Critical Thinking

I am interested in this post and post on critical thinking.

Is critical thinking a skill?  Can one teach critical thinking?

Stephen has delivered the course on Critical Literacies MOOC in the past.  He says: reasoning skills do not change from discipline to discipline. Here’s Stephen’s response.

Stephen responds in his comments:

Critical thinking cuts a wide swatch across all disciplines. Just like with mathematics, the principles of critical thinking do not change from one domain to the next.

Alex says here

The last bullet….suggests that logical argumentation and reason are not absolutes but are instead ideological products of the relations “among language, knowledge and power.” This is a familiar view to anyone with experience in critical theory, postmodernism, cultural studies, etc. This view would suggest that the evaluative processes supported by logical argumentation and reason are not critical at all, or at least are not sufficient.

He further comments:

As for commercial interests in critical thinking, obviously there’s a criticalthinking.com. There are courses like this one: http://www.mhprofessional.com/…. And there are many, many tests. All of this hinges on a common curriculum and concept of critical thinking.

To reiterate, I don’t have a problem with this content being taught. I disagree with its claims toward universality, but I’m fine with people teaching things I disagree with. I can tell you that what is described here and in “critical thinking” textbooks is not what people in English mean when they say critical thinking. They mean something that is connected to ideological critique and would not be universalist.

There are a few questions that I would like to explore and reflect:

1. Do principles of critical thinking change from one domain to the next?

2. Are logical argumentation and reason absolutes?  Are they ideological productions of the relations among language, knowledge and power?

3. Is critical thinking connected to ideological critique and would not be universalist?

I have shared here on logic and reasoning, and here on critical thinking.

1. Do principles of critical thinking change from one domain to the next?

First, what is critical thinking?

Robert H. Ennis, Author of The Cornell Critical Thinking Tests
“Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe and do.”

Assuming that critical thinking is reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do, a critical thinker:

1. Is open-minded and mindful of alternatives
2. Tries to be well-informed
3. Judges well the credibility of sources
4. Identifies conclusions, reasons, and assumptions
5. Judges well the quality of an argument, including the acceptability of its reasons, assumptions, and evidence
6. Can well develop and defend a reasonable position
7. Asks appropriate clarifying questions
8. Formulates plausible hypotheses; plans experiments well
9. Defines terms in a way appropriate for the context
10. Draws conclusions when warranted, but with caution
11. Integrates all items in this list when deciding what to believe or do

What are the principles of critical thinking?

  1. Knowledge is acquired only through thinking, reasoning, and questioning. Knowledge is based on facts.
  2. It is only from learning how to think that you learn what to think.
  3. Critical thinking is an organized and systematic process used to judge the effectiveness of an argument.
  4. Critical thinking is a search for meaning.
  5. Critical thinking is a skill that can be learned.

Do the above principles hold true and won’t change from one domain to the next? 

We might have to examine each of the principles and verify if they are reflective of realities.

1. Is knowledge acquired ONLY through thinking, reasoning, and questioning? Is knowledge based on facts?

2. Is it true that you learn what to think only from learning how to think?

3. Is critical thinking an organized and systematic process used to judge the effectiveness of an argument?

4. is critical thinking a search for meaning?

5. Is critical thinking a skill that can be learnt?

Critical thinking refers to a higher level of thinking which is guided by knowledge and evidence.  Reason and evidence is fundamental in such thinking process.  Reasoning needs to be based on sound logic.  Such critical thinking would also need to be guided by reasoning and  evidence collected, analysed and evaluated.

Critical thinking is then a way to support intellectual independence.

Critical thinking requires:

Intellectual discipline

Clear expression of ideas

Acceptance of personal responsibility for our own thinking.

Based on the above arguments, I would agree with principles 3, 4, and 5 on critical thinking.

On principle 1, we might have to define what we mean by “facts” before we could establish that knowledge is based on facts.

On principle 2, we might have to understand and apply how to think about a subject discipline based on the context.

I think that is the crucial point between the arguments presented by Stephen and Alex.

From what I could interpret from Alex’s argument, critical thinking has been translated to mean close reading and comprehension in English reading, and it is important that for the learners to understand and interpret the relations “among language, knowledge and power”  in order to critically analyse the author’s intention in writing, and the reasoning in academic writings and discourse.

Would such way of “critical thinking” be different when viewed in the lens of different disciplines or domain – in Biology, Physics, Engineering?  I think it depends on the context.  Critical thinking may be an absolute “construct” but would be interpreted quite differently by scientists, artists and philosophers, mainly because of the differences in their way of interpreting the world.

I think if the principle 2 is agreed upon by experts of different domains, then there could be possibility of coming into some common “ways” and principles of critical thinking.

I think critical thinking is a skill that can be learnt, but then whether it can be taught is still moot.

I would continue to explore the following questions in subsequent posts:

2. Are logical argumentation and reason absolutes?  Are they ideological productions of the relations among language, knowledge and power?

3. Is critical thinking connected to ideological critique and would not be universalist?

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65 thoughts on “Critical Thinking

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  2. I’m rather inclined to think that ‘critical thinking’ is a value-laden concept that, while it may ‘cut a wide swath across (some) disciplines”, is a product of a positivist paradigm that fails when it refuses to acknowledge other paradigms.

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  41. Would you be interested in this http://www.criticalthinking.org/files/Concepts_Tools.pdf? Relating to critical thinking, there are weak-sense and strong-sense critical thinkers.
    “The weak-sense critical thinker is a highly skilled but selfishly motivated pseudo-intellectual who works to advance one’s personal agenda without seriously considering the ethical consequences and implications. Conceived as such, the weak-sense critical thinker is often highly skilled but uses those skills selectively so as to pursue unjust and selfish ends (Paul, 1995).
    Conversely, the strong-sense critical thinker skillfully enters into the logic of problems and issues to see the problem for what it is without egocentric and/or socio-centric bias. Thus conceived, the strong-sense mind seeks to actively, systematically, reflectively, and fair-mindedly construct insight with sensitivity to expose and address the many obstacles that compromise high quality thought and learning. Using strong critical thinking we might evaluate an argument, for example, as worthy of acceptance because it is valid and based on true premises.”
    If the above argument holds true, then critical thinking could be conceived as a way of thinking that would allow one to pursue unjust and selfish ends, and might be biased towards ego-centrism or socio-centrism, based on “logical” arguments and intellectualism.

  42. Hi Ken,
    Would you like to quote an example on how it refuses to acknowledge other paradigms? when you say: “is a product of a positivist paradigm that fails when it refuses to acknowledge other paradigms.”

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  44. Is thinking a skill? Can critical thinking be taught? “Teaching rules and principles governing the execution of skills is not necessary for student acquisition of the skill, and may often be educationally counterproductive: bicycle riding may depend upon the laws of physics, but it would be a pedagogical mistake to teach children to ride their bikes by teaching them the relevant physics and encouraging them to apply that understanding of physics to their cycling” (Johnson and Siegel 2010, p. 58) “Is thinking a skill that can be improved by practice? While practice seems appropriate in the case of a skill where one can decide to exercise the skill and then monitor and control it with respect to a known end product, that appropriateness is problematic when applied to thinking because (a) in the area of the intellect it is not obvious that one can decide to do this, and (b) thinking will often not have a known end-product; it will often lead to more questions or deeper perplexity.” (p. 59). Thinking critically could be relating to the quality – the skillfulness of that thinking, the degree to which it meets relevant criteria (Bailin and Siegel 2003, p. 183)

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  50. Hello John. Yes, this is a strong statement:

    > when you say: “is a product of a positivist paradigm that fails when it refuses to acknowledge other paradigms.”

    Perhaps it would be better phrased as: “is a product of a positivist paradigm that fails when it asserts its universality within other paradigms”

    We see the assertion of universality in a statement such as “the principles of critical thinking do not change from one domain to the next.”.

    It is the assertion of universality that I question (and I note that you are pursuing similar questions as referenced at the end of your main post here).

  51. Hart (1998) discusses a study of the Azande people of southern Sudan.

    “Contemporary views held the position that tribal peoples tended to have a primitive mentality: they were intellectual inferiors to Europeans. Comparing Western scientific logic with the superstitions and myths of tribal people was the norm for research” (p.84).

    The study of the Azande people refuted the claim of primitiveness: “Trying to compare and measure notions about intellectual superiority were….inappropriate due to the fact that Western science and Azande witchcraft are incomparable: they are two different ways of thinking about the world and of organizing daily activities” (p.85).

    Reference: Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.

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