Critical Thinking or Opening Pandora’s Box

Critical thinker. Alongside “creative”, it seems to be the ultimate compliment one can receive nowadays with so many other buzzwords invading social media (“leadership, “innovative”, “disrupting” and the sorts).

Let us then dig deeper into this concept to clarify what it means and how it can be applied in the field of education.

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        First, we are not *that*revolutionary in promoting the concept. Actually, we owe much to a quite charismatic and brave Athenian who lived about 2,500 years ago.  Socrates, considered the father of the Western thought and philosophy, taught us what it means to question the world, the words and the relationship between them (see Socratic Questioning techniques). Each century on had its critical thinkers whose work contributed to our understanding of the importance of thinking critically – from Erasmus, Moore, Francis Bacon (The Advancement of Learning), Descartes (Rules for the Direction of the Mind) to Hobbes, Voltaire, Diderot, Kant (Critique of Pure Reason), Comte, Spencer, Graham Sumner and Ludwig Wittgenstein, we learned that critical thought “is our only guarantee against delusion, deception, superstition, and misapprehension of ourselves and our earthly circumstances” and that “education in the critical faculty is the only education which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.” (W. G. Sumner, Folkways, p.633).

Conclusion: When we claim to be the first promoters of “critical thinking” (for 21st century, rolling eyes now) we are wrong, ignorant or arrogant. Take your pick. 

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Secondly, “critical thinking” is subject to numerous definitions – I personally know twenty of them – so it is quite problematic when one tries to define it. Openness of a concept has a two-fold effect: it encourages multiple perspectives and debate (which is beneficial as it makes us think deeper when we defend our position as well as build on others’ ideas), but its ambiguity can also lead to misunderstandings (we  do need to make things “simple but not simpler”). However, there are several characteristics of critical thinking that can be recognizable across these numerous interpretations, and I selected what I think is the most comprehensive definition:

“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”  (Michael Scriven and Richard Paul,  Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987)

I deliberately underlined or typed some words in bold so we can unpack their meaning. Although there are several approaches to critical thinking (as a “process”, “skill”, “attitude” or as “procedures”), I think “process” is more representative for the complex nature of critical thinking because it is defined as “ a series of actions, changes or functions bringing about a result”.

Further on, one needs to be “skillful” at thinking critically. Two points here:

  1. “Skillful” does not imply CT is a transferable skill from one domain to another for one main reason: it connects to KNOWLEDGE so it is domain-specific.
  2. “Skillful” involves the notion of quality of thinking. In Fisher’s words,

“Thinking does not count as critical because someone intends it to be, anymore than thinking counts as scientific simply because it aims to be. To be critical, thinking has to meet certain standards – of clarity, relevance etc. – and one can be more or less skilled at it.” (Alec Fisher, Critical Thinking, p. 11, Cambridge University Press 2001)

Although critical thinking is not transferable, it does incorporate core values that “transcend” the various fields or school subjects. Whether we talk about critical thinking in anthropology, evolutionary psychology, sciences or history, meeting these standards is vital:

“clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic, significance, and (where applicable) fairness.” (Richard Paul, 2004 http://www.criticalthinking.org/  )

*That is another reason criticism should not be mistaken with critical thinking. The former is linked with bias and emotional argumentation, while the latter considers a broad range of evidence and perspectives, it implies reasoning and emotional distance. Along this line, there are many intelligent people in education, politics, or media, who possess strong rhetoric skills and can persuade masses very easily by manipulating or purposefully ignoring information to suit their agenda (progressive or traditional). Sure we admire them, many even “follow” them on social media platforms but the effectiveness of their discourse is brought about by the lack of critical thinking from our side – we should always revert to the criteria above to make an informed choice.

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Back to critical thinking in a particular context, that is education.

  1. CT is knowledge-bound. (see my other post, Who Is Afraid of Knowledge?)
  2. CT is “effective, novel and self-directed.” (Daniel Willingham, Critical Thinking) – read the article in full.

DW

3. Because CT is so closely connected to knowledge it is an error to create or use “programs” that “teach” critical thinking out of context. Research showed that such programs had little to no effect; moreover, their effectiveness was questioned by academics who reviewed the studies as the students could not transfer their thinking to novel situations (in other words, the outcome measure was too similar to the material in the program).

4. Viewing CT solely as a set of procedures one must follow to become a critical thinker is a mistake. Depth and breadth of knowledge, as well as practice are paramount to thinking well. You cannot think critically about history unless you actually know history. The same applies to any subject.

5. Although heuristics and procedures do not guarantee quality thinking, they are vital in *thinking* about knowledge we gain. Acquiring facts is a necessary step to think well – you need the “what” to think about. However, it is no sufficient. You need to analyze, synthesize and evaluate it and that is done by using different strategies. (see my reply on Twitter below, as well as my reply on this http://knowledgeandheuristics.pen.io/ )

CT 1 twitter

“Teaching content alone is not likely to lead to proficiency in science, nor is engaging in inquiry experiences devoid of meaningful science content.” (National Research Council via D.T. Willingham)

“The educational challenge is, therefore, to equip students with repertoires of procedures they can employ across the range of thinking situations.” (Misconceptions About Critical Thinking)

In other words, knowledge in and by itself is not conducive to thinking well. Nor is inquiry prone to success unless it builds on knowledge. Thinking in “either/or” terms – knowledge vs. skills – is short-sighted and does not move our own thinking nor practices too far.

So I disagree with  @harryweb  who stated “Critical thinking will happen as a result of this knowledge. Taught heuristics are not required.”

6. Heuristics and thinking strategies are not algorithms. An algorithm “is a step-by-step prescription that is guaranteed to accomplish a particular goal” (Misconceptions about Critical Thinking) so it is not applicable to critical thinking – it is a multi-step procedure used mainly in sciences. Most curricular areas do not require the application of algorithms; analyzing a literary piece or interpreting historical events, for instance, involve openness to perspectives and divergent ideas. It is notable though to mention that even in sciences algorithms do not lead to progress – it is questioning, reinterpretation of data, a different approach to a problem that enable breakthroughs, historically speaking.

So yes, thinking strategies are not infallible – nor did anyone claim they are. But they enable you to think critically by applying them within the context of broad knowledge and by maintaining the intellectual standards mentioned before. 

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Further reading:

D. Willingham -his entire website http://www.danielwillingham.com/articles.html

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy  – Informal Logic 

Critical Thinking Organization – Library 

Critical Thinking Web 

Critical Thinking on the Web 

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7 Responses to “Critical Thinking or Opening Pandora’s Box”

  1. Nice article albeit I disagree with some of it. If I have time I will blog a response sometime this week.

  2. I enjoyed this, and I’ll pass it on to my undergrad bioscience students. Many identify relevant facts, and clearly cite them, but fail to effectively address the limitations of evidence, and why opposing views may be (more) valid and still be published in equally reliable sources. Getting their heads around the knowledge base is the easy bit. Teasing apart the science, even when armed with the relevant knowledge is proving to be the tricky bit. Therefore, I too disagree to some extent with the quote “Critical thinking will happen as a result of this knowledge” I’ll go as far as saying it ‘may’ happen (on a good day…)

  3. I think critical thinking is too broad of a term if one thinks of it as a single process rather than a general umbrella for several more complex behaviors. Being able and inclined to withhold judgment on a political oped, to consider the writer’s biases, etc. is a different sort of thing than knowing why a sequence of operations in a nuclear plant is needed (as opposed to just knowing the sequence itself), which is again a different thing from being able/inclined to look past accounting numbers to the true economics when evaluating a business as a financial consultant. All might fit under a broad critical thinking umbrella term, but they are different enough from each other that we shouldn’t just consider them the same trait in different domains and you probably need some effort to develop each.

    I suspect that some of this general ability/inclination may be innate too. Probably also somewhat correlated to general IQ. Some people are more inclined to get caught by red herrings for instance although everyone can be trained to be better at not being such. To the extent that it is innate, we should of course develop the critical faculty in everyone, but we may not be able to develop it to the same extent. Nor may it even be that important for everyone to develop it to the same extent. We don’t need an entire world full of Socrates and Richard Feynman, even though some aspects of their patterns are helpful to any adult.

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