Misconceptions About Critical Thinking

EVERYTHING SHOULD BE MADE AS SIMPLE AS POSSIBLE, BUT NOT SIMPLER.— (possibly  – sic!- Albert Einstein)

Critical thinking. It is perhaps the second most used phrase these days (first being “creativity”). Everyone uses it, especially in the context of (can I smile here?) “21st-century skills” ideology.  I am always intrigued by two categories of things: those that everyone seems to agree on – the obvious, the visible, the collective agreement, the mainstream, the trend – and the those that few seem to question – the hidden, the assumed, the overlooked, the forgotten.

As such I started reading and rereading. Among other articles, one caught my eye: Common Misconceptions of Critical Thinking. Because I do not want to simplify the issue I urge you to read it in full (and because the original PDF is quite difficult to read due to formatting I made a new one – see below).

The authors begin by deconstructing the three main views on critical thinking  – as skills (the most widely-held), as mental processes and as procedures (these found at the more pragmatic level, that is, in teaching strategies we employ).

Critical thinking

Critical thinking as SKILL

The problem with viewing critical thinking as a skill is two-fold: it relies on the concept of being generic (that is, independent of the knowledge-domain, which is false) and of being discrete (that is, it can be transferred easily to other contexts). The authors come with three justifications to debunk this skill-based view:

1. “Background knowledge in the particular area is a precondition for critical thinking to take place.” 

This is where many educators today go wrong and assume that skills are taught in the absence of or just with minimal knowledge. How can you evaluate, say, the impact of WWII unless you have strong knowledge about the events, the historical figures involved, the war strategies used,  the political decisions and so forth? The same applies in literature, geography, mathematics.

2. Knowledge is prerequisite but not sufficient. Understanding of principles which govern a particular domain is also necessary.

People with the same, say, amount of knowledge in a certain field can differ in their understanding of it. I selected a clear example,

“To be logical in discussion about art is not a matter of combining logical ability with information about art. It is a matter of understanding the logic of art, of being on the inside of aesthetic concepts and aesthetic theory. The capacity to be critical about art is inextricably intertwined with understanding aesthetic discourse. “

3. A critical thinking attitude is also necessary for critical thinking to occur. 

“Critical thinking involves more than the ability to engage in good thinking. It also involves the willingness or disposition to do so.” 

Critical thinking as MENTAL PROCESSES 

Mental processes are not visible – only the products of performance.

“Mental processes can be identified only via their products; observing them directly is a logical impossibility.”

That is why we can set the conditions for a certain cognitive process to happen (say, inferring) but even so it may not occur the same. Two children reading the same book and being asked the same questions can produce different answers in terms of depth and quality.

Critical thinking as PROCEDURES

“The procedure approach, by reducing critical thinking to steps, seeks to provide operational or task descriptions of the building blocks of such thinking.”

Equipping students with various procedures to tackle knowledge is not enough. Merely applying brainstorming, or even complex thinking strategies as those in Visible Thinking (Harvard) that many inquiry teachers (me included) use in class “does not guarantee that an individual is thinking critically”.

1. We need to engage students in using them in  wide range of learning experiences and across many knowledge domains.

2. We need quality criteria and standards “that distinguish thoughtful evaluations from sloppy ones, fruitful classification schemes from trivial ones”.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

I invite you to read the article in it entire length because I cannot summarize 13 pages without missing excellent nuances.

Last quote from it,

“It is a certain quality of practice, not mere practice.”

Common MIsconceptions on Critical Thinking (PDF download)

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