Non-critical and critical approaches

Below are three approaches to engaging with material (textbooks, lectures, papers or articles, primary sources…). 

Consideration of the three approaches can be useful to students in showing them that they have choices in the kinds of stance they can take when reading and writing. It is also useful to teachers who are designing a curriculum, developing activities and setting assignments.

Non-critical approach. The reader engages with the material ‘on its own terms’, not commenting, challenging  or drawing comparison with other sources. The emphasis is simply on being able to describe and explain what the material says. The knowledge is not treated as contestable.

Weakly critical approach. Here there is more attention to the soundness of reasoning and the strength of conclusions that are drawn. For example, in reading a research report one might check that the methods were thorough and the results accurately reported, looking out for weaknesses in the account being given and the conclusions drawn. But in a weakly critical reading one probably wouldn’t step back from the reasoning being presented and look at (and name) the assumptions, premises or values on which it is based (usually tacitly). Nor would such a reader tend to declare a position or interest that might affect the way they read and the comments they might wish to make. Weakly critical approaches, then, take place from assumed shared positions within paradigms.

Strongly Critical Approach.  This becomes possible when you move to considering how the material you are engaging with is constructed, on what assumptions, according to whose values and within which historical, intellectual and political frames (paradigms). The material you’re working with then starts to shift from representing simply ‘knowledge’ to having more of the status of ‘knowledge claim’. And knowledge claims are not contestable just on the basis of flawed reasoning but also on the basis of greater contextual and critical awareness of how and why those claims are being made in the first place.  It follows that a strongly critical stance often involves an explicit recognition of one’s own position, values and assumptions; and usually this is not simply a ‘personal’ position but one which is aligned with a collective viewpoint, that is itself open to scrutiny (for example, a realist or  Marxist or neo-liberal position….)

The three approaches are taken from the TALESSI ‘Teaching and Learning at the Environment- Science- Society Interface’ website which is packed with ideas around critical engagement and knowledge claims.

Examples of assignments using the approaches

Non-critical

  • Choose 3 of the following groups of pollutants and describe their characteristics: (list follows)
  • Use examples to demonstrate how the physical and chemical characteristics of materials affect their movement, persistence, distribution and fate in the environment
  • What are the major causes of human morbidity and mortality from air pollution?

Weakly critical

  • Explain and compare the respective advantages and limitations of ‘cost benefit’ and ‘contingent valuation’ approaches to pollution management.
  • Critically examine the failings of risk-assessment and management that led to one environmental disaster with which you are familiar.

These two assignments rest on an uncontested assumption that is something like “negative environmental effects can be controlled by effective management”. The question up for debate appears to be ‘what kinds of management approach are the most effective?’ not whether there is some alternative to a management approach.

Strongly critical

  •  How far can current inter-governmental agreements on global climate change be claimed to have their basis in ‘sound’ science and ‘rational’ cost-benefit analysis?
  • ‘Environmental scientific knowledge claims are not impervious to the social context in which they are advanced’. Discuss this statement with reference to the risks posed by nuclear power.

These examples explicitly point students towards taking a strongly critical approach by naming knowledge as a kind of claim rather than a ‘given’. However teachers (and marking schemes) quite often reward students who take a strongly critical stance to an assignment that is worded as weakly critical.

Further Reading:

Eisenschitz, A. (2000) ‘Innocent concepts? A paradigmatic approach to argument’ in S.Mitchell & R. Andrews (eds) Learning to argue in Higher Education. Portsmouth NH: Boynton/Cook. pp. 15-25.

Aram Eisenschitz writes about a town planning programme on a social science degree, as part of which students undertook placements in planning organisations. He discusses how dominant concepts in the early 1980s such as ‘enterprise’, ‘culture of dependency’ and ‘inner city’ become accepted assumptions underpinning a practice, and how he developed a paradigmatic approach to argument with his students. His aim was for them to exercise critical intelligence and reflexivity in relation to their work experience, making them ‘aware of the wider implications of the ideas that are in daily use and unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom’. He includes several examples of activities the students undertook.

Scholes, R (1985) Textual power: Literary theory and the teaching of English, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Robert Scholes describes three kinds of approach to reading literary texts.  ‘Reading’ constructs ‘texts within texts’ (the reader draws on knowledge of codes and convention to make the text make sense); ‘interpretation’ constructs ‘texts upon texts’ (the reader offers up an explicit coherent ‘literary’ meaning for the text); ‘criticism’ constructs ‘texts against texts’ (ie takes a collective position in relation to the text – ‘some viewpoint beyond the purely personal – and the merely literary’).