Definitions

Critical thinking

Critical thinking

Critical thinking consists of mental processes of discernment, analysis and evaluation. It includes possible processes of reflecting upon a tangible or intangible item in order to form a solid judgment that reconciles scientific evidence with common sense. In contemporary usage "critical" has a certain negative connotation that does not apply in the present case. Though the term "analysis thinking" may seem to convey the idea more accurately, critical thinking clearly involves synthesis, evaluate, and reconstruction of thinking, in addition to analysis.

Critical thinkers gather information from all senses, verbal and/or written expressions, reflection, observation, experience and reasoning. Critical thinking has its basis in intellectual criteria that go beyond subject-matter divisions and which include: clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance and fairness.

Overview

Critical thinking is a form of judgment, specifically purposeful and reflective judgment. Using critical thinking one makes a decision or solves the problem of judging what to believe or what to do, but does so in a reflective way. Critical thinking gives due consideration to the evidence, the context of judgment, the relevant criteria for making that judgment well, the applicable methods or techniques for forming that judgment, and the applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the nature of the problem and the question at hand. These elements also happen to be the key defining characteristics of professional fields and academic disciplines. This is why critical thinking can occur within a given subject field (by reference to its specific set of permissible questions, evidence sources, criteria, etc.) and across subject fields in all those spaces where human beings need to interact and make decisions, solve problems, and figure out what to believe and what to do.

Within the framework of scientific skepticism, the process of critical thinking involves acquiring information and evaluating it to reach a well-justified conclusion or answer. Part of critical thinking comprises informal logic. However, a large part of critical thinking goes beyond informal logic and includes assessment of beliefs and identification of prejudice, bias, propaganda, self-deception, distortion, misinformation, etc. Given research in cognitive psychology, some educators believe that schools should focus more on teaching their students critical thinking skills, intellectual standards, and cultivating intellectual traits (such as intellectual humility, intellectual empathy, intellectual integrity, and fair-mindedness) than on memorizing facts by rote learning.

In a seminal study on critical thinking and education in 1941, Edward Glaser defines critical thinking as follows:

The ability to think critically, as conceived in this volume, involves three things:

  1. An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences,
  2. Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning,
  3. Some skill in applying those methods.

Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. It also generally requires ability to recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems, to gather and marshal pertinent information, to recognize unstated assumptions and values, to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discrimination, to interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments, to recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions, to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, to put to test the conclusions and generalizations at which one arrives, to reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience, and to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life.

Critical thinking is important, because it enables one to analyze, evaluate, explain, and restructure our thinking, decreasing thereby the risk of acting on, or thinking with, a false premise. However, even with the use of critical thinking skills, mistakes can happen due to a thinker's egocentrism or incorrectly extending ones own belief system beyond its reasonable limits or failure to be in possession of the full facts. In addition, there is always the possibility of inadvertent human error.

Universal concepts and principles of critical thinking can be applied to any context or case but only by reflecting upon the nature of that application. Critical thinking forms, therefore, a system of related, and overlapping, modes of thought such as anthropological thinking, sociological thinking, historical thinking, political thinking, psychological thinking, philosophical thinking, mathematical thinking, chemical thinking, biological thinking, ecological thinking, legal thinking, ethical thinking, musical thinking, thinking like a painter, sculptor, engineer, business person, etc. In other words, though critical thinking principles are universal, their application to disciplines requires a process of reflective contextualization.

One can regard critical thinking as involving two aspects:

  1. a set of cognitive skills, intellectual standards, and traits of mind
  2. the disposition or intellectual commitment to use those structures to improve thinking and guide behavior.

Critical thinking, in the strong sense, does not include simply the acquisition and retention of information, or the possession of a skill-set which one does not use regularly; nor does critical thinking merely exercise skills without acceptance of the results.

Universality

Critical thinking is based on concepts and principles, not on hard and fast, or step-by-step, procedures. Critical thinking does not assure that one will reach either the truth or correct conclusions. First, one may not have all the relevant information; indeed, important information may remain undiscovered, or the information may not even be knowable. Furthermore, one may make unjustified inferences, use inappropriate concepts, fail to notice important implications, use a narrow or unfair point of view. One may be a victim of self-delusion, egocentricity or sociocentricity, or closed-mindedness. One's thinking may be unclear, inaccurate, imprecise, irrelevant, narrow, shallow, illogical, or trivial. One may be intellectually arrogant, intellectually lazy, or intellectually hypocritical. These are some of the ways that human thinking can be flawed.

Human thinking left to itself often leads to various forms of self-deception, individually and socially; and at the left, right, and mainstream of economic, political, and religious issues. Further analysis and resources about this interaction may be found in Roderick Hindery (2001): Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought.

Very recently some yet to be confirmed experiments show that we may make even the most complex decisions before we even become fully aware of the fact we have made a decision. Since almost by definition such definitions are not based on critical thinking (because it requires careful reflection); thus any development of critical thinking skills must work to over ride our natural tendency to decide before having all the facts.

Uses

Critical thinking is useful only in those situations where human beings need to solve problems, make decisions, or decide in a reasonable and reflective way what to believe or what to do. That is, just about everywhere and all the time. Critical thinking is important wherever the quality of human thinking significantly impacts the quality of life (of any sentient creature). For example, success in human life is tied to success in learning. At the same time, every phase in the learning process is tied to critical thinking. Thus, reading, writing, speaking, and listening can all be done critically or uncritically. Critical thinking is crucial to becoming a close reader and a substantive writer. Expressed most generally, critical thinking is “a way of taking up the problems of life.”

Irrespective of the sphere of thought, “a well cultivated critical thinker":

  • raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively
  • comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems; without being unduly influenced by others thinking on the topic

Effectiveness

Critical thinking is about being both willing and able to think. Ideally one develops critical thinking skills and at the same time the disposition to use those skills to solve problems and form good judgments. The dispositional dimension of critical thinking is characterological. Its focus in developing the habitual intention to be truth-seeking, open-minded, systematic, analytical, inquisitive, confident in reasoning, and prudent in making judgments. Those who are ambivalent on one or more of these aspects of the disposition toward critical thinking, or who have the opposite disposition [biased, intolerant, disorganized, heedless of consequences, indifferent toward new information, mistrustful of reasoning, imprudence] are less likely to engage problems using their critical thinking skills. The relationship between critical thinking skills and critical thinking dispositions is an empirical question. Some have both in abundance, some have skills but not the disposition to use them, some are disposed but lack strong skills and some have neither. Two measures of critical thinking dispositions are the California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory and the California Measure of Mental Motivation.

Critical thinking may be distinguished, but not separated, from emotions, desires, and traits of mind. Failure to recognize the relationship between thinking, feeling, wanting, and traits of mind can easily lead to various forms of self-deception, both individually and collectively. When persons possess intellectual skills alone, without the intellectual traits of mind, weak sense critical thinking results. Fair-minded or strong sense critical thinking requires intellectual humility, empathy, integrity, perseverance, courage, autonomy, confidence in reason, and other intellectual traits. Thus, critical thinking without essential intellectual traits often results in clever, but manipulative, often unethical, thought. In short, the sophist, the con artist, the manipulator often uses intellectually defective but effective forms of thought — serving unethical purposes. However, whereas critical thinking yields itself to analytical considerations readily and may be considered largely "objective", few humans notice the degree to which they uncritically presuppose the mores and taboos of their society (and hence fail to discern their own “subjectivity.” and one-sidedness).

Overcoming bias

There is no simple way to reduce one's bias. There are, however, ways that one can begin to do so. The most important require developing one's intellectual empathy and intellectual humility. The first requires extensive experience in entering and accurately constructing points of view toward which one has negative feelings. The second requires extensive experience in identifying the extent of one's own ignorance in a wide variety of subjects (ignorance whose admission leads one to say, "I thought I knew, but I merely believed"). One becomes less biased and more broad-minded when one becomes more intellectually empathic and intellectually humble, and that involves time, deliberate practice and commitment. It involves considerable personal and intellectual development.

To develop one's critical thinking abilities, one should learn the art of suspending judgment (for example, when reading a novel, watching a movie, engaging in dialogical or dialectical reasoning). Ways of doing this include adopting a perceptive rather than judgmental orientation; that is, avoiding moving from perception to judgment as one applies critical thinking to an issue.

One should become aware of one's own fallibility by:

  1. accepting that everyone has subconscious biases, and accordingly questioning any reflexive judgments.
  2. adopting an ego-sensitive and, indeed, intellectually humble stance
  3. recalling previous beliefs that one once held strongly but now rejects
  4. Tendency towards group think; the amount your belief system is formed by what those around you say instead of what you have personally witnessed.
  5. realizing one still has numerous blind spots, despite the foregoing

An integration of insights from the critical thinking literature and cognitive psychology literature is the "Method of Argument and Heuristic Analysis." This technique illustrates the influences of heuristics and biases on human decision making along with the influences of thinking critically about reasons and claims.

Classroom applications

The key to seeing the significance of critical thinking in the classroom is in understanding the significance of critical thinking in learning.

There are two phases to the learning of content. The first occurs when learners (for the first time) construct in their minds the basic ideas, principles, and theories that are inherent in content. This is a process of internalization. The second occurs when learners effectively use those ideas, principles, and theories as they become relevant in learners’ lives. This is a process of application. Good teachers cultivate critical thinking (intellectually engaged thinking) at every stage of learning, including initial learning. This process of intellectual engagement is at the heart of the Oxford and Cambridge tutorials. The tutor questions the students, often in a Socratic manner (see Socratic questioning). The key is that the teacher who fosters critical thinking fosters reflectiveness in students by asking questions that stimulate thinking essential to the construction of knowledge.

As emphasized above, each discipline adapts its use of critical thinking concepts and principles. The core concepts are always there, but they are embedded in subject specific content. For students to learn content, intellectual engagement is crucial. All students must do their own thinking, their own construction of knowledge. Good teachers recognize this and therefore focus on the questions, readings, activities that stimulate the mind to take ownership of key concepts and principles underlying the subject.

In the UK school system, Critical thinking is offered as a subject which 16-18 year olds can take as an A-Level. Under the OCR exam board, students can sit two exam papers for the AS: "Credibility of Evidence" and "Assessing and Developing Argument". The full Advanced GCE is now available: in addition to the two AS units, candidates sit the two papers "Resolution of Dilemmas" and "Critical Reasoning". The A-level tests candidates on their ability to think critically about, and analyze, arguments on their deductive or inductive validity, as well as producing their own arguments. It also tests their ability to analyse certain related topics such as credibility and ethical decision-making. However, due to its comparative lack of subject content, many universities do not accept it as a main A-level for admissions. Nevertheless, the AS is often useful in developing reasoning skills, and the full advanced GCE is useful for degree courses in politics, philosophy, history or theology, providing the skills required for critical analysis that are useful, for example, in biblical study.

There is also an Advanced Extension Award offered in Critical Thinking in the UK, open to any A-level student regardless of whether they have the Critical Thinking A-level. Cambridge International Examinations have an A-level in Thinking Skills. From 2008, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance will also be offering an A-level Critical Thinking specification; OCR exam board have also modified theirs for 2008. Many examinations for university entrance set by universities, on top of A-level examinations, also include a critical thinking component, such as the LNAT, the UKCAT, the BioMedical Admissions Test and the Thinking Skills Assessment.

The status of instruction in critical thinking

Unfortunately research shows that most universities are ineffective in fostering critical thinking. For example, in a three year study of 68 public and private colleges in California, though the overwhelming majority (89%) claimed critical thinking to be a primary objective of their instruction, only a small minority (19%) could give a clear explanation of what critical thinking is. Furthermore, though the overwhelming majority (78%) claimed that their students lacked appropriate intellectual standards (to use in assessing their thinking), and 73% considered that students learning to assess their own work was of primary importance, only a very small minority (8%) could enumerate any intellectual criteria or standards they required of students or could give an intelligible explanation of what those criteria and standards were.

This study mirrors a meta-analysis of the literature on teaching effectiveness in higher education. According to the study, critical reports by authorities on higher education, political leaders and business people have claimed that higher education is failing to respond to the needs of students, and that many of our graduates’ knowledge and skills do not meet society’s requirements for well-educated citizens. Thus the meta-analysis focused on the question: How valid are these claims? Researchers concluded:

  • “Faculty aspire to develop students’ thinking skills, but research consistently shows that in practice we tend to aim at facts and concepts in the disciplines, at the lowest cognitive levels, rather than development of intellect or values.”
  • “Faculty agree almost universally that the development of students’ higher-order intellectual or cognitive abilities is the most important educational task of colleges and universities.”
  • “These abilities underpin our students’ perceptions of the world and the consequent decisions they make.”
  • “Specifically, critical thinking – the capacity to evaluate skillfully and fairly the quality of evidence and detect error, hypocrisy, manipulation, dissembling, and bias – is central to both personal success and national needs.”
  • A 1972 study of 40,000 faculty members by the American Council on Education found that 97 percent of the respondents indicated the most important goal of undergraduate education is to foster students’ ability to think critically.
  • Process-oriented instructional orientations “have long been more successful than conventional instruction in fostering effective movement from concrete to formal reasoning. Such programs emphasize students’ active involvement in learning and cooperative work with other students and de-emphasize lectures...”
  • “Numerous studies of college classrooms reveal that, rather than actively involving our students in learning, we lecture, even though lectures are not nearly as effective as other means for developing cognitive skills.”
  • “In addition, students may be attending to lectures only about one-half of their time in class, and retention from lectures is low.”
  • “Studies suggest our methods often fail to dislodge students’ misconceptions and ensure learning of complex, abstract concepts. Capacity for problem solving is limited by our use of inappropriately simple practice exercises.”
  • “Classroom tests often set the standard for students’ learning. As with instruction, however, we tend to emphasize recall of memorized factual information rather than intellectual challenge.“
  • “Taken together with our preference for lecturing, our tests may be reinforcing our students’ commonly fact-oriented memory learning, of limited value to either them or society.”

Quotations

William Graham Sumner offers a useful summary of critical thinking:

The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators ... They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.

See also

Footnotes

References

  • Damer, T. Edward. Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 5th Edition, Wadsworth, 2005. ISBN 0-534-60516-8
  • Dauer, Francis Watanabe. Critical thinking: an introduction to reasoning
  • Facione, P. 2007. Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts - 2007 Update
  • Facione, PA, Facione, NC, and Giancarlo, CA.(2000). The Disposition Toward Critical Thinking: Its Character, Measurement, and Relationship to Critical Thinking Skill. Informal Logic, Volume 20, Number 1, pp 61-84.
  • Hamby, B.W. The Philosophy of Anything: Critical Thinking in Context. Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, Dubuque Iowa, 2007. ISBN 978-0-7575-4724-9
  • Vincent F. Hendricks, Thought 2 Talk: A Crash Course in Reflection and Expression, New York: Automatic Press / VIP, 2005, ISBN 87-991013-7-8
  • Paul, Dr. Richard; Elder, Dr. Linda, Critical Thinking Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0-13-114962-8.
  • Paul, Dr. Richard; Elder, Dr. Linda, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life. Published by Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002, ISBN 0-13-064760-8.
  • Sumner, William Graham, W. Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals, New York: Ginn and Co., (1940).
  • Twardy, Dr. Charles R. (2003) Argument Maps Improve Critical Thinking. Teaching Philosophy 27:2 June 2004. Preprints:
  • van den Brink-Budgen, R. 'Critical Thinking for Students', How To Books, 2000
  • van den Brink-Budgen, R. 'Critical Thinking for AS Level', How To Books, 2005
  • van den Brink-Budgen, R. 'Critical Thinking for A2 Level,' How To Books, 2006
  • van den Brink-Budgen, R. ' The Essential Guide to Critical Thinking', 2007
  • van den Brink-Budgen, R. ' Critical Thinking', 2008
  • Whyte, J. 2003. Bad Thoughts - A Guide to Clear Thinking. Published by Corvo. ISBN 0-9543255-3-2.

External links

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