Critical Analysis: The Key Skill High School Kills
Here's the most concerning insight I've had as a college instructor: Beyond simply lacking experience with critical analysis, most college freshmen struggle to move beyond established modes of "high school thinking." Their education, it seems, has entrenched them in patterns of disengagement and factual regurgitation.
Despite my various emotions and frustrations tied up in this issue, I will try to speak directly to the facts. First, I want to define exactly what I mean—and don't mean—when I say "critical analysis." Alongside this, I want to discuss my experiences with introductory comp and literature students over the last few years. And finally, I want to speculate on how our patterns, systems, and mindset at the high school level actively undermine this skill-set. Let's begin.
What and Whether: What Critical Analysis Isn't
In teaching composition, rhetoric, and literature, I define the term "text" broadly. It can include any piece that we analyze: Short stories, novels, essays, speeches, movies, TV shows, video games, etc. And as we engage with a given text, I often say that we are interrogating it. The difference between critical analysis and the (limited) alternatives is largely a matter of which questions we are asking in that interrogation.
In every case, the litmus test for a question's value is how much it helps us engage with the text and connect with readers of our own work. The questions I'm about to discuss—and the skill-sets associated with them— can all help us better connect with our readers and the ideas of the text. These are not terrible starting points for interrogating a text. They are, however, a terrible place to stop.
The first question is "what," which revolves around stored knowledge, general comprehension, and the ability to summarize. Recollection and comprehension certainly have self-evident value. Summary—especially when done in a clear, concise, and engaging way—is a powerful way to create shared footing between you and a reader. The problem is when students stop here.
No matter how much I lecture on critical thinking or how often I re-emphasize what I'm looking for, initial essays from almost all of my students are "what" essays. They are bullet-point recaps of the text in question. Sometimes they throw labels onto the points they recap (e.g., "this was an ethos argument," but providing no further explanation). Again, not a bad place to start—but it's certainly not analysis yet.
The second question is "whether," which revolves around critique and criticism. Students who are more interested or practiced in sharing their own experience may naturally pose questions of whether or not the text was interesting, whether or not they liked it, or whether others should look at the text themselves. Reader experience is, again, a valuable way to scratch at the surface of a piece and figure out what's worth dissecting further.
In some ways, students who submit these "whether" essays are giving me some reassurance. They are figuring out what resonates with them, and that's wonderful. However, it's been painfully common that students then re-interpret assignment prompts to mean "tell me whether you liked this" or "tell me what you didn't like." In one extreme case, a student writing on the "I Have a Dream" speech submitted an essay with an astonishing thesis: They would show why the issues in Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech caused it to "fail to end racism."
This leads us to the questions I actually want students asking.
How, Why, and So What: The Core of Critical Analysis
I often start by looking at the origin of the word critical. Initially, we see the word rooted in the idea of judging what is vital or of great importance. When we look back far enough, the root comes from words meaning "to sieve" or "to take apart or separate." Both the judging of importance and the taking apart are important for the process as it concerns us.
I describe the broad process of critical analysis like that of deconstructing an alarm clock to figure out how it works. We are breaking down a complex piece into its constituent parts, figuring out how each works independently and in conjunction with each other, and examining how everything works as a system to create its intended function. Most importantly, once we have done this work, we are communicating the key pieces of information we garnered. It's the exact same process when analyzing a text.
There are three interrogation questions involved in this process: "how," "why," and "so what." That is: How does this thing I've noticed actually work? Why was it placed here by the writer? How does it impact everything else around it? So what? Why should anyone care? How does understanding this help me, and my readers, understand the text more fully?
So let's say you're stuck on summary, asking questions of "what" and perhaps throwing out a label here or there. The next point is to ask how the part you've identified actually works, why it was placed in that position, and ("so what?!") why understanding this matters at all.
Alternatively, let's say you're stuck on the questions of "whether." Good! You've identified what connected to you, which means there's something there worth digging at. Now do the digging! Ask why it resonated with you, how it connects to everything else, and what of substance ("so what?!") it adds to the piece as a whole.
Where This Comes From: My Speculation on High School Patterns
I prefaced all this by saying that my students really seem to struggle to understand these ideas. Often, the first several submissions from each student fail to reach actual critical analysis. Now, I'd like to chalk this up to the learning process, but my experiences say that's an insufficient explanation: By the point students are submitting these essays, we've done several lectures and activities on what critical analysis means and how to do it effectively. Even after being corrected and given feedback, most students keep re-submitting with the same issues, over and over again.
I want to be clear that this is not an attempt to vent about frustrations with students, nor am I trying to bash their previous educators. Tiny gods, I sure know that high school teachers are harder workers than I am. And there are sure to be many exceptions who do effectively teach critical analysis to their students. However, the issues I see recur endlessly, which leads me to believe that there is more at play here than typical student resistance or a strenuous learning curve.
Here's my hypothesis: Critical thinking is complex enough that it must be built on other skills. You do need to learn comprehension and summary first. It's also enough about depth, insight, and engagement that it's challenging to test students on in a uniform way. While there may be a right/wrong answer to what a text said, there's a lot more potential for varied answers on how the pieces functioned or why they matter. And, finally … well, this one may be controversial enough that I need to back up for a second.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, I feel like public education has shed its costume. It's been surprising just how much has been dispensed with when it comes to homework, class time, and so forth. Yes, there are absolutely real skills that students learn in this environment and, yes, it's crucial for preparing well-rounded adults. But whatever else public education provides, it is also a babysitting program designed to accommodate the work hours of parents.
Some of the fundamental philosophy behind our high school composition education (again, not without exception) is about having students show up and prove that they are doing the prescribed reading. As a general mentality, I feel public education cares much more about rote memorization because it's a simple, scalable way to test whether students are following directions.
So this is what I believe is happening: Students have to be taught comprehension, memorization, and summary. Those skills are also very easy to test and easy to scale. Our mentality in public education tends to place a high value on students proving they "did the reading." As a result, students spend years practicing regurgitation: Read the thing, tell the teacher what you just read, repeat. This is so ingrained in them that, on being challenged with anything else, they cling to that original idea of summarizing texts or—at best—saying whether they liked it or not.
And here's the part where I wish I had answers and solutions for you. That would be a nice conclusion to an article, right? But, unfortunately, all I have is more questions.
Am I right about my assumptions about the state of education for those leaving high school? Am I right about the cause of this pattern?
Given large class sizes and low funding, is it even possible to adjust high school priorities without a systemic overhaul?
Is there a better way to teach these skills at the college level? A way to help students shift gears from this "high school" thinking into a more engaged mentality? (No, really, I'm asking! I'd love your thoughts.)
And if our mandatory education stops at the point of "follow directions" and "spit back this information," how does that shape patterns of intellectual engagement for the public at large?
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