Campus Observer

Critical Thinkers

Professor and his wife team up to improve problem-solving techniques for Bangladeshi educators

by Tina Potterf2009_fall_critical_main

English Professor John Bean and his wife, Kit, who teaches at South Seattle Community College, spent three weeks in Bangladesh where they taught educational workshops on critical thinking and writing and problem solving. The students were college professors, English-language instructors and educational trainers.

Photo courtesy of John Bean

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It began as an English grammar lesson with a critical thinking twist posed to a classroom of college professors and English-language instructors in Bangladesh: The questions at hand: “What could you, would you and should you do if your car hits a rickshaw and injures the rickshaw wallah?”

For rickshaw drivers and commuters in the clogged streets of Bangladesh, this query is indicative of a situation they may very well face. The simplicity of the question belies the complex ethical issues it raises in a country without an infrastructure of liability insurance, quick police investigation of accidents and lawyers representing all parties. On one hand, if the driver who hits the rickshaw stops the car, they might be attacked by angry mobs on the streets; but leaving the scene without checking on the welfare of the rickshaw operator is ethically wrong.

This past September, Seattle University English Professor John Bean and his wife, Kit, an ESL and composition instructor at South Seattle Community College, led a series of two-day workshops in Bangladesh to teach local educators strategies for integrating critical thinking into an educational system that focuses primarily on memorization.

The couple, who spent three weeks in Bangladesh, were invited to host these educational workshops by the U.S. State Department, which financed a portion of of their work as part of its English Language Specialist program for developing countries, and the Centre for Languages at BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) University in Dhaka. University faculty had read John’s book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking and Active Learning in the Classroom, and were looking to incorporate critical thinking into the Bangladeshi educational system. The Beans welcomed the opportunity to work with BRAC, one of the world’s largest non-governmental organizations. BRAC helps people living in poverty become self-sustainable through microlending programs, health care and education.

... It is hard to describe the complex, transformative, almost overwhelming effect of these 16 days in Dhaka on our emotional, intellectual and spiritual lives.
—John Bean, SU English professor

The workshops were tailored to meet the needs and educational interests of distinct groups of participants that included college professors, university-level English-language instructors and educational trainers working with English-language instructors, including those in rural elementary and high schools and Islamic Madrassa schools.

“The goal was to teach about problem posing and problem solving by writing proposals,” John says, “and to teach critical thinking through arguments.”

With participants working in small groups, John and Kit put forth various scenarios—such as the rickshaw accident—and urged the class to openly debate the problem and come up with the best approaches to solve it.

“We tried to work with problems that they would face in their local culture,” John says.

Their work fits with Seattle University’s commitment to social justice, John says, as it “was sharing in a community of teachers committed to education for justice and empowerment.”

While the experience was highly meaningful for the couple, for Bangladeshi educators their efforts inspired a series of new lesson plans that build in critical thinking and writing components. BRAC University may also implement their teaching and tools into other programs they work with.

“For Kit and me, it is hard to describe the complex, transformative, almost overwhelming effect of these 16 days in Dhaka on our emotional, intellectual and spiritual lives,” John says. “We felt community there, solidarity, a way of being in the world very different from life in America.”

In June the couple joined a colleague from Bangladesh to present a paper on their initiatives in Bangladesh at the European Association of Teachers of Academic Writing conference in England. The Beans are considering invitations to offer these workshops to educators in other regions and countries, including the possibility of going to Vietnam or South Korea.

But they will not soon forget the people and experiences of Bangladesh.

Says John, “We fell in love with Bangladesh and returned to our own country with new eyes.”

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