What is Critical Thinking?

Written by Argumentful

Life is all about choices. Or others might like to say it is about decisions. When we look back at our personal history, we might be tempted to believe that things happened to us, that events took over, that we were drifted on life’s waves. But is it really so? Try to trace back your life and identify significant moments that marked changes in direction. Did you really have no say in those? While there are aspects of our lives which we certainly could not change, the way we react to events is fully in our control. If anything, this is actually the only thing we can control- how we think about events that happen, what decisions or choices we make next and what actions we take as a result of these decisions. Is there a way to make the best choices or decisions?

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What is Critical Thinking?

We believe that critical thinking is an essential tool in our skill set which can help us take back our lives. We should not lead our existence driven by trends, by influencers, by media or by fear. If we think rationally we have choices. And we can decide how our life will turn up by making the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time.

Given the expanding amount of data being created daily in our digital world, it becomes of the utmost urgency that we turn into a society of people who can decide what to do with this huge amount of information. Experts warn of the ever increasing possibility of being faced with a situation where we have access to all the data, but find ourselves in an impossibility of deciding what the data means or what to do with it. Indeed, the danger is even more acute if we consider the expansion of digital technologies that hook our attention and render us immobilized for hours.

However, despite the general agreement that there is a need for developing these far-reaching thinking skills, there is no universally accepted definition for what critical thinking is; in fact, whether there are such things as thinking skills is still being debated.

Origins of Critical Thinking- Socratic Questioning

The origins of critical thinking date as far back as the Greek scholars.

For example Socrates’s interest in challenging Athenian citizens to think deeply on a variety of issues and subject their own beliefs to a rigorous thought inquiry known as the ‘Socratic Questioning’ is considered to be one of the most efficient critical thinking teaching techniques.

The Socratic Questioning method emphasizes ways in which the participants in the dialogue can identify and distinguish between:

  • Reasonable, evidence based beliefs and
  • Pre-conceived beliefs.

The technique helps uncover such beliefs which could be pre-conceived or marked by biased implicit assumptions, allowing the opportunity to question them, analyse their validity and admit their fault, to finally drop these and adopt more sound positions based on analysed evidence.

Socrates is considered to have set the foundation for logical thinking, through meticulous analysis of reasons, assumptions and evidence seeking, as well as uncovering deeply rooted false beliefs sustained by reasons to do with self-interest or egocentric bias.

However, Socrates does not offer a definition for critical thinking, although his Socratic Questioning Technique is one of the first known enterprises concerned with this topic.

The Delphi Definition of Critical Thinking

In the 1980’s the critical thinking movement gained a tremendous momentum, so a panel of experts started to work through a Delphi process aiming to answer a few significant questions such as: what are the skills and dispositions which make for critical thinking?

The outcome was a comprehensive report which among others contained:

  1. an agreed definition of critical thinking
  2. a list of core skills
  3. a list of attitudes that the critical thinker should possess

Critical Thinking Definition

The panel defined critical thinking as:

(…) 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, open-minded, 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.

Critical Thinking Skills

The list of core skills identified by the panel of experts are:

  • Interpretation
  • Analysis
  • Evaluation
  • Inference
  • Explanation
  • Self-regulation

Critical Thinking Attitudes

The attitudes or ‘affective dispositions’ are grouped in two categories:

(1) ‘approaches to life and living in general’ and

(2) ‘approaches to specific issues, questions or problems’

This separation is significant, as it does indicate that the critical thinker cannot exhibit the tendency of thinking critically just in specific situations, rather being such a thinker should be a matter of choice throughout one’s entire existence.

Critical Thinking in the “strong sense”

The different views on critical thinking take different sides:

  1. First, there are those that contend that critical thinking among others contains a set of skills that can be taught, tested, transferred, therefore generic.
  2. Then, there is the opposite view of those who state that each domain has its own type of critical thinking, also known as the specific view. This view implies that critical thinking cannot be learned and then be transferred from one domain to another, rather each domain needs to be studied with elements of critical thinking embedded within it.

One of those who support the idea that critical thinking includes skills and attitudes which can be transferred from one domain to another is Diane Halpern who advocates for training certain skills in a specialized manner, using explicit methods aimed to enhance the retention and transfer of those skills to different domains. We agree with this view and we believe that it’s never too late to develop the critical thinking skills.

Among the thinkers who hold the view that ‘skills’ is merely not enough, Richard W. Paul brings to the attention the matter of how dangerous it would be to favour this standpoint.

Paul acknowledges that there have been substantial advances made in categorizing different types of argument assessment, techniques for critical thinking, recognition of fallacies, overall the efforts spent in theorizing the ‘proficiencies’ have turned fruitful.

However, despite this advancement on the technical side of critical thinking, before Paul’s stance, there had been no discussion regarding how one can protect oneself against a tendency of using the acquired critical thinking skills for the benefit of defending some deeply rooted beliefs connected to the person’s identity and threatening to attack one’s ego, if these were to be questioned. More specifically Paul argues that a person who learnt the methods of critical thinking would apply these to their own benefit to defend their own theories or opinions, instead of questioning these, as they would do with others’.

By using these arguments, Paul stresses the importance of learning critical thinking in the ‘strong’ sense, urging and encouraging the people to be aware of their own biases, instead of the ‘weak’ sense approach, which focuses on the transmission of skills.

How Can I Learn and Apply Critical Thinking?

Although most people find critical thinking difficult at first, don’t worry! With practice, this kind of thinking becomes easier. Not to mention that it is an immensely useful skill for life, helping you make decision from the simplest, such as which phone to choose to the more complicated, for example who to vote for.

Critical thinking skills can be developed in a phased way:

  • You should start by understanding what critical thinking is. People learn more easily when there is a foundation of understanding at the basis of what it is they are trying to learn.  Hopefully reading this article has provided an insight into the discussion.
  • Once you have an understanding of what critical thinking actually is, you can move one to developing some essential skills in applying rationality, such as:
  • Attention
  • Categorization
  • Selection
  • Judgement
  • Finally, you need to be aware of the pitfalls, which more often than not are represented by your bias. Once you know which methods and skills to apply, it is no longer a matter of lack of skills, but rather personal or emotional boundaries. For example, you might have a strong unconscious belief that tall, good looking men are very well suited for manager roles. If you were to interview two candidates, this kind of belief might influence you to choose the better looking candidate, rather than selecting rationally the best person for the job.

Know yourself- know what makes you tick, but more importantly, what might be some of the deep rooted beliefs that you formed a long time ago and never revisited. Now might be a good time to check if these beliefs are still valid. Do these beliefs help you or hinder you? Start fresh every day. When faced with a decision or choice, if you feel tempted to make that decision very quickly, ask yourself why. Could there be a pre-programmed opinion that you’ve had for such a long time that you don’t even bother to question it anymore?

So we can say that personal and emotional reasons can stay in the way of thinking rationally. There is no shame in changing your mind. In fact, that is what we are trying to do by improving these thinking skills. Changing our minds for the better.

Critical Thinking Process

Learning and applying critical thinking is not a simple matter but it is an activity worthwhile and an investment in you. It can help ensure that your life decisions are taken based on rational arguments.

Stella Cottrell views critical thinking as a process with different steps that involve the development of skills and attitudes.

These steps are:

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;

Drawing conclusions about whether the arguments are valid and justifiable, based on good evidence and sensible assumptions;

Synthesising information: drawing together your judgements of the evidence, synthesizing these to form your own new position;

Presenting your point of view in a structure, clear, well-reasoned way that convinces others.

While experts are still debating on what critical thinking is, now is a good time to start working on your critical thinking skills. It’s never too late to start thinking rationally, explore the reasons of your past emotional decisions and take steps towards thinking and acting more deliberately.

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