Undergraduate criticality

What do we mean by criticality? This is a much used term in Higher Education and it could be argued that it is at the heart of the ‘University Experience’, that is teaching students how to be critically reflective thinkers or developing ‘criticality’. But what does it mean?

It is certainly the case that undergraduates can find the term off putting as it is often associated with a perceived negative behaviour of being critical of someone – something that most of us hate to be on the receiving end of! However, this is not what is meant by criticality. One framework outlined in the table below (Barnet 1997) conceptualises the term criticality and I think that it is worthy of some thought.

The idea of critical thinking can be traced back to Dewey (and possibly beyond), and in simple terms he was talking about being an active rather than a passive learner. That is not simply absorbing information and calling it knowledge, but seeking out meaning through analysis and evaluation of both data and ideas to develop understnding and create knowledge.

Barnet identifies three aspects or domains of criticality, knowledge, self, and world. He also identifies four different levels of criticality from critical skills, to reflexivity, through to refashioning traditions, and at the highest level transformatory critique. So what does this all mean for Undergraduate studies?

Well in making sense of this I am tempted to view it from a perspective of learning. Shallow, deep, and profound learning are terms often used by Professor John West-Burnham in the context of learning and leadership (look at either of thses resources 1 2). Perhaps of most interest is profound learning which for West-Burnham is “rooted in personal change and growth, it is about the development of personal models, or mind maps, which both inform and interpret behaviour.” Is this any different from the highest level of criticality identified by Barnett? I suspect that it isn’t that different and West-Burnham also talks about displaying deep learning in terms of emotional intelligences which is involves taking into account others views and perspectives or what Barnet terms the world domain.

So what about deep learning? For West-Burnham deep learning is the internalising and understanding of public information. This might be achieved through the applying of theories to practice, carrying out literature reviews, discussing ideas with fellow students, etc.

Shallow learning we can forget, as it is “short-term and is unlikely to have a significant impact on behaviour”:^)

So how do we get towards the deeper end of learning or level 1 an 2 of criticality? West-Burnham offers these learning strategies:
1. Systematic and structured reflection.
2. Coaching, mentoring and critical friendship.
3. Focused review and feedback
4. Theory building and testing
5. Team based learning
6.The creation of a learning community

I hope that in Ultraversity, many of these things are taking place and if there are any shortcomings for individuals or the project as a whole, then we need to address them. And I would put forward a combination of the two models using the domains of Barnet with the shallow, deep, and profound of West-Burnham as a practical and useful framework for undergraduate learning.

Ron Barnett, (1997), Higher Education: A Critical Business, Buckingham: SRHE and Open University

of criticality
Transformatory critique
of self
(collective reconstruction of the world)??
Refashioning of traditions
Critical thought (malleable
traditions of thought)??
Development of self
within traditions
Mutual understanding
and development of traditions
Critical thinking (reflection
on one’s understanding)
Self-reflection (reflection
on one’s own projects)
Reflective practice
(‘metacompetence’, ‘adaptability’, ‘flexibility’) ??
Critical Skills
critical thinking skills
Self-monitoring to
given standards and norms
Problem-solving (means
end instrumentalism)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s