Critical Thinking Solutions

To think well is to impose discipline and restraint on our thinking-by means of intellectual standards — in order to raise our thinking to a level of "perfection" or quality that is not natural or likely in undisciplined, spontaneous thought. The dimension of critical thinking least understood is that of  "intellectual standards." Most teachers were not taught how to assess thinking through standards; indeed, often the thinking of teachers themselves is very "undisciplined" and reflects a lack of internalized intellectual standards.

Question: Could you give me an example?

Paul: Certainly, one of the most important distinctions that teachers need to routinely make, and which takes disciplined thinking to make, is that between reasoning and subjective reaction.

If we are trying to foster quality thinking, we don't want students simply to assert things; we want them to try to reason things out on the basis of evidence and good reasons. Often, teachers are unclear about this basic difference. Many teachers are apt to take student writing or speech which is fluent and witty or glib and amusing as good thinking. They are often unclear about the constituents of good reasoning. Hence, even though a student may just be asserting things, not reasoning things out at all, if she is doing so with vivacity and flamboyance, teachers are apt to take this to be equivalent to good reasoning.

This was made clear in a recent California state-wide writing assessment in which teachers and testers applauded a student essay, which they said illustrated "exceptional achievement" in reasoned evaluation, an essay that contained no reasoning at all, that was nothing more than one subjective reaction after another. (See "Why Students-and Teachers-Don't Reason Well")

The assessing teachers and testers did not notice that the student failed to respond to the directions, did not support his judgment with reasons and evidence, did not consider possible criteria on which to base his judgment, did not analyze the subject in the light of the criteria, and did not select evidence that clearly supported his judgment. Instead the student:

described an emotional exchange

asserted-without evidence-some questionable claims

expressed a variety of subjective preferences

The assessing teachers were apparently not clear enough about the nature of evaluative reasoning or the basic notions of criteria, evidence, reasons, and well-supported judgment to notice the discrepancy. The result was, by the way, that a flagrantly mis-graded student essay was showcased nationally (in ASCD's Developing Minds), systematically misleading the 150,000 or so teachers who read the publication.

Question: Could this possibly be a rare mistake, not representative of teacher knowledge?

Paul: I don't think so. Let me suggest a way in which you could begin to test my contention. If you are familiar with any thinking skills programs, ask someone knowledgeable about it the "Where's the beef?" question. Namely, "What intellectual standards does the program articulate and teach?" I think you will first find that the person is puzzled about what you mean. And then when you explain what you mean, I think you will find that the person is not able to articulate any such standards. Thinking skills programs without intellectual standards are tailor-made for mis-instruction. For example, one of the major programs asks teachers to encourage students to make inferences and use analogies, but is silent about how to teach students to assess the inferences they make and the strengths and weaknesses of the analogies they use. This misses the point. The idea is not to help students to make more inferences but to make sound ones, not to help students to come up with more analogies but with more useful and insightful ones.

Question: What is the solution to this problem? How, as a practical matter, can we solve it?

Paul: Well, not with more gimmicks or quick fixes. Not with more fluff for teachers. Only with quality long-term staff development that helps the teachers, over an extended period of time, over years not months, to work on their own thinking and come to terms with what intellectual standards are, why they are essential, and how to teach for them. The State Department in Hawaii has just such a long-term, quality, critical thinking program (see "mentor program"). So that's one model your readers might look at. In addition, the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction is focused precisely on the articulation of standards for thinking. I am hopeful that eventually, through efforts such as these, we can move from the superficial to the substantial in fostering quality student thinking. The present level of instruction for thinking is very low indeed.

Question: But there are many areas of concern in instruction, not just one, not just critical thinking, but communication skills, problem solving, creative thinking, collaborative learning, self-esteem, and so forth. How are districts to deal with the full array of needs? How are they to do all of these rather than simply one, no matter how important that one may be?

Paul: This is the key. Everything essential to education supports everything else essential to education. It is only when good things in education are viewed superficially and wrongly that they seem disconnected, a bunch of separate goals, a conglomeration of separate problems, like so many bee-bees in a bag. In fact, any well-conceived program in critical thinking requires the integration of all of the skills and abilities you mentioned above. Hence, critical thinking is not a set of skills separable from excellence in communication, problem solving, creative thinking, or collaborative learning, nor is it indifferent to one's sense of self-worth.

Question: Could you explain briefly why this is so?

Paul: Consider critical thinking first. We think critically when we have at least one problem to solve. One is not doing good critical thinking, therefore, if one is not solving any problems. If there is no problem there is no point in thinking critically. The "opposite" is also true. Uncritical problem solving is unintelligible. There is no way to solve problems effectively unless one thinks critically about the nature of the problems and of how to go about solving them. Thinking our way through a problem to a solution, then, is critical thinking, not something else. Furthermore, critical thinking, because it involves our working out afresh our own thinking on a subject, and because our own thinking is always a unique product of our self-structured experience, ideas, and reasoning, is intrinsically a new "creation", a new "making", a new set of cognitive and affective structures of some kind. All thinking, in short, is a creation of the mind's work, and when it is disciplined so as to be well-integrated into our experience, it is a new creation precisely because of the inevitable novelty of that integration. And when it helps us to solve problems that we could not solve before, it is surely properly called "creative".

The "making" and the "testing of that making" are intimately interconnected. In critical thinking we make and shape ideas and experiences so that they may be used to structure and solve problems, frame decisions, and, as the case may be, effectively communicate with others. The making, shaping, testing, structuring, solving, and communicating are not different activities of a fragmented mind but the same seamless whole viewed from different perspectives.

Question: How do communication skills fit in?

Paul: Some communication is surface communication, trivial communication--surface and trivial communication don't really require education. All of us can engage in small talk, can share gossip. And we don't require any intricate skills to do that fairly well. Where communication becomes part of our educational goal is in reading, writing, speaking and listening. These are the four modalities of communication which are essential to education and each of them is a mode of reasoning. Each of them involves problems. Each of them is shot through with critical thinking needs. Take the apparently simple matter of reading a book worth reading. The author has developed her thinking in the book, has taken some ideas and in some way represented those ideas in extended form. Our job as a reader is to translate the meaning of the author into meanings that we can understand.

This is a complicated process requiring critical thinking every step along the way.

What is the purpose for the book?

What is the author trying to accomplish?

What issues or problems are raised?

What data, what experiences, what evidence are given?

What concepts are used to organize this data, these experiences?

How is the author thinking about the world?

Is her thinking justified as far as we can see from our perspective?

And how does she justify it from her perspective?

How can we enter her perspective to appreciate what she has to say?

All of these are the kinds of questions that a critical reader raises. And a critical reader in this sense is simply someone trying to come to terms with the text.

So if one is an uncritical reader, writer, speaker, or listener, one is not a good reader, writer, speaker, or listener at all. To do any of these well is to think critically while doing so and, at one and the same time, to solve specific problems of communication, hence to effectively communicate.

Communication, in short, is always a transaction between at least two logics. In reading, as I have said, there is the logic of the thinking of the author and the logic of the thinking of the reader. The critical reader reconstructs (and so translates) the logic of the writer into the logic of the reader's thinking and experience. This entails disciplined intellectual work. The end result is a new creation; the writer's thinking for the first time now exists within the reader's mind. No mean feat!

Question: And self esteem? How does it fit in?

Paul: Healthy self-esteem emerges from a justified sense of self-worth, just as self-worth emerges from competence, ability, and genuine success. If one simply feels good about oneself for no good reason, then one is either arrogant (which is surely not desirable) or, alternatively, has a dangerous sense of misplaced confidence. Teenagers, for example, sometimes think so well of themselves that they operate under the illusion that they can safely drive while drunk or safely take drugs. They often feel much too highly of their own competence and powers and are much too unaware of their limitations. To accurately sort out genuine self-worth from a false sense of self-esteem requires, yes you guessed it, critical thinking.

Question: And finally, what about collaborative learning? How does it fit in?

Paul: Collaborative learning is desirable only if grounded in disciplined critical thinking. Without critical thinking, collaborative learning is likely to become collaborative mis-learning. It is collective bad thinking in which the bad thinking being shared becomes validated. Remember, gossip is a form of collaborative learning; peer group indoctrination is a form of collaborative learning; mass hysteria is a form of speed collaborative learning (mass learning of a most undesirable kind). We learn prejudices collaboratively, social hates and fears collaboratively, stereotypes and narrowness of mind, collaboratively. If we don’t put disciplined critical thinking into the heart and soul of the collaboration, we get the mode of collaboration which is antithetical to education, knowledge, and insight.

So there are a lot of important educational goals deeply tied into critical thinking just as critical thinking is deeply tied into them. Basically the problem in the schools is that we separate things, treat them in isolation and mistreat them as a result. We end up with a superficial representation, then, of each of the individual things that is essential to education, rather than seeing how each important good thing helps inform all the others

Question: One important aim of schooling should be to create a climate that evokes children’s sense of wonder and inspires their imagination to soar. What can teachers do to "kindle" this spark and keep it alive in education?

Paul: First of all, we kill the child's curiosity, her desire to question deeply, by superficial didactic instruction. Young children continually ask why. Why this and why that? And why this other thing? But we soon shut that curiosity down with glib answers, answers to fend off rather than to respond to the logic of the question. In every field of knowledge, every answer generates more questions, so that the more we know the more we recognize we don't know. It is only people who have little knowledge who take their knowledge to be complete and entire. If we thought deeply about almost any of the answers which we glibly give to children, we would recognize that we don't really have a satisfactory answer to most of their questions. Many of our answers are no more than a repetition of what we as children heard from adults. We pass on the misconceptions of our parents and those of their parents. We say what we heard, not what we know. We rarely join the quest with our children. We rarely admit our ignorance, even to ourselves. Why does rain fall from the sky? Why is snow cold? What is electricity and how does it go through the wire? Why are people bad? Why does evil exist? Why is there war? Why did my dog have to die? Why do flowers bloom? Do we really have good answers to these questions?

Question: How does curiosity fit in with critical thinking?

Paul: To flourish, curiosity must evolve into disciplined inquiry and reflection. Left to itself it will soar like a kite without a tail, that is, right into the ground! Intellectual curiosity is an important trait of mind, but it requires a family of other traits to fulfill it. It requires intellectual humility, intellectual courage, intellectual integrity, intellectual perseverance, and faith in reason. After all, intellectual curiosity is not a thing in itself — valuable in itself and for itself. It is valuable because it can lead to knowledge, understanding, and insight; because it can help broaden, deepen, sharpen our minds, making us better, more humane, more richly endowed persons.

To reach these ends, the mind must be more than curious, it must be willing to work, willing to suffer through confusion and frustration, willing to face limitations and overcome obstacles, open to the views of others, and willing to entertain ideas that many people find threatening. That is, there is no point in our trying to model and encourage curiosity, if we are not willing to foster an environment in which the minds of our students can learn the value and pain of hard intellectual work. We do our students a disservice if we imply that all we need is unbridled curiosity, that with it alone knowledge comes to us with blissful ease in an atmosphere of fun, fun, fun.

What good is curiosity if we don't know what to do next or how to satisfy it? We can create the environment necessary to the discipline, power, joy, and work of critical thinking only by modeling it before and with our students. They must see our minds at work. Our minds must stimulate theirs with questions and yet further question; questions that probe information and experience; questions that call for reasons and evidence; questions that lead students to examine interpretations and conclusions, pursuing their basis in fact and experience; questions that help students to discover their assumptions, questions that stimulate students to follow out the implications of their thought, to test their ideas, to take their ideas apart, to challenge their ideas, to take their ideas seriously. It is in the totality of this intellectually rigorous atmosphere that natural curiosity thrives.

Question: It is important for our students to be productive members of the work-force. How can schools better prepare students to meet these challenges?

Paul: The fundamental characteristic of the world students now enter is ever-accelerating change; a world in which information is multiplying even as it is swiftly becoming obsolete and out of date; a world in which ideas are continually restructured, retested, and rethought; where one cannot survive with simply one way of thinking; where one must continually adapt one's thinking to the thinking of others; where one must respect the need for accuracy and precision and meticulousness; a world in which job skills must continually be upgraded and perfected — even transformed. We have never had to face such a world before. Education has never before had to prepare students for such dynamic flux, unpredictability, and complexity for such ferment, tumult, and disarray.

We as educators are now on the firing line.

Are we willing to fundamentally rethink our methods of teaching?

Are we ready for the 21st Century?

Are we willing to learn new concepts and ideas?

Are we willing to learn a new sense of discipline as we teach it to our students?

Are we willing to bring new rigor to our own thinking in order to help our students bring that same rigor to theirs?

Are we willing, in short, to become critical thinkers so that we might be an example of what our students must internalize and become?

These are profound challenges to the profession. They call upon us to do what no previous generation of teachers was ever called upon to do. Those of us willing to pay the price will yet have to teach side by side with teachers unwilling to pay the price. This will make our job even more difficult, but not less exciting, not less important, not less rewarding. Critical thinking is the heart of well-conceived educational reform and restructuring, because it is at the heart of the changes of the 21st Century. Let us hope that enough of us will have the fortitude and vision to grasp this reality and transform our lives and our schools accordingly.

Question: National standards will result in national accountability. What is your vision for the future?

Paul: Most of the national assessment we have done thus far is based on lower-order learning and thinking. It has focused on what might be called surface knowledge. It has rewarded the kind of thinking that lends itself to multiple choice machine-graded assessment. We now recognize that the assessment of the future must focus on higher – not lower – order thinking; that it must assess more reasoning than recall; that it must assess authentic performances, students engaged in bona fide intellectual work.

Our problem is in designing and implementing such assessment. In November of this last year, Gerald Nosich and I developed and presented, at the request of the U.S. Department of Education, a model for the national assessment of higher order thinking. At a follow-up meeting of critical thinking's problem-solving, communication, and testing scholars and practitioners, it was almost unanimously agreed that it is possible to assess higher-order thinking on a national scale. It was clear from the commitments of the departments of Education, Labor, and Commerce that such an assessment is in the cards.

The fact is, we must have standards and assessment strategies for higher-order thinking for a number of reasons.

First, assessment and accountability are here to stay. The public will not accept less.

Second, what is not assessed is not, on the whole, taught.

Third, what is mis-assessed is mis-taught.

Fourth, higher-order thinking, critical thinking abilities, are increasingly crucial to success in every domain of personal and professional life.

Fifth, critical thinking research is making the cultivation and assessment of higher-order thinking do-able.

The road will not be easy, but if we take the knowledge, understanding, and insights we have gained about critical thinking over the last twelve years, there is much that we could do in assessment that we haven't yet done — at the level of the individual classroom teacher, at the level of the school system, at the level of the state, and at the national level.

Of course, we want to do this in such a way as not to commit the "Harvard Fallacy;" the mistaken notion that because graduates from Harvard are very successful, that the teaching at Harvard necessarily had something to do with it.

It may be that the best prepared and well-connected students coming out of high school are going to end up as the best who graduate from college, no matter what college they attend. We need to focus our assessment, in other words, on how much value has been added by an institution. We need to know where students stood at the beginning, to assess the instruction they received on their way from the beginning to the end. We need pre-and post-testing and assessment in order to see which schools, which institutions, which districts are really adding value, and significant value, to the quality of thinking and learning of their students.

Finally, we have to realize that we already have instruments available for assessing what might be called the fine-textured micro-skills of critical thinking. We already know how to design prompts that test students' ability to identify a plausible statement of a writer's purpose; distinguish clearly between purposes; inferences, assumptions, and consequences; discuss reasonably the merits of different versions of a problem or question; decide the most reasonable statement of an author's point of view; recognize bias, narrowness, and contradictions in the point of view of an excerpt; distinguish evidence from conclusions based on that evidence; give evidence to back up their positions in an essay; recognize conclusions that go beyond the evidence; distinguish central from peripheral concepts; identify crucial implications of a passage; evaluate an author's inferences; draw reasonable inferences from positions stated . . . and so on.

With respect to intellectual standards, we are quite able to design prompts that require students to recognize clarity in contrast to unclarity; distinguish accurate from inaccurate accounts; decide when a statement is relevant or irrelevant to a given point; identify inconsistent positions as well as consistent ones; discriminate deep, complete, and significant accounts from those that are superficial, fragmentary, and trivial; evaluate responses with respect to their fairness; distinguish well-evidenced accounts from those unsupported by reasons and evidence; and tell good reasons from bad.

With respect to large scale essay assessment, we know enough now about random sampling to be able to require extended reasoning and writing without having to pay for the individual assessment of millions of essays.

What remains is to put what we know into action: at the school and district level to facilitate long-term teacher development around higher-order thinking, at the state and national level to provide for long-term assessment of district, state, and national performance. The project will take generations and perhaps in some sense will never end.

After all, when will we have developed our thinking far enough, when will we have enough intellectual integrity, enough intellectual courage, enough intellectual perseverance, enough intellectual skill and ability, enough fairmindedness, enough reasonability?

One thing is painfully clear. We already have more than enough rote memorization and uninspired didactic teaching; more than enough passivity and indifference, cynicism and defeatism, complacency and ineptness. The ball is in our court. Let's take up the challenge together and make, with our students, a new and better world.

{This is taken from the book: How to Prepare Students for a rapidly Changing World by Richard Paul.}

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Learn the process of examining, analyzing, questioning, and challenging situations, issues, and information of all kinds.

 

  • What is critical thinking?

  • Why is critical thinking important?

  • Who can (and should) learn to think critically?

  • How do you help people learn to think critically?

Suppose an elected official makes a speech in which he says, "The government doesn't need to be involved in cleaning up pollution from manufacturing. Business can take care of this more efficiently." What's your reaction?

There are a lot of questions you can be asking here, some of which you may already know the answers to. First, what are the assumptions behind this person's statement? How does he view the job of government, for instance? What's his attitude toward business? Does he believe pollution is a real threat to the environment?

Next, you might want to consider the official's biases. What party does this politician belong to, and what's that party's position on pollution regulation? What state is he from -- one with a lot of industry that contributes to acid rain and other pollution? What's his voting record on environmental issues? Is he receiving contributions from major polluters? Does he live in a place that's seriously affected by pollution? What does he know about the science involved? (What do you know about the science involved?) Does he have any knowledge or expertise in this area at all?

Finally, you might want answers to some questions about the context of the statement. What's the record of private industry over the last 10 years in cleaning up its own pollution without government intervention, for instance? What does pollution look like now, as compared to before the government regulated it? For that matter, when did government regulation start? What effect did it have? Perhaps even more important, who will benefit if these ideas are accepted? Who will lose? What will the result be if things are changed in the direction this politician suggests? Are those results good for the country?

If you ask the kinds of questions suggested here when you see new information, or consider a situation or a problem or an issue, you're using critical thinking. Critical thinking is tremendously important in health, human service, and community work because it allows you to understand the actual issues involved, and to come up with an approach that is likely to address them effectively.

What is critical thinking?

There are many definitions of critical thinking. Some see it as a particular way of handling information. Others look at it as a specific set of skills and abilities. People interested in political and social change see it as challenging and providing alternatives to the generally accepted beliefs and values of the power structure. They're all right to an extent: critical thinking is all of these things, and more.

Critical thinking is the process of examining, analyzing, questioning, and challenging situations, issues, and information of all kinds. We use it when we raise questions about:

  • Survey results
  • Theories
  • Personal comments
  • Media stories
  • Our own personal relationships
  • History
  • Scientific research
  • Political statements
  • And (especially) conventional wisdom, general assumptions, and the pronouncements of authority

Critical thinking is an important tool in solving community problems and in developing interventions or initiatives in health, human services, and community development.

Elements of critical thinking

There are a number of ways to look at the process of critical thinking. Brookfield presents several, with this one being perhaps the simplest.

  • Problem/goal identification: What is the real issue here?
  • Diagnosis: Given all the information we have, what's the best way to deal with this issue?
  • Exploration: How do we do what we decided on, and who will make it happen?
  • Action: Do it!
  • Reflection: Did it work? If so, how can it work better? If not, what went wrong, and how can we fix it? What have we learned here that might be valuable in the future?

Reflection leads you to the consideration of another problem or goal, and the cycle begins again.

Critical thinking involves being thrown into the questioning mode by an event or idea that conflicts with your understanding of the world and makes you uncomfortable. If you allow yourself to respond to the discomfort -- that's partially an issue of personal development -- you'll try to figure out where it comes from, and to come up with other ways to understand the situation. Ultimately, if you persist, you'll have a new perspective on the event itself, and will have broken through to a more critical understanding.

Goals of critical thinking

  • Truth: to separate what is true from what is false, or partially true, or incomplete, or slanted, or based on false premises, or assumed to be true because "everyone says so."
  • Context: to consider the context and history of issues, problems, or situations.
  • Assumptions: to understand the assumptions and purposes behind information or situations.
  • Alternatives: to create ways of approaching problems, issues, and situations that address the real, rather than assumed or imagined, factors that underlie or directly cause them -- even when those factors turn out to be different from what you expected.

The word "critical" here means approaching everything as if you were a critic -- questioning it, analyzing it, putting it in context, looking at its origins. The aim is to understand it on its deepest level. "Everything" includes yourself: thinking critically includes identifying, admitting, and examining your own assumptions and prejudices, and understanding how they change your reactions to and your interpretation of information. It also means being willing to change your ideas and conclusions -- and actions -- if an objective view shows that they're wrong or ineffective.

This last point is important. In health, human service, and community work, the main goal of thinking critically is almost always to settle on an action that will have some desired effect. Critical examination of the situation and the available information could lead to anything from further study to organizing a strike, but it should lead to something. Once you've applied critical thinking to an issue, so that you understand what's likely to work, you have to take action to change the situation.

Why is critical thinking important?

Without thinking critically, you're only looking at the surface of things. When you come across a politician's statement in the media, do you accept it at face value? Do you accept some people's statements and not others'? The chances are you exercise at least some judgment, based on what you know about the particular person, and whether you generally agree with her or not.

Knowing whether or not you agree with someone is not necessarily the same as critical thinking, however. Your reaction may be based on emotion ("I hate that guy!"), or on the fact that this elected official supports programs that are in your interest, even though they may not be in the best interests of everyone else. What's important about critical thinking is that it helps you to sort out what's accurate and what's not, and to give you a solid, factual base for solving problems or addressing issues.

Specific reasons for the importance of critical thinking:

  • It identifies bias. Critical thinking identifies both the bias in what it looks at (its object), and the biases you yourself bring to it. If you can address these honestly, and adjust your thinking accordingly, you'll be able to see the object in light of the way it's slanted, and to understand your own biases in your reaction to it.

A bias is not necessarily bad: it is simply a preferred way of looking at things. You can be racially biased, but you can also be biased toward looking at all humans as one family. You can be biased toward a liberal or conservative political point of view, or toward or against tolerance. Regardless of whether most of us would consider a particular bias good or bad, not seeing it can limit how we resolve a problem or issue.

  • It's oriented toward the problem, issue, or situation that you're addressing. Critical thinking focuses on analyzing and understanding its object. It eliminates, to the extent possible, emotional reactions, except where they become part of an approach or solution.

It's just about impossible to eliminate emotions, or to divorce them from your own deeply-held assumptions and beliefs. You can, however, try to understand that they're present, and to analyze your own emotional reactions and those of others in the situation.

There are different kinds of emotional reactions. If all the evidence points to something being true, your emotional reaction that it's not true isn't helpful, no matter how badly you want to believe it. On the other hand, if a proposed solution involves harming a particular group of people "for the good of the majority", an emotional reaction that says "we can't let this happen" may be necessary to change the situation so that its benefits can be realized without harm to anyone. Emotions that allow you to deny reality generally produce undesirable results; emotions that encourage you to explore alternatives based on principles of fairness and justice can produce very desirable results.

  • It gives you the whole picture. Critical thinking never considers anything in a vacuum. Its object has a history, a source, a context. Thinking critically allows you to bring these into play, thus getting more than just the outline of what you're examining, and making a realistic and effective solution to a problem more likely.
  • It brings in other necessary factors. Some of the things that affect the object of critical thought -- previous situations, personal histories, general assumptions about an issue -- may need to be examined themselves. Critical thinking identifies them and questions them as well.

During the mid-90's debate in the United States over welfare reform, much fuss was made over the amount of federal money spent on welfare. Few people realized, however, that the whole entitlement program accounted for less than 2% of the annual federal budget. During the height of the debate, Americans surveyed estimated the amount of their taxes going to welfare at as much as 60%. Had they examined the general assumptions they were using, they might have thought differently about the issue.

  • It considers both the simplicity and complexity of its object. A situation or issue may have a seemingly simple explanation or resolution, but it may rest on a complex combination of factors. Thinking critically unravels the relationships among these, and determines what level of complexity needs to be dealt with in order to reach a desired conclusion.
  • It gives you the most nearly accurate view of reality. The whole point of critical thinking is to construct the most objective view available. 100% objectivity may not be possible, but the closer you can get, the better.
  • Most important, for all the above reasons, it is most likely to help you get the results you want. The closer you are to dealing with things as they really are, the more likely you are to be able to address a problem or issue with some hope of success.

In more general terms, the real value of critical thinking is that it's been at the root of all human progress. The first ancestor of humans who said to himself, "We've always made bone tools, but they break awfully easily. I bet we could make tools out of something else. What if I tried this rock?" was using critical thinking. So were most of the social, artistic, and technological groundbreakers who followed. You'd be hard pressed to find an advance in almost any area of humanity's development that didn't start with someone looking at the way things were and saying "It doesn't have to be that way. What if we looked at it from another angle?"

Who can (and should) learn to think critically?

The answer here is everyone, from children to senior citizens. Even small children can learn about such things as cause and effect -- a specific event having a specific result -- through a combination of their own experimentation and experience and of being introduced to more complex ideas by others.

Accepted wisdom, perhaps dispensed by a teacher or other authority figure, is, however, often the opposite of critical thinking, which relies on questioning. In many schools, for example, critical thinkers are, if not punished, stifled because of their "disruptive " need to question (and thereby challenge authority). Interestingly enough, the more a school costs -- whether it's a well-funded public school in an affluent community, or an expensive private school -- the more apt it is to encourage and teach critical thinking. Such schools see themselves, and are seen by their students' parents, as trainers of leaders...and leaders need to know how to think.

Many adults exercise critical thinking as a matter of course. Many more know how, but for various reasons -- fear, perceived self-interest, deeply held prejudices or unexamined beliefs -- choose not to. Still more, perhaps a majority, are capable of learning to think critically, but haven't been taught or exposed to the experiences that would have allowed them to learn on their own.

It is this last group that is both most in need of, and most receptive to, learning to think critically. It often includes people with relatively low levels of education and income who see themselves as powerless. Once they grasp the concept of critical thought, it can change their whole view of the world. Often, the experience of being involved in a community initiative or intervention provides the spur for that learning.

Critical thinking requires the capacity for abstract thought. This is the ability to think about what's not there -- to foresee future consequences and possibilities, to think about your own thinking, to imagine scenarios that haven't yet existed. Most people are capable of learning to think in this way, if given the encouragement and opportunity.

How do you help people learn to think critically?

Learning to think critically is more often than not a long process. Many people have to learn to think abstractly -- itself a long process -- before they can really apply the principles of critical thinking. Even those who already have that ability are often slowed, or even stopped, by the developmental and psychological -- and sometimes the actual -- consequences of what they're being asked to do. Often, it takes a crisis of some sort, or a series of negative experiences to motivate people to be willing to think in a different way.

Even then, developing the capacity for critical thinking doesn't necessarily make things better. It can alter family relationships, change attitudes toward work and community issues, and bring discord into a life where none was recognized before. Learning it takes courage.

The point of all this is that, although there's a series of what we believe are effective how-to steps laid out in this section, teaching critical thinking is not magic. The reason we keep using the words "develop" and "process" is that critical thinking, if it takes root, develops over time. Don't be frustrated if many people don't seem to get it immediately: they won't.

Helping others learn to think critically can take place in a classroom -- it's essentially what higher education is all about -- but it's probably even more common in other situations. Community interventions of all kinds provide opportunities for learning, both because participants are usually involved over a period of time, and because they are often experiencing difficulties that make it clear to them that their world view isn't adequate to solve the problems they face. Many are ready to change, and welcome the chance to challenge the way things are and learn new ways of thinking.

By the same token, learning to think critically can be a frightening process. It leads you to question ideas that you may have taken for granted all your life, and to challenge authority figures whom you may have held in awe. It may push you to tackle problems you thought were insoluble. It's the intellectual equivalent of bungee jumping: once you've leaped off the bridge, there's no going back, and you have to trust that the cord will hold you.

As a result, facilitating critical thinking -- whether formally or informally -- requires more than just a knowledge of the process. It demands that you be supportive, encouraging, and honest, and that you act as role model, constantly demonstrating the process as you discuss it.

There are really three aspects of helping people develop critical thinking: how to be a facilitator for the process; how to help people develop the "critical stance," the mindset that leads them to apply critical thinking all the time; and how to help people learn to apply critical thinking to dealing with community problems and issues.

How to be a critical thinking facilitator

Stephen Brookfield has developed a 10-point guideline for facilitators of critical thinking that focuses both on the learner and the facilitator herself.

  1. Affirm learners' self-worth. Critical thinking is an intellectual exercise, but it is also a matter of confidence and courage. Learners need to have the self -esteem to believe that authority figures or established beliefs could be wrong, and to challenge them. Facilitators need to encourage that self-esteem by confirming that learners' opinions matter and are worthy of respect, that they themselves have and deserve a voice.
  2. Listen attentively to learners. Repeat back their words and ideas, so they know they've been heard. What they say can reveal hidden conflicts and assumptions that can then be questioned.
  3. Show your support for critical thinking efforts. Reward learners for challenging assumptions, even when they're your own.
  4. Reflect and mirror learners' ideas and actions. That will help to identify assumptions and biases they may not be aware of.
  5. Motivate people to think critically, but help them to understand when it's appropriate to voice critical ideas and when it's not. The wrong word to the boss could get a learner fired, for example. It's important that he understand the possible consequences of talking about his conclusions before he does it.
  6. Regularly evaluate progress with learners. Critical thinking involves reflection as well as action, and part of that reflection should be on the process itself.
  7. Help learners create networks of support. These can include both other learners and others in the community who are learning to or who already practice and support critical thinking.
  8. Be a critical teacher. Model the critical thinking process in everything you do (particularly, if you're a teacher, in the way you teach), encourage learners to challenge your assumptions and ideas, and challenge them yourself.
  9. Make people aware of how they learn critical thinking. Discuss learning and thinking styles, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, learning methods, the role of previous experience, etc. The more conscious you can make people of their preferred ways of learning, the easier it will be for them to understand how they're approaching ideas and situations and to adjust if necessary.
  10. Model critical thinking. Approach ideas and situations critically and, to the extent possible, explain your thinking so learners can see the process you've used to arrive at your conclusions.

How to encourage the critical stance

Developing the critical stance -- the generalized ability and disposition to apply critical thinking to whatever you encounter -- is a crucial element in teaching critical thinking. It includes recognizing assumptions -- your own and others' -- applying that recognition to questioning information and situations, and considering their context.

Recognize assumptions. Each of us has a set of assumptions -- ideas or attitudes or "facts" we take for granted -- that underlies our thinking. Only when you're willing to look at these assumptions and realize how they color your conclusions can you examine situations, problems, or issues objectively.

Assumptions are based on a number of factors -- physical, environmental, psychological, and experiential -- that we automatically, and often unconsciously, bring to bear on anything we think about. One of the first steps in encouraging the critical stance is to try to make these factors conscious. Besides direct discussion, role plays, discussions of hypothetical or relatively non-threatening real situations, and self -revelation on the facilitator's part ("Some of my own assumptions are...") can all be ways to help people think about the preconceptions they bring to any situation.

Sources of assumptions are numerous and overlapping, but the most important are:

  • Senses. The impact of the senses is so elemental that we sometimes react to it without realizing we're doing so. You may respond to a person based on smells you're barely aware of, for instance.
  • Experience. Each of us has a unique set of experiences, and they influence our responses to what we encounter. Ultimately, as critical thinkers, we have to understand both how past experience might limit our thinking in a situation, and how we can use it to see things more clearly.
  • Values. Values are deeply held beliefs -- often learned from families, schools, and peers -- about how the world should be. These "givens" may be difficult even to recognize, let alone reject. It further complicates matters that values usually concern the core issues of our lives: personal and sexual relationships, morality, gender and social roles, race, social class, and the organization of society, to name just a few.
  • Emotion. Recognizing our emotional reactions is vital to keeping them from influencing our conclusions. Anger at child abusers may get in the way of our understanding the issue clearly, for example. We can't control whether emotions come up, but we can understand how we react to them.
  • Self interest. Whether we like it or not, each of us sometimes injects what is best for ourselves into our decisions. We have to be aware when self interest gets in the way of reason, or of looking at the other interests in the situation.
  • Culture. The culture we grew up in, the culture we've adopted, the predominant culture in the society -- all have their effects on us, and push us into thinking in particular ways. Understanding how culture acts upon our and others' thinking makes it possible to look at a problem or issue in a different light.
  • History. Community history, the history of our organization or initiative, and our own history in dealing with particular problems and issues will all have an impact on the way we think about the current situation.
  • Religion. Our own religious backgrounds -- whether we still practice religion or not -- may be more powerful than we realize in influencing our thinking.
  • Biases. Very few of us, regardless of what we'd like to believe, are free of racial or ethnic prejudices of some sort, or of political, moral, and other biases that can come into play here.
  • Prior knowledge. What we know about a problem or issue, from personal experience, from secondhand accounts, or from theory, shapes our responses to it. We have to be sure, however, that what we "know" is in fact true, and relevant to the issue at hand.
  • Conventional wisdom. All of us have a large store of information "everybody knows" that we apply to new situations and problems. Unfortunately, the fact that everybody knows it doesn't make it right. Conventional wisdom is often too conventional: it usually reflects the simplest way of looking at things. We may need to step outside the conventions to look for new solutions.

This is often the case when people complain that "common sense" makes the solution to a problem obvious. Many people believe, for instance, that it is "common sense " that sex education courses for teens encourage them to have sex. The statistics show that, in fact, teens with adequate sexual information tend to be less sexually active than their uninformed counterparts.

Examine information for accuracy, assumptions, biases, or specific interests. Helping learners discuss and come up with the kinds of questions that they need to subject information to is probably the best way to facilitate here. Using current examples -- comparing various newspaper and TV news stories, for instance, to see what different aspects are emphasized, or to see how all ignore the same issues -- can also be a powerful way of demonstrating what needs to be asked. Some basic questions are:

  • What's the source of the information? Knowing where information originates can tell you a lot about what it's meant to make you believe.
  • Does the source generally produce accurate information?
  • What are the source's assumptions about the problem or issue? Does the source have a particular interest or belong to a particular group that will allow you to understand what it believes about the issue the information refers to?
  • Does the source have biases or purposes that would lead it to slant information in a particular way, or to lie outright? Politicians and political campaigns often "spin" information so that it seems to favor them and their positions. People in the community may do the same, or may "know" things that don't happen to be true.
  • Does anyone in particular stand to benefit or lose if the information is accepted or rejected? To whose advantage is it if the information is taken at face value?
  • Is the information complete? Are there important pieces missing? Does it tell you everything you need to know? Is it based on enough data to be accurate?

Making sure you have all the information can make a huge difference. Your information might be that a certain approach to this same issue worked well in a similar community. What you might not know or think to ask, however, is whether there's a reason that the same approach wouldn't work in this community. If you investigated, you might find it had been tried and failed for reasons that would doom it again. You'd need all the information before you could reasonably address the issue.

  • Is the information logically consistent? Does it make sense? Do arguments actually prove what they pretend to prove? Learning how to sort out logical and powerful arguments from inconsistent or meaningless ones is perhaps the hardest task for learners. Some helpful strategies here might include mock debates, where participants have to devise arguments for the side they disagree with; analysis of TV news programs, particularly those like "Meet the Press," where political figures defend their positions; and after-the-fact discussions of community or personal situations.

Just about anyone can come up with an example that "proves" a particular point: There's a woman down the block who cheats on welfare, so it's obvious that most welfare recipients cheat. You can't trust members of that ethnic group, because one of them stole my wallet.

Neither of these examples "proves" anything, because it's based on only one instance, and there's no logical reason to assume it holds for a larger group. A former president was particularly fond of these kinds of "proofs", and as a result often proposed simplistic solutions to complex social problems. Without information that's logically consistent and at least close to complete, you can't draw conclusions that will help you effectively address an issue.

  • Is the information clear? Do you understand what you're seeing?
  • Is the information relevant to the current situation? Information may be accurate, complete, logically consistent, powerful...and useless, because it has nothing to do with what you're trying to deal with.

An AIDS prevention initiative, for instance, may find that a particular neighborhood has a large number of gay residents. However, if the HIV-positive rate in the gay community is nearly nonexistent, and the real AIDS problem in town is among IV drug users, the location of the gay community is irrelevant information.

  • Most important, is the information true? Outright lies and made-up "facts" are not uncommon in politics, community work, and other situations. Knowing the source and its interests, understanding the situation, and being sensibly skeptical can help to protect learners from acting on false information.

Consider the context of the information, problem, or issue. Examining context, in most instances, is easier to approach than the other elements of the critical stance. It involves more concrete and "objective" information, and, at least in the case of community issues, it is often information that learners already know.

Facilitating techniques might include brainstorming to identify context elements; discussing how context issues affected real situations that learners are familiar with; and asking small groups of learners to make up their own examples. The real task is making sure that they include as many different factors as possible. Some areas to be examined in considering a community issue, for instance, are:

  • The nature of the community. A big city is likely to present different solutions to a problem than a small town, and both differ from a suburb or a rural area. Understanding the resources, challenges, and peculiarities of a community is important to addressing its issues.
  • The social situation. A community may be divided among several mutually hostile ethnic or political groups, or among groups that simply have different ideas about how things should be done. There may be class, race, or other issues to deal with.
  • Individuals. Individuals can strongly influence the workings of a community, often in ways that aren't immediately apparent. People can spread or squelch rumors, create harmony or dissension, lead others toward constructive solutions or toward disorganization and ineffectiveness.
  • Cultures. Cultures -- which can be based on ethnic ties, religion, class, or other factors (think of the jocks, preppies, punks, skaters, and other groups in a high school)-- can create alliances or divisions, and heavily influence how different groups see an issue and its implications.
  • Physical environment. A trash-filled, crumbling urban neighborhood can breed despair and fear. Changing the face of that neighborhood may do a great deal to change the situation of people who live there as well, giving them hope and pride of ownership, as well as diminishing violence and crime by increasing light and accessibility. The role of the physical environment is one that has to be examined in any community issue.
  • History. It's crucial to examine the history of a problem or issue, as well as efforts to deal with it. The perfect solution you just came up with may have already ended in disaster five years ago. The person you depend on to explain the situation may have been prominent on one side of a huge conflict, and her presence may alienate anyone who was on the other. Bad feelings over real or perceived slights or dishonesty can persist for decades, and if you don't know about them, they can suddenly rise up, seemingly out of nowhere. Not only getting the history, but getting it from a number of different perspectives, is necessary to success in dealing with any problem or issue.

A group trying to bring public transportation to a rural area started by arranging a meeting between the select boards of the towns involved and the local regional transit authority. What the group didn't know was that, several years before, a small non -profit transportation company -- the chair of whose board was a revered local figure -- had been put out of business through some shady dealings by the regional transit authority. As a result, the towns refused to deal with the transit authority, even though it was now under completely new -- and ethical -- management.

  • The interests involved. If there is a conflict, what are the needs and aims of the various factions? Who stands to gain, and who stands to lose? What are the best interests of the community -- or can you determine that at all?

Facilitating problem solving using critical thinking

Actually using critical thinking to solve problems and address issues is, of course, the reason for learning it. Brookfield suggests one problem-solving sequence that can be used in many situations involving community issues. Once people have learned the critical stance, they can apply its principles using this sequence.

Identify the assumptions behind the problem. By asking people to clarify their statements, and by probing for specifics, you can help them look at what is behind their thinking. Some clarifications that you can ask for, accompanied by some of the questions you might ask:

There are actually two sets of assumptions that are important here. One is the set of assumptions that each of us brings to any problem or information, those described above under "How to encourage the critical stance." The other is the set of assumptions about the particular problem -- what the situation is, what the problem consists of, what a solution would look like, and how to achieve that solution.

In fact, those two sets of assumptions are inseparable, and both need to be considered. The emphasis in what follows is on the second set of assumptions, that which refers to the problem itself. One of the assumptions of the Tool Box, however, is that you'll deal with both in a real situation.

  • The current situation. What exactly do you mean when you say things are bad? What things? How are they bad? What would be happening if they were good?
  • The problem itself. Can you describe another situation in which the same problem existed? What was happening then? Can you describe a situation in which things were good, and the problem didn't exist? What was happening then? What are the differences here?
  • Potential solutions to the problem. If we were able to solve this problem, what would that look like? What would be happening? Who would be involved?
  • Actions that would lead to the solution. How would what you're suggesting lead to a solution? What exactly would happen?

Challenge those assumptions. Once you've clarified the assumptions, everyone needs to question them.

  • The current situation. Are you sure that everything is bad? Are there good aspects to the situation? What about it specifically do you think is bad? Could that be interpreted in another way? Who might interpret it differently? Why? Are we even looking at the right aspects of the situation? Are we missing something important?
  • The problem itself. What exactly is the problem we're talking about? Are you sure that's really the problem? Could the problem be defined in another (this other) way? What's the actual concern here?
  • Potential solutions to the problem. What are the actual results we need here? (If we're trying to reduce the teen pregnancy rate in the community, for instance, are we aiming to provide a particular number of teens with information about birth control? With condoms and other birth control devices? Or are we aiming at an actual reduction in the teen pregnancy rate within a particular period...say, two years?)
  • Actions that would lead to the solution. Would what you're proposing actually accomplish what you expect it to? Would it really make a difference even if it did?

Imagine alternatives to what you started with. There are a number of ways you can construct different ways to deal with the problem. Two are:

  • Brainstorming. Everyone comes up with every alternative she can think of, no matter how silly it seems at the time. After all the ideas have been recorded, the group goes through them, and sorts out what seems worth pursuing. Sometimes the ideas that seem totally silly at first turn out to be the most valuable, which is why it's important to encourage people to blurt out whatever they think of.
  • Starting with the ideal endpoint. Determine what everything would look like if the ideal solution were achieved, then work backward from there to understand what you'd have to do to get there.

In dealing with teen pregnancy again, for instance, the ideal might be a community in which there were no teen pregnancies because all youth clearly understood the physical and emotional consequences of having sex; had adequate sexual information and access to birth control; and felt valued and empowered enough to respect one another and to maintain control over their own bodies. You might determine that that situation would require that there be sex education available through a variety of sources; that condom dispensers should be placed in various public places, and that pharmacies and convenience stores display birth control devices in ways attractive to teens; that every teen needed to have at least one caring adult in his or her life; and that the community valued youth and their contributions.

In order for those things to happen, there might need to be a community education process, mechanisms for youth to become more integrated into the community as contributing members, as well as a group of adult volunteers who would act as mentors and friends to youth who had no positive relationships with adults. In order for those things to happen, you'd need to identify teens who had no positive adult role models...etc. If you followed all of this through to its end, you'd have a picture of the ideal solution to the problem and a road map telling you how to get there.

Critique the alternatives. Develop criteria on which you can judge the alternative solutions you've come up with. Some possibilities:

  • Costs
  • Benefits
  • Effectiveness
  • Feasibility
  • Consistency with community needs
  • Consistency with the values of the group
  • Inclusiveness

Once you've selected criteria, another critical thinking exercise is to decide which are most important. In a particular situation, cost might have to be the most important factor. In another, you may be able to weight costs, benefits, and effectiveness together. In others, other criteria may be weighted more heavily.

Finally, apply the criteria to the alternatives you've come up with, and decide which is most likely to achieve the results you want.

Reframe the problem and solution. At this point, learners have come up with a solution. The point of reframing is to look at the problem in the light of all the work they've done. They've perhaps discovered that it was different from what they first thought, or that they needed to view it differently. Reframing solidifies that mindset, and ensures that they approach the problem as they've found it to be in actuality, rather than as they initially saw it.

  • The current situation. Start by restating the current situation, as you understand it after critical analysis, in the clearest and most specific terms possible.
  • The problem itself. Restate the actual problem as you now understand it.
  • Potential solutions to the problem. Explain what changes a solution would bring about, and what things would be like with the problem solved.
  • Actions that would lead to the solution. Lay out the alternative you've arrived at.

By and large, people learn critical thinking best when they're approaching real problems that affect their lives in real ways. That's one reason why community interventions and initiatives provide fertile ground for the development of critical thinking.

In Summary

Critical thinking is a vital skill in health, human service, and community work. It is the process of questioning, examining, and analyzing situations, issues, problems, people (in hiring decisions, for instance) and information of all kinds -- survey results, theories, personal comments, media stories, history, scientific research, political statements, etc.-- from every possible angle. This will give you a view that's as nearly objective as possible, making it more likely that you'll be able to interpret information accurately and resolve problems and issues effectively.

Teaching critical thinking, whether formally or informally, requires a supportive and encouraging presence, and a willingness to both model and be the subject of critical analysis. It entails teaching the critical stance -- how to recognize and analyze your own and others' assumptions, question information, and examine the context of any information, situation, problem, or issue. Finally, it requires helping people to apply the critical stance to a problem and learn how to come up with a solution that is effective because it addresses the real issues involved. Once learners can do that, they're well on their way to successfully addressing the concerns of their communities.

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