Critical thinking is the study of clear and unclear thinking. A simple definition, maybe, but that’s how it should be. The term was popularised long ago–by John Dewey, in the 1930s–but in recent years it has become less of an actionable technique and more of a trendy educational buzzword.
Our definition of “critical thinking” is sliding towards the obscure. Here’s the Australian Curriculum website’s take:
“Critical thinking is at the core of most intellectual activity that involves students in learning to recognise or develop an argument, use evidence in support of that argument, draw reasoned conclusions, and use information to solve problems. Examples of thinking skills are interpreting, analysing, evaluating, explaining, sequencing, reasoning, comparing, questioning, inferring, hypothesising, appraising, testing and generalising.”
From the Common Core Standards website:
“The Common Core asks students to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.”
What exactly is the difference between critical thinking and analysing, problem-solving, questioning, reasoning, etc? By stringing all these terms together we are diluting the power of each. What we need is precision. Teachers need it, and students need it. We all need to think critically about the meaning of critical thinking and come up with something that is actionable and distinct.
But first–it may be instructive to take a step backward and consider what critical thinking looked like before it became “critical thinking.”
Where Did the Concept Come From?
The Greeks, of course.
From the beginning, the concept included not only the examination of others but the constant cognitive monitoring of one’s own thinking as well. When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he meant it quite literally. So, the very earliest origins of critical thinking lie in self-examination.
But let’s take it a step further. It’s in the notion of self-correcting that the “critical” part starts to show. Thomas Aquinas was known to constantly test his thinking by systematically anticipating, considering, and answering every criticism of his ideas that he could conceive of. In so doing, he inspired others to appreciate a kind of systematic cross-examination of the self, which helped ensure rational and objective thinking.
Socrates, of course, established Socratic questioning, which we still use today. Rather than anticipating criticisms, it employs them: “I believe one should always be truthful. But what if telling a falsehood would save another person’s life? Is truth nobler than life?”
Later, Bacon and Descartes paved the way to the Age of Reason and Boyle and Newton challenged the existing definition of scientific proof. Quantifiable proof truly began to take hold in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the likes of Marx, Darwin, and Freud continued to challenge assumptions.
In 1906, William Graham Sumner published Folkways, which pointed to the dangers of social indoctrination in schools:
“School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe…The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations.”
Sumner supported critical thinking in life and in education, and believed that effective thinking is dependent on a mental habit and power.
Dewey is widely credited with sparking the contemporary critical thinking movement with his books How We Think (1910) and Democracy and Education (1916). Dewey popularised the words “reflective thinking” and “inquiry,” and solidified them as vital parts of critical thinking.
In the 1970s the term “metacognition,” literally defined as “thinking about thinking,” emerged, and critical thinking became a widely accepted educational virtue.
Still, when we hear the term “critical thinking” today, it reminds us more of Bloom’s Taxonomy than of Ancient Greek wisdom.
If we want our students to end up with critical thinking skills, we’re going to have to teach them what makes it distinct from other types of thinking. If we lump it in with deep thinking and analysing, we get a dizzying array of standards that are too obscure to meet. I think we’d all agree that today’s students, especially, need very concrete objectives in order to succeed in the workforce and beyond.
The problem is, sometimes we don’t know where to start to make this happen.
What Does the Term Really Mean?
A few years ago the Center for Critical Thinking was asked to conduct a study for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to determine the extent to which teacher preparation programs were preparing prospective teachers to teach for critical thinking. The study showed that although most faculty considered critical thinking to be of primary importance to instruction (89%), only 19% could adequately articulate what critical thinking is.
More than 75% of educators interviewed were unable to reconcile how to teach content while fostering critical thinking.
In addition, more than 75% of those interviewed were unable to reconcile how to teach content while fostering critical thinking.
“The reason teacher preparation programs fail to place critical thinking at the heart of the curriculum is two-fold,” says educational psychologist and critical thinking specialist Linda Elder. “First, faculty who control and teach the curriculum simply don’t know what critical thinking is. Second, they think they do.”
This is a problem, she says, not just with faculty in teacher preparation programs, but with faculty as a rule. Most teachers have never been explicitly taught the intellectual skills inherent in critical thinking. Many of them teach as if learning were equivalent to rote memorisation. Teachers tend to teach as they have been taught. Many confuse schooling with intellectual development.
They believe that, because they are college graduates, they automatically think well. The fact is, teacher preparation programs seldom prepare teachers to foster critical thinking skills and dispositions.
So what is critical thinking? Or–maybe a better place to start–what isn’t it?
Here’s what we know critical thinking isn’t:
- Simply mimicking other thinking
- Simply agreeing with other thinking
- Being biased towards one way of thinking
- Being biased against one way of thinking
- Drawing conclusions too quickly
- Denying faults in one’s own thinking
- Placing weight on insignificant details
Here’s what we know critical thinking is:
- Questioning other thinking
- Embracing other thinking
- Emulating other thinking
- Willingness to be wrong
- Questioning one’s own thinking
- Putting logic before bias
- Recognising contradictions
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s at least a start at trying to define critical thinking in concrete terms. The next challenge, once you’ve defined it, is to teach it. If critical thinking is such an essential academic standard in our society, as the Australian Curriculum and Common Core websites suggest, then we need clear examples of how to help our students meet it.
Critical thinking can occur anywhere, at any time. But it most often shows up in three contexts: essay writing, class discussions, and assessment. Below are nine practical ways to hone your students’ critical thinking skills in these areas:
Rules of Thumb for Essays
The best arguments try desperately to prove themselves wrong
1. Discuss the phrasing of prompts.
Do your students know the difference between “analysing” and “assessing” something? Part of critical thinking is being discerning about terms, if only because the language we use affects the way we think. Obviously, this applies to more than just prompts–you could create an entire lesson on word choice and thought in the construction of essays.
2. There’s no argument without a counter-argument.
The best arguments try desperately to prove themselves wrong in order to gain their audience’s trust and lend greater credence to their own assertion. This is also the way good science works–the hypothesis is correct only when all attempts to prove it wrong have failed. A great lesson in critical thinking.
3. Good essayists admit when they don’t know the answer.
Just because a thesis statement should be clear doesn’t mean it has to be black or white. If there’s a limit or a condition to an argument, say so. The grey area is just as important a part of critical thinking as anything else.
Rules of Thumb for Discussions
1. Hold regular “written” discussions.
In-class discussions are essential, but they appeal to a certain type of learner. Written discussions appeal to another type of learner. With an online discussion forum added to your curriculum, you’ll meet the needs of students who think best verbally and students who think best while writing.
2. Highlight the mysterious.
Every outstanding educator I ever had managed to make his or her topic interesting not because of what was known about it but because of what was unknown about it. It’s important for students to learn the basics of a concept, but that’s what readings and lectures are for. Use discussions to show that your topic is still “alive” and very much up for interpretation.
3. Always refer to other disciplines.
If you’re teaching a lesson on the history of Troy, tie in information about The Iliad. If you’re discussing 19th century US politics, talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Collaborate with other instructors to see what material students will identify with if you bring it up in your class.
Rules of Thumb for Tests
1. Have students write their own test questions.
What better way to test a student’s understanding of a concept (and their critical thinking skills) than to have them write their own test questions on a topic? You can either end the exercise here, and have the questions themselves be turned in for grading, or you can have students take each other’s tests. Either way, it will be an effective assessment.
2. Include the “how” and “why” in MC questions.
If you’re going to administer Multiple Choice exams, don’t make them content-knowledge-exclusive. Add questions that test students’ knowledge of why events occurred and how concepts work. Short answer questions serve a similar purpose, but MC questions force students to be discerning and recognise the difference between similar concepts.
3. Hold oral exams.
It’s pretty astonishing that nearly all of our assessments are written. In the real world, isn’t it far more likely that a student will have to explain a concept orally than in writing? But who has time to test every student’s oral skills separately, you may ask. You do. If you have the time to grade 25 papers, you have time to meet with 25 students individually.
“There is a direct relationship between teacher practices and student development of critical thinking,” says Elder. “To the extent that teachers foster the development of thinking abilities through their practices, students will begin to develop these abilities. To the extent that teachers fail to foster critical thinking, students will fail to develop these abilities. As a rule, people will not develop these abilities on their own. And very few students will learn them at home.”
We’re still a long way from streamlining or even understanding the way we teach critical thinking. But we know that we have to start closing the distance–because no one else is going to.
Within any given group of students, one can expect to find differences along all, or most, of the following parameters: preferred learning styles (including concrete vs. abstract, sequential vs. random, introverted versus extroverted, etc.), race, gender, ethnicity, intellectual skill level (including reading, writing, speaking and listening skills), culture, family history and level of functioning, emotional development, physical or mental disability, personality, intellectual characteristics, self-esteem, knowledge, motivation, creativity, social adjustment, genetic intellectual inclinations, and maturity -- to name some of the most commonly considered candidates. To put this another way, each and every student who comes to us is unique, and, what is more, unique in a variety of ways.
We are living in an age where calls for an emphasis on diversity have become the norm. Multiple interest groups have emerged demanding special consideration and/or "equality" in the classroom. Political pressures on teachers to bear in mind this or that diversity issue has never been greater.
In one sense, it seems apparent that we should take into account individual differences of students, and that we should consider those differences when designing instruction. Yet, in another sense, given the multiplicity of differences within and among students, it seems obviously impossible to simultaneously teach to all of those differences.
No teacher is capable of taking into account or teaching to every form of diversity. At the very essence of teaching lies the dilemma of what to teach and what to leave out, what issues to place in the foreground and what issues to place in the background. As teachers, for example, we must choose between extensive coverage and deep learning.
In like manner, we cannot at one and the same time focus on gender, race, ethnicity, social class, and culture. If we place special focus on developing the musical and artistic talents of students, we cannot simultaneously place special emphasis on logical-mathematical reasoning and the development of communication skills. If we place special focus on fostering social abilities and ethical traits, we cannot also place special focus on teaching to the multiple learning preferences of students. If we put special focus on academic content (biology, geography, arithmetic, reading skills, writing skills, speaking skills, spelling, grammar...), we cannot put special focus on issues of family, personal development, and personal interests. In short, we cannot have it all in education. We cannot possibly place special emphasis on every dimension of diversity.
What can be done about this dilemma? The solution, I shall argue, is critical thinking. If we teach students to reason well through any issue, and, through this emphasis, help students become life-long learners, then, of necessity, students will acquire the tools of mind they need to deal with issues of diversity. When students become skilled and insightful evaluators of their thinking and thereby take command of their learning, they can judge how and when to take into account the variety of issues encompassed under the term "diversity." In this paper, I lay the foundation for understanding how to prepare students to deal with issues arising out of human diversity by learning how to thinking critically through such issues. But before I do, I must first dispel a few common myths about critical thinking.
The most common myth is that most teachers have a good understanding of critical thinking, that they think critically themselves, and that they know how to teach for it.
Yet in a study of 38 public universities and 28 private colleges in California (conducted for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing), it was found that prospective teachers were neither being taught how to think critically nor how to cultivate critical thinking in their students. The study revealed that most professors of education:
- are unable to give an elaborated articulation of their concept of critical thinking
- cannot provide plausible examples of how they foster critical thinking in the classroom
- are not able to name specific critical thinking skills they think are important for students to learn
- are not able to plausibly explain how to reconcile covering content with fostering critical thinking
- do not consider reasoning as a significant focus of critical thinking
- do not think of reasoning within disciplines as a major focus of instruction
- cannot specify basic structures essential to the analysis of reasoning
- cannot give an intelligible explanation of basic abilities either in critical thinking or in reasoning
- do not understand the connection of critical thinking to intellectual standards
- are not able to clarify major intellectual criteria and standards
- inadvertently confuse the active involvement of students in classroom activities with critical thinking in those activities
- do not distinguish the psychological dimension of thought from the intellectual dimension
- have had no involvement in research into critical thinking and have not attended any conferences on the subject
- are unable to name a particular theory or theorist that has shaped their concept of critical thinking.
The study concluded that most teachers today share misconceptions about critical thinking similar to those of their professors. There is no simple, short-term method for displacing these misconceptions. The solution I am suggesting requires long-term committed staff development, and hence is no quick-fix panacea.
All of us face a world that is becoming increasingly more complex, a world in which the decisions we make can well have significant long-term implications both for ourselves and for those who follow us. If we can successfully prepare students for that world, we will, by implication, prepare them for the diversities intrinsic to it. How can we do this? How can we teach in such a way that students learn to reason well through issues embodied in change, complexity, interdependence, and "diversity?”
What we must do is radically change how we understand "content" and what learning it entails. We must shift our paradigm of education to these key foundations:
- All content must be "reasoned through" to be learned.
- All reasoning involves predictable parts or elements.
- All elements of high quality reasoning presuppose universal intellectual standards.
- The primary barrier to good reasoning is our native egocentrism.
Let me explain. That which we typically consider "content" is, in fact, information that has been thought through and conceptualized, and hence requires thought to be understood. The content of history is historical thinking. The content of biology is biological thinking. The content of math is mathematical thinking. The content of multiculturalism is multicultural thinking. In any textbook we thus find the reasoning of someone who has thought through a set of issues or problems within a subject area.
Learning history is not to be understood as memorizing someone else’s thinking. If students are studying history, for example, we should expect them to understand the goals and purposes of history, the problems historians think through, and the information and concepts they use to address those problems. We should expect them to understand the conclusions historians come to as they reason through issues.
We want them to see things from a historical point of view. When students have done so with skill and understanding, they have learned the content of history. For content to be meaningful and useful to them, they must reason it through themselves. They must learn, not merely to read and remember the ideas and thoughts of others, but to formulate questions within the subject themselves, reason through those questions themselves, and come up with logical answers to those questions themselves.
Why? Because every learner must learn for themselves, and to learn one must think for themselves, and to think must reason. We cannot crawl into students’ minds and learn for them. We cannot think for them or "give" them reasoning abilities. The only way for them to develop reasoning abilities is through routine engagement in challenging reasoning tasks. How, then, do we develop these powerful and universally essential skills of mind?
First, we must recognize universal structures of thought. Whenever we think (and whatever we are thinking about), we think for a purpose, within a point of view, based on assumptions leading to implications and consequences. We use data, facts, and experiences to make inferences and judgments based on concepts and theories in attempting to answer a question, solve a problem, or resolve an issue. In other words, there are eight essential structures in reasoning. To the extent that students fail to use those structures in reasoning through our content, they fail to learn. For elaboration of the elements of reasoning, see the Miniature Guide to the Foundations of Analytic Thinking.
Second, we must recognize the universal standards for thought. Whenever we want to think well through some matter at hand (including "dimensions of diversity), we must not only "monitor" eight structures, we must also assess our use of them with key intellectual standards, as follows: "Am I being clear in my thinking? Am I being accurate? Do I need to be more precise? Am I sticking to the issue (relevance)? Am I dealing with the complexities inherent in the question (depth)? Do I need to consider another point of view (breadth)? Am I thinking logically? Am I thinking in a way that is justifiable or fair?
No matter what issue one is reasoning through, the parts of thinking embedded in the reasoning and the intellectual standards that determine the quality of that reasoning apply. They apply independent of whether one is thinking about culture, ethnicity, race, social class, gender, intellectual development, emotional development, special disabilities, special interests, personality, social adjustment, self-esteem, knowledge, maturity, motivation, degree of conformity to peer group, or creativity. They apply, in short, to all issues and questions involving diversity. They suggest a common approach not only to all such issues, but indeed to all human problems and concerns.
Egocentrism and Sociocentrism
Finally, and most importantly, the major barrier to our ability to reason well through diversity issues is our native egocentrism (and sociocentrism). We naturally operate within the world from our own perspective, and that perspective is often oriented toward self-serving interests. Thus, if to get what we want we must discriminate against other people, our egocentric viewpoint easily enables us to rationalize or justify our actions.
Due to our egocentric mode of thinking, which begins at birth, we come to believe that whatever we believe is true because we believe it. Moreover, we are creatures of mental habit and naturally defend what we already believe. These rigid habits of thought keep us from seeing things from differing perspectives, leading to prejudice in favor of people or groups whose ideas are like our own and against those whose ideas are unlike our own (or who seem different from us in some way).
Thus, humans are not only naturally egocentric but sociocentric as well. We tend to be clannish, and to believe that the groups we belong to are right, privileged, special. Through systematic self-deception we maintain our rigid modes of thinking, avoid recognition of our biases, and treat people and groups without due consideration and respect, even when there is ready evidence to refute our point of view.
It is therefore my contention that any sound diversity curriculum must explicitly foster understanding of the human mind and its native prejudicial tendencies. In other words, if we are attempting to help students learn to treat people from groups different from their own as equals, we must teach them to be aware of, and to guard against, their native egocentric and sociocentric tendencies. Otherwise these very tendencies will keep students from reasoning well through diversity issues.
To illustrate the conception I am arguing for, let me take a couple of issues arising out of "diversity" and demonstrate how critical thinking lays the basis for a sound approach to those issues.
Multiculturalism, Gender Issues, and Critical Thinking
Multiculturalism, for example, emphasizes the importance of respecting all cultures and their unique traditions. An emphasis on gender issues, on the other hand, focuses on the degree to which women have been exploited and oppressed. Of course, approaches to diversity sometimes conflict. For instance, the exploitation and oppression of women usually occurs with the blessing of this or that cultural tradition. What, then, are we to do when it is part of a cultural tradition to oppress some given group? To "respect" the culture seems irreconcilable with critiquing its "oppression. How are we to reconcile these contradictory emphases in two different "diversity" movements? This can only be done through critical thinking. A critical thinking approach reconciles appropriate multicultural thinking on the one hand with fair-minded feminist thinking on the other.
With critical thinking at the foundation of instruction, neither multiculturalism nor feminism are treated as exceptions to the evaluative force of critical thought. With respect to multiculturalism there is an emphasis on the critical assessment of cultural traditions (not all cultural traditions are to be respected simply because they are cultural traditions). With respect to gender issues, not all "feminist" thinking is on the same level of quality. There are contradictions between different brands of feminism-- radical feminism vs. traditional feminism for example. There are also different levels of understanding and insight among different feminist thinkers. In short, merely because one thinks within a feminist or a multicultural point of view does not guarantee that the reasoning one does is clear, accurate, precise, relevant, deep, open-minded, logical and fair.
In the approach I am recommending, students would learn to recognize when a multicultural or feminist perspective is relevant to the issue at hand. They might be assigned tasks requiring them to empathize with both cultural and feminist perspectives and to critically assess thinking within both perspectives. These ends not only integrate the emphasis on cultural and feminist perspectives with historical issues, social issues, ethical issues, political issues, and personal perspectives, they also introduce a necessary emphasis on reading, writing, and speaking skills essential to reasoning through these issues.
Race, Religion, Physical Disability and Critical Thinking
An emphasis on race, religious differences, or physical disabilities usually focuses on the importance of treating people who seem different from us equally and fairly. The basic idea is that every person has a right to be treated without prejudice, and that people should not be discriminated against because of race, religion, or physical disability.
Again, neither of these modes of thinking should be treated as an exception to the evaluative force of critical thought. Merely because one makes a demand based on the purported needs or rights of a certain race or religion or in speaking for persons with a particular physical disability does not guarantee that the reasoning one does is clear, accurate, precise, relevant, deep, open-minded, logical and fair. Moreover, the conflicting demands of multiple groups must be reasoned through and critically assessed.
It is important that students come to understand that, because we are all naturally prejudiced in favor of people who appear to be similar to us, and consequently against people who appear to be different from us, we must consistently guard against such prejudice. Put another way, students must learn to recognize when their natural tendency to prejudge stands in the way of their ability to empathize with someone from another race, religion, or with someone who has a particular disability.
Critical thinking helps students realize that just as "prejudice against" certain people or groups is problematic, "prejudice for" certain groups also creates problems. If we believe, for example, that our race is superior to other races, we fail to recognize that within "our groups" are people who by any reasonable standards would be considered "black-hearted villains," people who routinely manipulate and oppress other people, people who care only for themselves and who, consequently, have no concern for the manner in which their actions influence or harm others.
Through critical thinking, students learn that the reasoning of all groups, including that of our "own" groups, must be critically analyzed and assessed for soundness and justifiability.
The importance of teaching students to reason through complex issues of diversity cannot be underestimated. Yet the best approach to a well-thought-through diversity curriculum is not one that results in further fragmentation along the lines of multiple "diversities." The curriculum cannot successfully jump from race to multiculturalism to feminism to gender issues to learning styles to student preferences to musical and artistic talent to mathematical-logical skills to this and that and this and that and this.
Critical thinking makes an integrated approach to instruction possible. The focus is on developing reasoning abilities in general, on teaching students how to evaluate any form of reasoning, whether their own or someone else’s, whether it is articulated verbally or expressed in written form. Students learn to think through complex issues in a complex way within any domain.
They become intellectually responsible in their approach to thinking through problems and issues, by learning, for example, to take into account all relevant viewpoints whether or not those viewpoints agree with their own or the viewpoints of the groups to which they belong. They realize when an intellectual task involves attention to diversity. They recognize when they are being prejudiced against a person or a group, and they actively work to eliminate their native prejudicial tendencies. Only then can students develop the intellectual integrity vital to reasoning well through issues of diversity.
In short, through critical thinking we place all instruction, including its diversity components, on firm foundation so that improving students’ reasoning abilities, as well as their abilities to evaluate the reasoning of others, becomes the primary focus. Through this integrative approach to instruction, students develop the intellectual tools necessary for understanding and considering individual and group differences, for learning in any subject, for reasoning through any problem in any context, indeed for becoming life-long learners.
Elder, L. (2004).
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