Compassionate Critical Thinking:
How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching
by Ira Rabois
When I first discussed my book with friends, many said that compassion and critical thinking seemed contradictory to them. They thought compassion necessitated taking in or opening to people, and critical meant being judgmental, questioning or pushing them away. I then asked What happens inside a person when they’re compassionate? And then, after listening to their responses, What does critical thinking mean to you? If compassion leads to openness, taking in information, improved perception and understanding; and if critical thinking requires understanding a person or situation better, then wouldn’t compassion aid such thinking?
My book takes readers inside a classroom to witness an engaging way of teaching in tune with current neuroscience. In a time when education is under attack and both teachers and students report high levels of stress and anxiety, the book offers a method to improve instructional effectiveness with increased student participation and decreased classroom stress.
Using mindfulness and a Socratic style of questioning, the book guides teachers in methods to help themselves and their students learn about their own emotions and develop critical thinking skills. Classroom vignettes capture dialogue between teacher and students illustrating how challenging questions stimulate and direct inquiry and discovery. Not only teachers, but administrators wanting to improve the relationship between teachers and students, students who want to develop their thinking skills on their own, parents, any reader interested in reducing stress and increasing clarity might be interested in the book. Many books teach mindfulness, but few provide a model for teaching critical thinking and integrating it across the curriculum.
My intention is to demonstrate just how insightful, open, and willing to learn students can be when presented with material they consider challenging and real, and classes are structured to relate to their inner lives. One year in a Psychological Literature class, we read an anecdote about a person putting his own life at risk to save someone drowning in an icy river. I asked, “How can a person do that? Does it show that humans are compassionate or altruistic by nature?” I was surprised by the response by many students. They said that the situation was unreal. Maybe a rare person would put their life at risk to help someone else, but most people—never. Altruism was a rarity. There was too much cruelty in the world for altruism or compassion to be natural. So I asked, “Imagine you were standing by that river. What would you feel seeing the person drowning?” At first, there were some uncomfortable jokes. But then students said, “I’d feel awful.” Another said that he’d be haunted by the situation for the rest of his life. Another said she would have jumped in. “If the situation would haunt you, then were you feeling empathy? If you would have jumped in, then were you feeling compassion? Altruism?”
In the abstract, compassion might seem unreal, especially since many students grow up in a competitive environment and read about and feel so much violence in the world. But when questioned mindfully, their inner reality is uncovered. This is the nature of compassionate critical thinking. It incorporates the big questions into the curriculum. As assumptions are challenged, discussions become mindfulness and compassion practices. Compassionate critical thinking is reason deepened by empathy and by valuing the welfare of the countless others who inhabit the world with us. This is the core of my book.
Ira Rabois taught English, philosophy, drama, karate, history and psychology for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. His book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, was published in October 2016, by Rowman & Littlefield. He is now semi-retired, and blogs on education and mindfulness. Here is a link to this book on Amazon.