Whatever the zeitgeist is at the moment, whether it is characterized by an over-saturation of critical thinking or a complete lack of critical thinking, critical thinking is nonetheless something that has to be covered as a part of the intended learning outcomes. Why? Because teaching in higher education means training new researchers, and research cannot be performed satisfactorily without skepticism.

What is critical thinking? Critical thinking is questioning assumptions, preconceptions, all that which is taken for granted, and all that which is seen as natural. This cheat sheet covers most of the questions that one might possibly ask when presented with a supposed fact, claim, or mere statement. A student does not need to ask all of those questions all the time, in order to be critically thinking, but they can serve as a good guide for when a student mistakenly thinks that there is nothing more to question. And it could be a good aim for the teacher as well, to try to have the students aim to instinctively ask one of these questions also after their education has ended. The cheat sheet can be a good hand-out during class, or any time depending on the progress of the students.

How does one teach critical thinking? There are many ways. One that can be very useful, depending on what other Intended Learning Outcomes might be involved, is Interactive Role Playing. This resource can help one design a session of Interactive Role Playing. One does not need to follow that to the dot. The important part is to give the students a chance to play the Devil’s Advocate because the aim of the role-playing activity is to foster one’s capacity for empathy. It is through empathy that one questions one’s assumptions and preconceptions. 

An example session of interactive role-playing could be that students are divided into various stakeholders that anthropologists might encounter at some point during their empirical data gathering. For example, one group can be Government, one group can be Corporation, one group can be NGO, and one group can be an Indigenous Population. Such a particular set-up usually ends up answering the question “why is no one helping the indigenous population?” That would be a suitable set of roles for a class on Human Rights. One should adapt the roles to suit the class in question. A class on Gender could have a group of students play Men’s Rights Activists, another group play Feminist Student Union, and another group play Democratic Law Enforcement. The more provocative and controversial the roles are, depending on the zeitgeist, the more effective the Interactive Role Playing will be in fostering empathy and per extension critical thinking.

Depending on the subject matter, it might be pertinent to intermittently remind the students of the difference between empathy and sympathy. You can also find a more extensive comparison of the terms here

In general, ‘sympathy’ is when you share the feelings of another; ’empathy’ is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them.

That reminder should help them let go of any aversions they might harbor towards playing the role of someone they have personal animosity towards. That is important for all students of all disciplines, but perhaps more so for anthropologists. Anthropologists need to be able to research phenomena regarding people or events that one might personally have issues with. The distinction between empathy and sympathy, then, should lead to a small notice of the distinction between one’s professional role and one’s personal role, and a distinction between issue and person. Interactive role-playing in particular, and the critical thinking in general, are teasers for how to properly conduct ethnographic fieldwork at a later point in time. More so, because critical thinking should permeate the whole academic and post-academic experience. From how one conducts oneself during a thesis defense, to how one conducts in-depth interviews.

The distinctions underpinning Critical Thinking
Empathy Sympathy
Professional Personal
Issue Person
Message Messenger
…can you think of more?

What the teacher should want, in conclusion, is for the students themselves to want to avoid attacking the messenger instead of the message, to want to stay on-topic, to maintain composure, and, above all, further the contribution to the scientific body of knowledge. When all these pieces come together, the anthropological teaching experience is one step closer to having fulfilled its social function. When all those pieces come together, the teacher can take more pride because the students will have progressed as academics and as researchers. When all those pieces come together, it should be seen as a win.


Teaching Resource Contributed by: Robin Öberg, Exeter University

Robin Öberg is a doctoral student in Social Anthropology. She earned an M.A. in Applied Cultural Analysis and an M.Sc. in Social Anthropology. She has served as a Postgraduate Teacher’s Assistant in Economics and Anthropology, and a Visiting Scholar teaching Applied Cultural Analysis and Ethnographic Fieldwork.