Critical thinking

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Critical thinking is the careful, deliberate determination of whether we should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which we accept or reject it.[1] It is a purposeful and reflective judgment about what to believe or what to do in response to observations, experience, verbal or written expressions, or arguments. Critical thinking might involve determining the meaning and significance of what is observed or expressed, or, concerning a given inference or argument, determining whether there is adequate justification to accept the conclusion as true. Hence, Fisher & Scriven define critical thinking as "Skilled, active, interpretation and evaluation of observations, communications, information, and argumentation."[2]

Critical thinking gives due consideration to the evidence, the context of judgment, the relevant criteria for making the judgment well, the applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment, and the applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the nature of the problem and the question at hand. Critical thinking employs not only logic but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance and fairness.

In contemporary usage "critical" has the connotation of expressing disapproval,[3] which is not always true of critical thinking. A critical evaluation of an argument, for example, might conclude that it is good.


[edit] Overview

Thinking is often casual or routine, whereas critical thinking deliberately evaluates the quality of thinking. In a seminal study on critical thinking and education in 1941, Edward Glaser writes that the ability to think critically involves three things:[4]

  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 can occur whenever one judges, decides, or solves a problem; in general, whenever one must figure out what to believe or what to do, and do so in a reasonable and reflective way. 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.”[5] 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.

Critical thinking is an important element of all professional fields and academic disciplines (by referencing their respective sets of permissible questions, evidence sources, criteria, etc.). Within the framework of scientific skepticism, the process of critical thinking involves the careful acquisition and interpretation of information and use of it to reach a well-justified conclusion. The 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.

Critical thinking is important, because it enables one to analyze, evaluate, explain, and restructure our thinking, decreasing thereby the risk of adopting, acting on, or thinking with, a false belief. However, even with knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, mistakes can happen due to a thinker's inability to apply the methods or because of character traits such as egocentrism. Critical thinking includes identification of prejudice, bias, propaganda, self-deception, distortion, misinformation, etc. Given research in cognitive psychology, some educators believe that schools should focus on teaching their students critical thinking skills and cultivating intellectual traits.

[edit] Dispositions

Critical thinking is about being both willing and able to evaluate one's thinking. Thinking might be criticized because one does not have all the relevant information - indeed, important information may remain undiscovered, or the information may not even be knowable - or because one makes unjustified inferences, uses inappropriate concepts, or fails to notice important implications. One's thinking may be unclear, inaccurate, imprecise, irrelevant, narrow, shallow, illogical, or trivial, due to ignorance or misapplication of the appropriate skills of thinking. On the other hand, one's thinking might be criticized as being the result of a sub-optimal disposition. 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 an opposite disposition [and are intellectually arrogant, biased, intolerant, disorganized, lazy, heedless of consequences, indifferent toward new information, mistrustful of reasoning, imprudent] are more likely to encounter problems in using their critical thinking skills. Failure to recognize the importance of correct dispositions can lead to various forms of self-deception and closed-mindedness, both individually and collectively.[6]

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 and often unethical, thought. In short, the sophist, the con artist, the manipulator often uses intellectually defective but effective forms of thought. While critical thinking skills might be considered largely "objective", few humans notice the degree to which they uncritically fail to discern their own “subjectivity” and one-sidedness.

The relationship between critical thinking skills and critical thinking dispositions is an empirical question. Some people 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[7] and the California Measure of Mental Motivation.[8]

There is no simple way to develop the intellectual traits of a critical thinker. One important way requires 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 traits, 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.

[edit] Concepts and principles

Critical thinking is based on concepts and principles, not on hard and fast, or step-by-step, procedures.[9]

Critical thinking employs not only logic (either formal or, much more often, informal) but broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance.

[edit] 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, Durham 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.[10] 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.[11] From 2008, Assessment and Qualifications Alliance will also be offering an A-level Critical Thinking specification;[12] 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.

[edit] The status of instruction in critical thinking X

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.[13] 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.”

[edit] Quotations

William Graham Sumner offers a useful summary of critical thinking:[14]

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.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Parker and Moore, Critical Thinking
  2. ^ Fisher & Scriven, 1997, p. 20
  3. ^ According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest uses of "critical" (1580) had acquired negative connotations. By 1650, however, it was being used in the sense of "involving or exercising careful judgment or observation," though the OED calls this sense obsolete "or merged in other senses." The phrase "critical thinking" appears to be an example of the survival of this positive sense.
  4. ^ Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941.[page number needed]
  5. ^ Sumner (1906) p. 633
  6. ^ See Roderick Hindery (2001): Indoctrination and Self-deception or Free and Critical Thought.
  7. ^ About The California Critical Thinking Disposition Inventory by Thomas F. Nelson Laird, Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research
  8. ^ Research on Sociocultural Influences on Motivation and Learning, page 46
  9. ^ Paul, Dr. Richard; Elder, Dr. Linda, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools. Dillon Beach: Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0944583104.[page number needed]
  10. ^ Critical Thinking FAQs from Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations
  11. ^ "Thinking Skills", University of Cambridge Local Examinations
  12. ^ "New GCEs for 2008", Assessment and Qualifications Alliance
  13. ^ Lion Gardiner, Redesigning Higher Education: Producing Dramatic Gains in Student Learning, in conjunction with: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, 1995
  14. ^ Sumner (1906) p. 633

[edit] References

[edit] External links

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