Saturday, February 20, 2010

Culture of Discussion: Critical Thinking

Peter A. Facione

In yesterday's blog entry, I put critical thinking in the context of education because that's precisely where those skills and patterns of thinking ought to be nurtured and developed. I noted that a good liberal arts school -- such as Baylor University -- teaches its students to think critically.

But to be frank, I've not reflected consciously at any great length about what critical thinking is even though I believe that I'm reasonably good at the practice of critical thinking. In yesterday's brief reflection on what it is, I identified two basic questions and one broader one. The three of these, I suggested, were variants on the question "Why?":
More specifically, critical, creative thinking requires that one rework this 'why-question' by asking two basic but compound (and perhaps complex) questions about a particular belief to be evaluated: 1) What are the reasons for holding your belief and how good are they? 2) What is the evidence supporting this belief and how good is it? These two questions orient one toward sorting out well-grounded from ill-grounded beliefs and toward laying a foundation of more-or-less dependable knowledge.

Beyond these two compound questions is another 'why-question' -- the sort of question that asks about significance. Suppose that a belief is supported by good reasons and solid evidence. One could still wonder why a belief is important and therefore pose the question: "What is the significance of this belief?" This question orients one toward evaluating significant beliefs from less significant ones and determining how coherently they all fit together.
I wasn't entirely satisfed with this formulation and wanted to do some more reflecting on what critical thinking is. In looking around on the internet, I found a useful article by Dr. Peter A. Facione, "Critical Thinking: What It Is and Why It Counts," which can be downloaded at a site called Insight Assessment. It runs to 24 pages but is quite readable. I won't summarize, not today anyway, but I will post a couple of quotes.

First, let me post what Facione provided as the "Expert Consensus Statement Regarding Critical Thinking and the Ideal Critical Thinker":
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. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, openminded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society. (Page 22)
By the admission that critical thinking is not synonymous with good thinking, the experts mean that critical thinking can be used for self-interested aims at the expense of others, which I don't want to get into at the moment but which would surely imply that critical thinking be broadly taught in order to counter this.

Second, allow me to post a 'cute' little heuristic that Facione provides on page 24, an acronym that serves as mnemonic device and rule of thumb for critical thinking:
Six Questions for Effective Thinking and Problem-Solving: "IDEALS"

Identify the problem. -- "What’s the real question we're facing here?"
Define the context. -- "What are the facts and circumstances that frame this problem?"
Enumerate choices. -- "What are our most plausible three or four options?"
Analyze options. -- "What is our best course of action, all things considered?"
List reasons explicitly. -- "Exactly why we are making this choice rather than another?"
Self-correct. -- "Okay, let's look at it again. What did we miss?"
As I noted, kind of cute. Maybe 'too' cute. But useful nonetheless. I'll leave you with these quotes and maybe get back to this material tomorrow.

Right now, I have other duties that call me away from the computer.

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At 11:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stephen Toulmin's argument is simliar.


At 2:55 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Ray, for the comment. Were you referring to my lines or those of Facione?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:06 PM, Blogger Hathor said...

I don't know how exactly to apply this, but somehow you would have to be dispassionate, but passionate or excited about finding a solution.

At 10:10 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I agree, Hathor, and that might fit under "dispositions" -- which I'll look into later, as "dispositions" is part of the article.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:51 AM, Blogger Jules Aimé said...

Having watched quite a few people teach "critical thinking" over the years, the most common mistake I've seen is that people don't teach critical thinking so much as they say "watch me do it." Then the professor stands up and says, "n says X" and proceeds to prove, to their satisfaction anyway, that n is wrong.

The other thing is that every student knows that there is a price to be paid for doing any real critical thinking. When I was an undergrad in the 1980s there was a lot of really bad scholarship meant to establish that homelessness was exploding. By doing some good critical thinking, you could break down a lot of that research but you could expect a lower mark for your trouble.

At 6:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jules, I think that you're right about the poor teaching methodology.

I think that the best method would be to give an assignment that would force some critical thinking in the process of working through it, then offer the principles of critical thinking afterwards and show how these were used by the students, who would thereby discover that they had been using some of these principles all along.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Peter Facione said...

I agree with Jules that some teachers teach about thinking but not necessarily for thinking. The "watch me do it" approach is perhaps a starting point, if it means consistently practicing the positive critical thinking habits of mind (dispositions) and explicitly describing aloud how one is applying the core skills.

But to be maximally effective in teaching for critical thinking one must engage students in the application of their skills to interesting and meaningful problems. The instructor, regardless of the subject matter, is well advised to both challenge and nurture the development of the skills and the positive habits of mind.

To be shamelessly self-promotional, permit me to mention my new book, THINK_Critically, just published by Pearson. If you want to view chapter summaries and exercises, go to and click on the book's cover. You can access there all the free materials that Pearson has developed for the book's users. Included there, by the way, is an audio of each chapter.

All the best, Peter Facione,

At 6:37 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thank you, Professor Facione, for your visit and comment.

I'll be happy to visit your site and look further into your views and advice on critical thinking, for your article was quite helpful.

Jeffery Hodges

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