A teachable spirit and critical thinking

St. John of Kronstadt, in his book, My life in Christ, paints a very intriguing image of what it means to respond to God with the kind of faith that opens ‘the key to God’s treasury’ of enlightenment. He says that this kind of faith dwells in ‘simple, kind, loving hearts’ and is a ‘spiritual mouth‘ freely (and frequently) opening to receive all that God wants to give His children. He goes on to explain that this spiritual mouth is found in the heart, the place where we ‘accept the brightness of heavenly grace.’ The image that comes to my mind is one of baby birds opening their mouths in trust to receive nourishment from their parents. Their trust is reasonable and logical because their eyes are on someone they know cares greatly for them and wants only the best for them. St. John then warns us about another kind of mouth that works against faith and enlightenment, “…do not let your lips be compressed by doubt and unbelief.”

Although St. John is talking about faith and divine knowledge and it may be somewhat of a stretch to apply his words to learning in general, I think the ‘mouths’ he is describing are also present in other learning contexts. There are learners who are teachable – with open and trusting ‘heart mouths‘, and learners who, for a variety of reasons, have tightly compressed lips of doubt and resistance. Learners are always the key decision makers in any learning situation and their decisions about whether or not the learning is worth the effort, whether or not they believe they are capable, and whether or not they decide to keep learning or to quit trying arise from their dispositional ‘mouths’. As teachers we know what a joy it is to nurture the learners with open mouths, and we know that it is an even greater joy to see a learner who is resistant and closed, begin to open and receive.

I’ve been thinking about these ‘dispositional mouths’ and wondering about their relationship to critical thinking. In our culture, the critical thinker seems to bring to mind someone who has those tightly compressed lips, that ‘convince me’ attitude, that ‘I’ve already made up my mind that you’re wrong‘ way of being. However, this isn’t critical thinking. Critical thinking actually requires openness, a willingness to let go of predispositions when enlightenment dawns or new situations arise, a willingness to be transformed in the process of coming to know. Essentially, it is a child-like way of being in the world. All learning is a risk that requires some openness, trust and willingness to embark on the journey. Lips need to be unclenched, arms need to be unfolded.

Therefore, true critical thinkers have open ‘heart-mouths’, not compressed lips of unbelief and doubt. Therefore, people who have already learned to open their ‘heart mouths’ to divine knowledge are potentially very strong critical thinkers.

But just to say that learners need to change their disposition in order to become better critical thinkers is not very helpful. Dispositions are entrenched patterns of behaviour arising from contextual situations often beyond the control of the learner. They take time, patient encouragement, invitational spaces and practical support for new paths of response to emerge. This is what good teachers do best. This is what our good God does with us.

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