Using Critical Thinking as a Tool for Empathy in a Polarized Culture

A Collaborative Exploration (CE) in which participants inquire into the possibilities of using critical thinking to develop empathy in trying to understand alternate perspectives and behaviors in areas of culture (politics, education, social movements) where polarization exists and tends to push ideas and people to extreme opposing sides.
  • In brief, CEs are an extension of Problem- or Project-Based Learning (PBL) and related approaches to education in which participants address a scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, shaping their own directions of inquiry and developing their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word). (For more background, read the prospectus.)
  • If you want to know what a CE requires of you, review the expectations and mechanics.
    • on hangout for 1 hour each week at a time arranged to fit the schedules of those who register. The URL for the first hangout will be provided only to those who register (via, which entails making a commitment to attend that 1st session and at least 2 of the other 3 hangouts.
  • If you are wondering how to define a meaningful and useful approach to the topic, let us present a scenario for the CE and hope this stimulates you to apply to participate. We will then let CE participants judge for themselves whether their inquiries are relevant.
  • Intended outcomes for participants of this CE are of two kinds:
    • a) tangible: a compilation of critical thinking tools and principles that guide us into a response of empathy toward people rather than reactions to issues based on established views;
    • b) experiential: being impressed at how much can be learned with a small commitment of time using the CE structure to motivate and connect participants.

We live in a time when we hear a lot about the differences between extreme sides. In the field of education, conflicting messages address scarce resources and how we should be preparing our students and workforce. Activists of all types urge us to see their own causes as priorities. Debates persist around what interventions are "for our own good" in the interest of national security. The media gives us extended access to news and information that reveals behaviors by individuals and groups that we find inexplicable, puzzling, misguided, combative, or simply malicious. We hear about the increasing gap between the 99% and the 1%, and we hear reports that the U.S. Congress is one of the most divided and least productive in history. Political candidates use campaign tactics that focus primarily on what is wrong with opponents and the reasons to maintain our disbelief in outlier views.

Questions come up from these issues. Where is there room within the polarization for us to be curious about foreign points of view, to look past the Other, even when we are confident in our own position? How might critical thinking become a tool that guides us to look more closely at the views of others to help us understand them with empathy first, before our immediate skepticism, or cynicism, kicks in? How can we gain support from our "home" communities to explore the opposing side and express empathy, rather than feel at risk that our loyalty to those communities is questioned? And then, does this empathy support the kinds of changes that we seek because we've been able to listen to others in a new way, loosen the grip on our own assumptions, blur the lines between us-and-them, and discover opportunities for the "win-win" outcomes?

This CE is a chance to examine these connections between critical thinking, empathy, and the issues around the polarization that we observe in our living and working. One possible outcome is the chance to develop personal strategies for finding empathy and becoming more open to the possibilities that exist around moving past gridlock and bottlenecks that block change.