Political Science programs see part of their objective as nurturing critical thinking among their undergraduates. However, it is not clear what critical thinking means in the context of our courses. What is being defined as critical thinking? How do we teach critical thinking in our classrooms? Do students understand what is critical thinking? How do we know when students have acquired critical thinking?
As an Assistant Professor of Political Science, I am interested in finding out how students think critically when learning about political systems. Having taught Comparative Politics courses in the past, I have found that many students seem resistant to understanding variations in political systems. Most U.S. students come into these courses with preconceived notions that the U.S. system is a superior democratic system in the world, although they have difficulties articulating exactly why and using which criteria. Focusing on a course entitled Politics of Europe, the purpose of this project was to investigate what the students think as they entered the course. More specifically, I was interested in finding out how students think critically when learning about foreign political systems?
- How do students think critically when learning about political systems?
- How does the students’ thinking about political systems change throughout the course? And what prompts this change?
- When do I know when students have acquired critical thinking?
- Do students believe critical thinking is important when analyzing politics/political systems?
- How do they define critical thinking?
- What are the most difficult aspects for students to learn about foreign (or domestic) political systems?
There is extensive research on critical thinking in political science education, although less scholarship addresses critical thinking in Comparative Politics courses. While not explicitly about aspects of critical thinking, a few studies emphasize the importance of ensuring that students’ knowledge about the U.S. political system does not develop in a vacuum, i.e., their knowledge of democracy, political socialization, party systems, etc., is contrasted and compared with that of other democracies (see e.g., Cassell, 2007; Ward, 2007). Several studies relate to this project as they investigate critical thinking in a variety of political science courses (Marks, 2008; Oros, 2007; Olsen & Statham, 2005). Marks’s (2008) article centers on how to move away from a "politicized classroom" in which discussions rely on appeals to students’ personal political beliefs to scholarly debates of analytical and empirical themes. The author suggests several useful strategies for incorporating critical thinking skills into political science courses, for example, by using historical case studies and simulation exercises. Oros (2007) examines how teaching structured classroom debates (SCD) can help students develop their critical thinking skills, and emphasizes the value of SCD in building these skills in political science courses. Olsen and Statham (2005) address how critical thinking can be defined, cultivated, and evaluated in introductory Comparative Politics courses. Their study has been most useful in helping me conceptualize and define critical thinking in the context of my own course.