Critical Thinking Education Group

A place for educators and others interested in helping students learn and improve critical thinking skills

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Critical Questions

?What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is a difficult thing to define with much precision. Although academics across diverse fields such as pedagogy, cognitive psychology and curriculum development each have their own understanding of the term, we can summarise the overlap in their views in a single statement;

Critical thinking is a set of values and cognitive strategies employed to rationally evaluate information for its potential usefulness and accuracy.

In this regard, critical thinking covers three fields;

  • Personal values embracing logic, reasoning, objectivity and internal consistency of information
  • Skills and cognitive approaches that allow the individual to search for and evaluate different information sources
  • An appreciation of the relationship between the application of accurate information in decision making and the probability of a predictable outcome

Critical thinking is not synonymous with skepticism, although the two are related concepts. The former is a collection of strategies aimed at evaluating new information. The latter is generally taken to be an epistemology based on the belief that knowledge is never certain, but only ever held in confidence. Critical thinking extends from a skeptical philosophy - the knowledge concluded as a result of critical thinking is tenuous and able to be altered in the light of new information.

As such, critical thinking is an ongoing process where new information is compared with what is known and evaluated against a set of personal criteria. Where new information decreases confidence in a belief, knowledge can be reformed. The outcome is knowledge that has the greatest probability of leading to predictable outcomes in a decision.

?Why is critical thinking important?

Throughout most of human history, survival and wellbeing has primarily relied on how well an individual can contribute to their social group. Communities were strictly personal affairs, with relationships strongest between family members and known peers. The struggle for survival in a dangerous world selected for those brains that worked well within familiar relationships. Therefore the lives of our ancestors depended largely on the sharing of beliefs than over the accuracy of information.

Today's world is a different place. As we move into the future, members of our global community are becoming increasingly reliant on information that leads to good decision making. An increasing reliance on science and technology to make decisions about our health, finance and state of mind demands information that has the best chance of proving useful. With useful information becoming such a commodity, it's important that tomorrow's citizens will have the ability to find and apply it successfully.

In an age of diverse media, especially with regards to the internet, information sources present confusing options. Not all information is equal. Teaching people to understand the context and cues associated with good information gives them the ability to make better informed decisions that will have the best chance of leading to those outcomes they wish for.

Taking a broader perspective, good information creates new fields of innovation and discovery that can help society as a whole better meet the challenges of a changing world.

?How is critical thinking learned?

There is no simple answer to this question that can be applied to consistantly produce critical thinkers. There are a number of reasons for this, including the need for individuals to have adopted an epistemology that is compatable with critical thinking, and the question of precisely which cognitive skills and strategies best reflect critical thinking practices. The relationship between these values and the skills is also a complex one.

Epistemologies tend to develop early in life, formed in relation to the beliefs and values of the social group in which we are raised. As such, critical thinking is not an innate practice as much as it is the result of a combination of social factors that come together as a person grows and develops. The philosophical values that tend to contribute best to critical thinking strategies are those that view all knowledge with some skepticism, regardless of its origin. This places critical thinking at odds with philosophies that elevate some bodies of knowledge to being dogmatic and beyond question. Additionally, many logical fallacies arise out of the social instincts we are all born with. It's difficult to avoid seeing positive correlations between the accuracy of information and our personal affection for a friend or relative.

From a young age, many people are taught that being wrong is something to avoid. This is typically done with the best intentions, encouraging children to seek out the 'correct' answer through discouraging them to settle on the 'incorrect' one. However, the result is often the establishment of a value that states possessing incorrect information is a bad thing. Consequently, beliefs are openly defended for fear of being seen as wrong. Once again, such values conflict with those required for critical thinking, which relies on the ability to view information as right or wrong without fear of personal judgement.

The development of such values that are compatible with critical thinking is crucial to its practice in later years. While it's possible for an adolescent or young adult to learn critical thinking strategies, often the results aren't long-lasting.

It is difficult to outline a complete list of the strategies that form the core practice of critical thinking. To mention and describe all of the skills mentioned by even a small selection of academics would take several pages, and serve little purpose. Undoubtedly some would be arguable, and in any case many would feel that the list was incomplete or lacked some significant detail. Most of it would be shared by the skill sets described in any given science curriculum, highlighting the link between critical thinking and scientific reasoning. In any case, the skills, strategies and content which promotes critical thinking in an individual can be learned almost anywhere, arising from an interest in the relationship between good information and the contextual clues that describes it.

Keeping these points in mind, it is possible to teach a percentage of people to think critically. Knowing how to do this effectively and efficiently continues to be a point of discussion.

?What is currently being done to promote critical thinking?

  • Critical Thinking is required coursework in college and today many elementary schools are incorporating critical thinking exercises and approaches in their curricula.
  • A number of organizations are active in preventing changes to science curricula which would impede, rather than promote, critical thinking.