How to teach critical thinking

Chintan Girish Modi

It might seem difficult to centre broader questions regarding the politics of pedagogy when discussions around how to teach get narrowed down to how one might use Zoom during a pandemic. The daily grind of teaching online, coupled with the blurring of boundaries between home and workplace, leave little time to sit back and think about the big picture. However, teachers are jumping through hoops to make sure that they reach as many students as possible, if not all, while battling administrative apathy at the institutions they work for.

My heart goes out to them, and I want to help. Since I am not a full-time teacher and writing is my main source of livelihood, I do have the luxury to immerse myself in reading. This privilege is not available to all educators. I hope to use it in ways that might support teachers who show up each day to teach with lesson plans that make little sense when the emotional toll of lockdown outweighs everything else. It is time to strip away all that is inessential and get to the heart of what it means to teach in ways that demonstrate care, respect and love for one’s students.

My go-to for all knotty concerns involving education is bell hooks, the Black feminist intellectual who writes her name in lowercase to make people focus on her ideas rather than her persona. Though her critique of “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” might seem forbidding at first to readers unaccustomed to theory, it is helpful to know that all her scholarship is grounded in classroom practice and informed by emotional intelligence. Her primary audience is not university professors. She writes in a voice that would resonate with many school teachers.

Though I have never met bell hooks, my life has been deeply enriched by her writing. She holds up a mirror when I want to look away, gets me to examine my choices, and shows me how to live with integrity. I began with Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994) and subsequently read Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (2003), The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love (2004), and All About Love: New Visions (2000). Over the last few months, I have been engrossed in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (2010).

What does it mean to teach ‘critical thinking’? How does it benefit students? Why must teachers make it an integral part of their pedagogy and assessment? These questions are vital to think about because the National Education Policy (2020), published by the Government of India, makes multiple references to ‘critical thinking’ without providing any blueprint for the same. Since policy documents are often cut off from the lived realities that shape diverse teaching-learning contexts, it becomes the teacher’s job to figure things out.

“There is a useful distinction to be made between critique that seeks to expand consciousness and harsh criticism that attacks or trashes,” writes bell hooks in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom (2010), a volume of 32 essays that deserves to be celebrated for its continuing relevance in a year that marks the 10th anniversary of its publication. I pick out this quote in particular because several teachers are afraid to let students say what is on their mind. Open dialogue encourages dissent and that is uncomfortable for adults who prefer compliance.

According to bell hooks, it is important that “we do not allow false notions of safety to interfere with creating a classroom community wherein students can learn how to engage in constructive dialogue, including discussion where there is intense disagreement.” She believes that it is often professors and not students “who want to maintain the ‘safe’ classroom” because demanding “an atmosphere of seamless harmony” is much easier than teaching them “how to engage in meaningful critical dialogue.”

Does this hold true for your Zoom classroom? Who gets to speak? If students hold a ‘reputation’, do you tend to avoid giving them opportunities? How do you conduct yourself when students reject your interpretation of a particular text? Can they voice their opinions freely, knowing that their grades will not get affected if they do not fall in line? Do you tend to play favourites? Critical thinking ought to include self-examination; without that, it can become an excuse to merely find fault with others and believe oneself to be impeccable.

Looking back at her own experiences as a student, bell hooks shares that she is hugely disappointed in teachers who crush their students’ spirits by dehumanizing them in the classroom. She thinks that it is impossible for education to take place “within a context where a discipline-and-punish model frames social relations.” Respect and deference are not the same. Students may bow down to a teacher’s authoritarian presence but that is mainly because “hierarchical power dynamics make domination of the weak by the strong acceptable.”

Can students test out their ideas in your classroom, or is there a pressure to supply the right answer? Are you known to appreciate, or at least acknowledge, perspectives that might be unusual or controversial? Can they ‘succeed’ in your classroom if they are honest about their feelings? If students contribute to a classroom debate based on life experiences that come from a space of marginalization related to religion, class, gender, caste, disability, or sexual orientation, do they receive unconditional listening? Do you have their back if other students mock them?

A big advocate of education as the practice of freedom, bell hooks does not endorse censorship of student voices in the classroom. She teaches them to take responsibility for what they say, consider how they contribute to the classroom community, and “evaluate their own progress” so learning takes precedence over people-pleasing. She notes the role of building self-esteem by making students aware of their potential but also cautions against indiscriminate praise since that might hurt them in the long run.

The author clarifies that creating a safe space does not mean sanitizing it to such an extent that students are always walking on eggshells, fearful of offending and being called out. They are bound to encounter many situations in the classroom and outside, wherein “they may or may not feel in control, feel good, or feel that the mood will always be harmonious.” How should they take care of themselves? According to bell hooks, safety lies in “learning to cope with conflict” and in “radical openness,” not in eliminating “differences of thought and opinion.”

The author is a writer, educator and researcher based in Mumbai. He enjoys working on projects related to peace education and queer rights. He can be reached at

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