A Thought (or two) on Critical Thinking

One of our central course learning objectives is critical thinking, but I fear we use the term that it has become a buzzword, devoid of meaning.  Here are some thoughts on how you might talk about and apply critical thinking in your FYS.

Critical thinking might be, as Peter Elbow (2008) describes, a competition between a believing game and a doubting game, where it is more important to be open than skeptical.

He says, “the believing game is the disciplined practice of trying to be as welcoming or accepting as possible to every idea we encounter: not just listening to views different from our own and holding back from arguing with them; not just trying to restate them without bias; but actually trying to believe them.”

Michael Basseches takes a similar tack to Elbow.  In “The Development of Dialectical Thinking as an Approach to Integration” (2005), in that he talks about the need to accept other points of view. He offers that students need to learn how to resolve multiple and conflicting frames of reference toward “collective meaning-making.”  It’s about nuance.

Others see it as “the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it (Paul & Elder, 2009).  They apply intellectual standards to eight key elements of thoughts to develop traits – habits of mind, if you will – toward that end.  Their short guides are quite practical (I use them a lot when talking to undergraduates).

But then Daniel Willingham steps in and says that Critical Thinking is not a skill, and therefore cannot be acquired and put to use.  His idea is that there are certain metacognitive strategies that, once learned, make critical thinking more likely (Willingham, 2007).

Willingham added that these strategies depend upon domain knowledge and practice.  In other words, we must foster its development in context to a subject. I think Willingham hits upon the right idea:  it’s about using strategies to improve judgment in our field of study.

Whew.  Now what? As FYS calls for critical thinking, we’d better find a way to reconcile some of these ideas.  We owe our students more than buzzwords.

To my mind one of the hardest of the “skills” to foster is “seeing the other.”  Empathy.  Not agreeing with (necessarily) but truly appreciating the other’s frame of reference and point of view.

It’s about listening … not simply waiting for the other guy to shut up so we can offer our position again.  It’s about putting aside what Steve Gerras calls our egocentric tendencies (2008).

That’s the subject of today’s blog.

Dr. Ivan Tirado shared with me a clever icebreaker – he asks his students to turn around (with the room at their back) and take “selfies.” What they capture are small snippets of what’s around them.  They’re all in the same room, taking similar pictures, and each view is unique.  And none capture the full picture.

We’re they to make a decision about what happened in class that day using only their picture, their fact wouldn’t be wrong, but it would be misleading.  The lesson?  Point of view matters.

Point of view is a critical thinking term that represents our unique frames of reference.  It’s is not synonymous with opinion. It is a perspective that is based on the unconscious biases we have, biases that stem from our personal histories and experience, our families, our religion, and our economic status.

And like Ivan’s pictures, our frame of reference is usually somewhat narrow and incomplete.

That does not mean they are unreasonable or inaccurate (Jessim, Jarret, Crawford, & Rubinstein, 2015) but it’s important for us to recognize their presence and the role they play in how we process and infer meaning from information.

Stephen Gerras (2008) calls this an egocentric tendency – a lack of self-awareness around our myopia.

Sometimes (I dare say) people who are unaware of their egocentric tendencies commit the logical fallacy of confirmation bias:  they look for information that conforms to their existing point of view.  What makes this tendency so insipid is that we hardly notice it, and we’re as bad sometimes as our students (Duarte, et al, 2015).

It’s probably why Gerras’ (2008) posits this is the most significant barrier to critical thinking.  We therefore need cognitive strategies that help us and students reduce this barrier…to strive for better self-awareness and empathy.  Fortunately (and not coincidentally!) the simplest strategy is what we’re already teaching!  We need to get in the habit of asking good questions.

Who is the speaker/author?  What is their background?  Do they have an agenda?  If we’re reading a study, do we know the source of their funding?  Do I have an agenda as I read or listen?

We should be as quick to question an environmental study funded by environmental group as an energy company.

Is the speak/author citing evidence that’s from a reputable source?  There’s a difference between a peer reviewed journal and the Mother Jones or National Review.  Where do I like to get my information?

Does the author/speaker show fair consideration to opposing arguments?  Do they represent other points of view fairly and honestly, even if they’ve come to a different conclusion?

Paul and Elder offer a nice set of questions, ones that I’ve found useful for students learning how to challenge each other in class:

  • Clarity:  Could you elaborate further?  Could you give us an example?
  • Accuracy:  How could we check on that?
  • Precision:  Could you be more specific?
  • Breadth:  Do we need to look at this from another perspective?
  • Logic:  Does what you say follow from the evidence?
  • Fairness:  Do you (or I) have any vested interest in this issue?

If you want to introduce some basic concepts and terms in your class, you will find a complete list of questions and other great information in their limited download booklet, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking concept and tools, found here:  https://www.criticalthinking.org/files/Concepts_Tools.pdf:


Basseches, M. (2005). The development of dialectical thinking as an approach to integration. Integral Review, (1), 47-63.

Duarte, J. L., Crawford, J. T., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. E. (2014;2015;). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 1-54. doi:10.1017/S0140525X14000430

Elbow, P. (2008). The believing game: methodological believing.  http://scholarworks.umass.edu/eng_faculty_pubs/5/

Gerras, S. (2008). Thinking critically about critical thinking:  fundamental guide for strategic leaders.  http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army-usawc/crit_thkg_gerras.pdf

Jussim, L., Crawford, J. T., & Rubinstein, R. S. (2015). Stereotype (in)accuracy in perceptions of groups and individuals. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(6), 490-497. doi:10.1177/0963721415605257


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