Critical thinking

... or thinking clearly

The art of critical thinking must be seen as a fundamental part of English B, within the Diploma programme. This is most directly assessed in the Paper 2 Section B task (qv Section B ) - but the wider issue is to educate them in the fundamental transferable skill of thinking critically.

But what do we mean by 'critical thinking'? (Actually, that question is critical thinking!)

To think critically, in essence, is to ask questions which strive to understand the topic under discussion in more detail and in more depth. In a sense, such a procedure should be neutral or objective - or at least it should start from an open willingness to understand more and better.

However, there is a further level of 'critical thinking' which is based on the associations of the word 'critical' - that the questions asked should be sceptical, in order to test how valid or reliable are the statements that we are analysing. This means assuming that any statement we consider could be mistaken, or plain wrong, or stupid, or a lie. The much respected journalist Claud Cockburn famously remarked years ago that "A journalist should always interview a politician thinking 'Why is this bastard lying to me'" ! That's a pretty cynical view, of course - it might be worth exploring with the students the differences between sceptical and cynical, and between assertive and aggressive.

But let's go back to that key question - "What do we mean by 'critical thinking'?" - and do some basic definition.

Critical thinking: procedure & purpose

Critical thinking is a habit of mind, which is reinforced by applying a methodical approach based on disciplined techniques. As such, it is an intellectual skill which can be taught, and should be taught through practice. But what should we teach?

I would suggest that critical thinking means that we use a procedure (to think methodically and effectively) for a purpose - to confirm the meaning of some idea(s). In teaching critical thinking to the students, we should make sure they understand how they should go about doing it (procedure), and what the point of it is (purpose). Let's look at these in more detail (project them using Presentation mode?)...

.

Procedure

... Critical thinking should be applied to any subject area - but because subjects structure knowledge in different ways, critical thinking may need to be applied in different ways, with different emphases. I propose that critical thinking may be focused on three overlapping fields of ideas within any subject area; thus:-

.

Facts ... the basic information on which any argument is constructed

...this involves questioning the sources of scientific data, historical documentation, etc ... how reliable / thorough / representative / accurate / complete is the information ?

Language ... the words that are used to express the ideas

... this involves defining the terms used ... what meanings do the words have? Are there multiple meanings? If so, are the most appropriate meanings being used, and/or used correctly?

Logic ... the logic that is used to link words and information together

... is logic used correctly? Convincingly? Methodically? Thoroughly? Does the argument hang together?

.

In short, we use critical thinking to check how reliable ideas are. Note that this may, or may not, mean that an idea is 'correct' - not least because we would have to explain what we mean by 'correct', and by which criteria we decide correctness.

.

.

Purpose

...I suggest that there are two complementary approaches to critical thinking, a primary purpose and a secondary one. The primary one is concerned, as mentioned already, with checking the reliability of ideas :-

.

testing ideas - questioning statements in order to check how precise or convincing or valuable they are

This is the 'quality control' purpose of critical thinking.

.

However, critical thinking necessarily involves thinking of alternative ideas and explanations: if we are checking how good an idea is, we may very well think about whether there are better ideas. The process of asking questions may very well throw up unexpected answers which then lead to novel solutions :- 

.

exploring ideas - questioning statements in order to expand them and see where they lead

This is the 'thinking outside the box' purpose of critical thinking.

.

In short, the point of critical thinking is to check the quality of statements, which may in turn lead to new and creative ideas.

.

*************************

Critical thinking: using thinking frames

If critical thinking requires "a methodical approach based on disciplined techniques", what does this involve? I suggest that, if we accept the usefulness of writing frames, we can surely recommend the use of 'thinking frames' - standard methods of approaching the thinking-through of any issue or problem. These should not be seen as some kind of mechanical process, used in a rigid order, but more of a check-list to ensure that you have looked at the issue methodically, from all sides.

The obvious thinking frame is to encourage students to apply the 'Procedure' outlined above, which we could label like this...

.

The FALALO tool

Facts ... the basic information on which any argument is constructed

Language ... the words that are used to express the ideas

Logic ... the logic that is used to link words and information together

.

You could propose the following alternative thinking frame for critical thinking, which has the advantage of being based on 'action verbs' rather than big abstract nouns :-

.

The UPA tool

Understand & summarise ... detect and study the key elements of the text & express them in clear, precise, simple terms

Probe & clarify ... ask questions of the text, in order to grasp in more depth & more precisely what the text proposes

(You could use the FALALO tool here, to guide the construction of questions)

Assess & compare values ... consider the value judgements made, both by the text and by the reader, & then weigh up which value judgements are the most convincing - and why

.

Now, you will notice that the two Tools or thinking frames cover more or less the same areas, but not precisely. The first (FALALO) covers more the content of a statement, while the second (UPA) concentrates more on how we understand the statement. The first, then, may be more appropriate for assessing 'hard fact' statements (e.g. physical sciences), while the second may be more useful when assessing 'value-judgement' statements (e.g. human sciences). Possibly, really good critical thinking will deploy both !

.

All materials on this website are for the exclusive use of teachers and students at subscribing schools for the period of their subscription. Any unauthorised copying or posting of materials on other websites is an infringement of our copyright and could result in your account being blocked and legal action being taken against you.