind parents' choice to send their children to camp will assist the staff in understanding the true "bottom line" of safety. Hearing it from parents has greater impact than hearing it from camp administrators and gives the staff another context from which to think about the decisions they will be making. Parents are happy to participate, and staff have an opportunity to ask questions. Two tips in getting started: ask staff members to write down one question the day before the panel and then consolidate question topics to present to the panel and make sure at least one of the panelists is comfortable talking about the main priority of picking up one's child alive and in good condition, both physically and emotionally.

Model decision-making
As changes arise during the orientation period, be overt in discussing how you, as an administrator, make decisions. Let staff members hear you verbalize, "If we do this, then the outcomes might be. . . ." Ask returning staff to lead a discussion on problems that came up last summer and how they could be handled differently. A thirty-minute brainstorming session using a variety of techniques (nominal group, free-writing, piggy-backing) will yield numerous alternatives and allow opportunities to examine the thinking process. One tip: intentionally separate the idea session into two distinct phases, brainstorming followed by a critique of alternatives.

Review your staff manual
Look at your staff manual and critically consider the information contained within it. Consider separating it into phases, for example, philosophy and program (which could be mailed ahead while staff are thirsty for information) and policy and procedure (refer to it daily during orientation so they get in the habit of referring to it routinely).

Use training videos
Both Camp White Cloud Goes to Court and Cypress Cove offer a different perspective and a dose of reality for the role of "in loco parentis" and each staff member's role in the overall risk-management plan. By discussing the case in light of your own policies, you can help staff feel more comfortable with your emergency plans and support and also feel more accountable in helping as part of the risk-management team. White Cloud helps all staff members gain a new perspective, and Cypress Cove is especially designed for supervisory staff.

Opportunities for critical thinking abound in the summer camp environment. Critical thinking may well be the primary skill that staff will have the opportunity to learn. Very few other summer jobs expect and offer the level of responsibility and decision-making as those at camp. By being intentional about discussing, planning, and implementing training that openly discusses and encourages the use of critical-thinking skills, you have an opportunity to empower staff with unique skills. These skills will not only help them do their jobs better but will help them with life decisions and future jobs.

References
Halpern, D.F. (1996). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Halpern, D.F. (1998). Teaching critical thinking for transfer across domains: Dispositions, skills, structure training, and metacognitive monitoring. American Psychologist, 53 (4), 449-455.

Gwynn Powell is an assistant professor at the University of Georgia teaching recreation and camp administration. She has twelve years of professional year-round experience in camping. Please contact Powell through e-mail, gpowell@coe.uga.edu for further information regarding article content or to share research ideas.

Originally published in the 2000 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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