A Few Remarks on Critical Thinking – Part 1

Women become persons under Canadian law.

Critical Thinking is an educational motherhood issue. Who could possibly be opposed to critical thinking? Surely students should learn to think critically so that they can be informed, critical citizens in a modern democratic society. I’m not about to dispute the general value of critical thinking. Rather, I’d like to delve into the issue over a few posts to see if I can clarify what critical thinking is and isn’t, and what teachers can and should do about it. In 1990, the American Philosophical Association published a Delphi Report on Critical Thinking, with Peter Facione as the primary author. The result was the culmination of a process by which scholars from science, humanities, social sciences and education worked (via mail!) to develop a consensus on the nature of critical thinking. The report did not prescribe teaching methods for critical thinking (see my Bad Idea #2—Conflating Ends and Means); it merely clarified the concept, based on expert consensus. The Delphi Report is remarkable for its endurance. It takes a number of hotly debated questions regarding critical thinking and provides a convincing and solid statement that settled most of them. The report is still relevant today—25 years after the fact—and forms the basis of most of what is currently believed about critical thinking (at least in scholarly circles). The Delphi Report gave an abbreviated definition of Critical Thinking: We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based (p.3). There are a few big ideas rolled into this.

  1. Critical thinking isn’t a matter of “just knowing” or “just doing” (though these may be important); it’s a matter of making judgments in a purposeful way.
  2. Self-regulation is critical. To be a critical thinker, you must be prepared to revise your beliefs on the basis of your purposeful thinking.
  3. Critical thinking is rooted in the data, criteria, contexts and methods that are central to the type of judgment you are making.

These three considerations recognize the importance of making judgments in a responsible manner, using not only the best available evidence, but also using the best available (relevant) methodology and basing the judgments on the criteria that are inherent to the subject matter. This suggests that critical thinking in, say, history and mathematics share some crucial similarities, but they also share some crucial differences. The critical thinker in history must mobilize the evidence, methods and criteria of, well, history. History aint psychology and it aint football either. History is history, and to be a critical thinker in history you have to “play the game”. I will continue this discussion over several posts, but I’ll leave with a statement and a picture. The statement is that if students are to learn to be critical thinkers, they have to learn subject content (e.g. facts) and subject methods (e.g. historical analysis, or mathematical proof) first (and, of course, concurrently after a while). There is no way around it. No amount of generic instruction on “thinking”—however construed—can succeed in teaching children to be critical thinkers in the absence of the concrete material on which judgments are based. It’s not sexy, but it’s the way thinking works. Students need facts. Students need analytic skills. These are necessary for critical thinking, but they are not sufficient. And now a picture. critical thinking I’ll talk about the picture soon.

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