The Knowledge Practices of Critical Thinking

Eszter Szenes, Namala Tilakaratna, and Karl Maton


Which knowledge practices demonstrate "critical thinking" in higher education? A rapidly growing literature is addressing what kinds of "thinking" may be considered "critical." However, as yet, there is relatively little analysis of what could be called "actually existing 'critical thinking' in higher education," or the knowledge practices actors consider to be educational evidence of this capacity. The nature of the knowledge in, for example, what students write for tasks aimed at eliciting critical thinking, and what teachers reward in those assessments as evidence of critical thinking, remain underexplored. This chapter briefly illustrates how these knowledge practices can be analyzed in empirical research, drawing on the sociological framework of Legitimation Code Theory (henceforth "LCT").

We begin by arguing the need for the study of the knowledge practices in critical thinking to complement the existing focus of research on exploring cognitive processes of knowing. Second, we introduce LCT as offering conceptual tools capable of capturing the organizing principles of knowledge practices. For brevity, we focus on the concept of semantic gravity, which explores the context-dependence of meaning. Third, we enact this concept in illustrative analyses of two assessments ostensibly aimed at eliciting critical thinking: a high-achieving "critical reflection" essay from social work and a "reflective journal" from business. These texts are analyzed in terms of their principal stages, showing changes in the forms taken by the knowledge practices they express. We show that both examples of achievement in critical thinking are characterized by waves of semantic gravity, or recurrent movements between context-dependent meanings (such as concrete examples) and context-independent meanings (such as generalizations and abstractions), that weave together and transform these different forms of knowledge. We also highlight how this generic attribute is realized differently within the social work and business essays, revealing its subject-specific features. Last, we conclude by briefly discussing how studies using LCT are enabling the understanding of achievement and knowledge-building in ways that can foster students' skills in higher education.

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