WHAT IS CRITICAL THINKING?
Critical thinking is a cognitive activity, associated with using the mind. Learning to think in critically analytical and evaluative ways means using mental processes such as attention, categorization, selection, and judgment. However, many people who have the potential to develop more effective critical thinking can be prevented from doing so for a variety of reasons apart from a lack of ability. In particular, personal and emotional, or 'affective', reasons can create barriers.
WHAT IS CRITICAL THINKING?
Critical Thinking as a Process
Critical thinking is a complex process of deliberation which involves a wide range of skills and attitudes. It includes:
· identifying other people's positions, arguments and conclusions;
· evaluating the evidence for alternative points of view;
· weighing up opposing arguments and evidence fairly;
· being able to read between the lines, seeing behind surfaces, and identifying false or unfair assumptions;
· recognizing techniques used to make certain positions more appealing than others, such as false logic and persuasive devices;
· reflecting on issues in a structured way, bringing logic and insight to bear;
· drawing conclusions about whether arguments are valid and sensible assumptions;
· presenting a point of view in a structured, clear, well-reasoned way that convinces others.
Skepticism and trust
Ennis (1987) identified a range of dispositions and abilities associated with critical thinking.
These focused on:
· the ability to reflect skeptically;
· the ability to think in a reasoned way.
Skepticism in critical thinking means bringing an element of polite doubt. In this context, skepticism doesn't mean you must go through life never believing anything you hear and see. That would not be helpful. It does mean holding open the possibility that what you know at a given time may be only part of the picture.
Critical thinking gives you the tools to use skepticism and doubt constructively so that you can analyze what is before you. It helps you to make better and more informed decisions about whether something is likely to be true, effective or productive. Ultimately, in order to function in the world, we have to accept the probability that at least some things are as they seem. This requires trust. If we can analyze clearly the basis of what we take as true, we are more able to discern when it is reasonable to be trusting and where it is useful to be skeptical.
Method Rather Than Personality Trait
Some people seem to be more naturally skeptical whilst others find it easier to be trusting. These differences may be because of past experiences or personality traits. However, critical thinking is not about natural traits or personality; it is about a certain set of methods aimed at exploring evidence in a particular way. Skeptical people can require structured approaches that help them to trust in the probability of an outcome, just as those who are more trusting require methods to help them use doubt constructively.
Critical Thinking and Argument
The focus of critical thinking is often referred to as the 'argument'. The argument can be thought of as the message that is being conveyed, whether through speech, writing, performance, or other media. Critical thinking helps you to identify the obvious and the hidden messages more accurately, and to understand the process by which an argument is constructed.
Knowing Our Own Reasons
Critical thinking is associated with reasoning or with our capacity for rational thought. The word ‘rational’ means 'using reasons’ to solve problems. Reasoning starts with ourselves. It includes:
· having reasons for what we believe and do, and being aware of what these are;
· critically evaluating our own beliefs and actions;
· being able to present to others the reasons for our beliefs and actions.
This may sound easy, as we all assume we know what we believe and why. However, sometimes, when we are challenged on why we believe that something is true, it becomes obvious to us that we haven't really thought through whether what we have seen or heard is the whole story or is just one point of view. There are also likely to be occasions when we find we are not sure what we consider to be the right course of action or a correct interpretation. It is important to examine the basis of our own beliefs and reasoning, as these will be the main vantage points from which we begin any critical analysis.
Critical Analysis of Other People's Reasoning
Critical reasoning usually involves considering other people's reasoning. This requires the skill of grasping an overall argument, but also skills in analyzing and evaluating it in detail.
Critical analysis of other people's reasoning can involve:
· identifying their reasons and conclusions;
· analyzing how they select, combine and order reasons to construct a line of reasoning;
· evaluating whether their reasons support the conclusions they draw;
· evaluating whether their reasons are well-founded, based on good evidence;
· identifying flaws in their reasoning.
Constructing and Presenting Reasons
Reasoning involves analyzing evidence and drawing conclusions from it. The evidence may then be presented to support the conclusion. For example, we may consider that it is a cold day. Someone who disagrees may ask why we believe this. We may use evidence such as a thermometer reading and observation of weather conditions. Our reasons may be that the temperature is low and there is ice on the ground. We use basic examples of reasoning such as this every day. For professional and academic work, we are usually required to present such reasoning using formal structures such as essays, or reports with recommendations. This requires additional skills such as knowing how to:
· select and structure reasons to support a conclusion;
· present an argument in a consistent way;
· use logical order;
· use language effectively to present the line of reasoning.
WHY DEVELOP CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS?
Benefits of critical thinking skills
Good critical thinking skills bring numerous benefits such as:
· improve attention and observation
· more focused reading
· improved ability to identify the key points in a text or other message rather than becoming distracted by less important material
· improved ability to respond to appropriate points in a message
· knowledge of how to get your own point across more easily
· skills of analysis that you can choose to apply in a variety of situations.
Benefits in Professional and Everyday Life
Skills in critical thinking bring precision to the way you think and work. You will find that practice in critical thinking helps you to be more accurate and specific in noting what is relevant and what is not. The skills listed above are useful to problem-solving and to project management, bringing greater precision and accuracy to different parts of a task.
Although critical thinking can seem like a slow process because it is precise, once you have acquired good skills, they save you time because you learn to identify the most relevant information more quickly and accurately.
Critical thinking involves the development of a range of ancillary skills such as:
It is likely that you already possess some or all of these skills in order to cope with everyday life, work or previous study. However, the more advanced the level of study or the professional area, the more refined these skills need to be. The better these skills are, the more able you are to take on complex problems and projects with confidence of a successful outcome.
It is likely that many people over-estimate the quality of the critical thinking they bring to activities such as reading, watching television, using the internet, or to work and study. It is not unusual to assume our point of view is well-founded, that we know best, and that we are logical and reasonable. Other people observing us may not share this view. A lack of self-awareness and weak reasoning skills can result in unsatisfactory appraisals at work or poor marks for academic work. Certainly, comments from lecturers indicate that many students are prevented from gaining better marks because their work lacks evidence of rigorous critical thinking.
Critical thinking assumes abilities in a range of skills such as categorizing, selection and differentiation, comparing and contrasting.
We use basic thinking skills in everyday life, usually with little difficulty. However, many people find it difficult to apply these same skills automatically to new contexts, such as more abstract problem-solving and academic study. This is partly because, although people use these skills in contexts familiar to them, they are not always sufficiently aware of the underlying strategies that they are using so as to be able to adapt them to new circumstances. The more used we are to applying skills easily in one context; the more difficult it can be to identify the underlying skills.
Critical thinking skills are based on underlying sets of thinking skills such as:
· focusing attention so as to recognize the significance of fine details;
· using attention to fine detail in order to recognize patterns, such as similarities and differences, absence and presence, order and sequence;
· using recognition of pattern in order to compare and contrast items and to predict possible outcomes;
· sorting and labeling items into groups, so that they form categories;
· using an understanding of categories to identify the characteristics of new phenomena and make judgments about them.
These skills are not only useful for critical thinking in academic and professional life, but are tested as part of the procedures for selecting job applicants for interviews.
ASPECTS OF THE CRITICAL THINKING PROCESS
Aspects of the critical thinking process:
· an analytical strategy for the material;
· understanding of the wider context;
· an evaluative and selective approach;
· being self-critical about your own understanding, interpretation and evaluation.
Critical thinking is a process that relies upon, and develops, a wide range of skills and personal qualities. Like other forms of activity, it improves with practice and with a proper sense of what is required. For some people, this may mean changing behaviors such as paying attention to detail or taking a more skeptical approach to what they see, hear and read. Some need to focus on developing critical thinking techniques.
Developing good critical thinking skills can take patience and application. On the other hand, the rewards lie in improved abilities in making judgments, seeing more easily through flawed reasoning, making choices from a more informed position and improving your ability to influence others.
Critical Thinking Skills
Developing Effective Analysis and Argument