The Art of Critical Thinking
A friend recently sent me an article that summarizes Stanford University’s changes to its 2013 freshman course offerings. The changes reflect input from a wide variety of others including alumni, faculty, and students. The changes are intended to better prepare its students for a world that is also changing, and thus it offers to provide them with the tools for solving or overcoming increasingly complex obstacles and issues that may exist almost anywhere at any time. But, unlike many other universities across the country, Stanford is not narrowing its focus to include more technical and less liberal studies; it is broadening its offerings to include more courses in creative expression, in thoughtful analyses of how things work such as the human brain, or the earth’s ecosystem, and, most important of all—in how to think critically.
My first impulse after reading the article was to thank God, Providence, the Universe, the First Cause, the Singularity, and the Creator of the Higgs boson for this directional shift in the pursuit of knowledge. As a tired old warrior, my energy level in support of critical thinking in recent years has been sagging. It needed the lift of knowing others in key positions are out there, and thinking similarly and critically about this subject.
There is no doubt at all to this observer that the ability to think creatively and critically is the most important learning objective of them all—at any level—from kindergarten to the Ph.D. and beyond. I did not reach that conclusion from any book, or from any course, or from any narrow set of experiences. I reached it after digesting thoughts from a wide selection of books and authors and wise men; and after attending and teaching many different kinds of courses; and after living life in locations all over this planet. It is a conclusion confirmed after more than 74 years of experiences in all of those activities. But I will give credit where it is due: Several of my most gifted teachers also helped put that conclusion in my head with their insights:
“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect intended us to forego their use.” --Galileo Galilee
“Truth is ever to be found in simplicity.” – Isaac Newton
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
–Leonard da Vinci
“If two theories equally explain something, it is usually wise to choose the simpler explanation.”
--William of Occam
“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” --Carl Sagan
There is likely more wisdom packed into those five observations than can be found in an entire set of encyclopedias, surrounded by a library of books, in a community devoted to learning.
Critical thinking can be done quite well when alone. In our solitude we have the luxury of being able to think, correct ourselves, re-think, read, re-read, and go over our thoughts many times before we commit them to written form and to review by others. Do the same in a group setting, and you will be excused from participating in it very quickly. Still, before any real learning and meeting of minds can take place in groups, we must all first understand the terms under discussion. Only then we can maximize our understanding of the state of knowledge of the subject matter by agreeing on the facts; and, only after that can we move on to finding solutions to issues (what ought to be). To summarize and to simplify: First define the terms; then agree about the facts (what is); then discuss solutions (what ought to be). Omit any of these steps, or get them out of order, and you are virtually assured of misunderstandings and missed opportunities—regardless of the subject matter or who the participants are.
1. Defining the Terms. In any meeting of minds, someone needs to take the time to define the 12 or 15 most important terms. It should be done in written format so that few are insulted by it. Anyone can ask “Why are you wasting my time with terms that I learned 25 years ago,” and thus try to discourage you from doing it again. The answer is this: “Yes, you understand the terms, but not everyone else understands them. They need to understand them so they also know what a knowledgeable person, like you, is talking about when you discuss them. Assuming they know the important definitions is an open invitation for them to “fill in the blanks” with guesses and false information, leading to misunderstandings, and to less communication, and ultimately, to an unsatisfactory meeting of minds.”
2. Agreeing on the Facts. This step is equally important. Before any group can prescribe what ought to be (a collective, normative judgment of the nature of the issue and how to fix it), they must first agree on what is (a positive statement of the issue; what it means; how it works, or not; the problems or issues that persist; what has been tried in the past; where else it has been used; the results; the costs; the alternative uses of that same money; and many other facts). The rationale behind this step is this: We must first agree on what is (the facts) before we can proceed with what ought to be (the judgment). A fact finding committee is an OK method for putting all the analyzed facts in front of everyone. It provides a convenient means for discussing and resolving any of its details. Caution: Fact finding committees must be as unbiased as possible, with no motivation to slant their findings toward their own solutions or toward those who are paying them.
3. Finding a Meeting of Minds. This is the step in which we try to find agreement on a solution. In it we seek normative judgments (what ought to be). But since some people are religious, and others are not; some are conservative, and others are not; some belong to narrowly defined organizations, while others do not, problems can arise. But they are less likely to arise when everyone understands the terms, and agrees about the facts. Those issues that arise are mostly on the basis of unsupported or unjustified beliefs. When there are no facts to support such beliefs, and no other participants who support them, the holder is on the spot to defend the indefensible, or to accede to the wisdom of the group. Research shows he/she will yield under such circumstances almost every time.
This sequence of steps is intended to show how to deal with ideologues, or rigid believers, or irrational persons with biased positions. Too often ideologues want to jump to solutions before they understand the facts. They need to be confronted with his logic: How can you offer a solution to a problem or issue that you do not understand? When disarmed by this logic, they almost never dominate groups of others who are critical analysts and thus they cannot create gridlock. In group after group, they shift their position to that of the dominant critical voices in the group. Now, think about our legislatures, or any legislation around the world that presumes to seek solutions to problems or issues. When we put together people with diverse educational, political, and religious backgrounds—without the three steps listed above as their guide-- is not gridlock the inevitable outcome?
Way back in the 1960s the American Psychological Association developed a set of learning outcomes that its members believed were important. Their findings were put into book form by Benjamin Bloom, one of the participants. It is called “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.” The basic idea from this taxonomy is that learning outcomes follow a logical hierarchy. Here are the desired cognitive outcomes:
· Knowledge: State the term and use it in a sentence.
· Understanding: Show how the term is used in more than one context.
· Application: Give an example for a practical use of the term.
· Analysis: Dissect the term and show the makeup of its component parts and how they are all connected.
· Synthesis: Show a new application for the term and how it works with others that you already know about; compare and contrast their usages.
· Evaluation: Show the widest use of the term, how it interconnects with and extends our state of knowledge; it’s possible future uses, costs, limitations.
Critical analysis depends on the fullest use of all these skills. Many school districts do not teach the three higher level learning outcomes at all—not even in high schools. Others teach them at all levels. The students from those schools that teach critical thinking skills are inevitably far more advanced than are those students from schools that do not teach them. Why?
· Critical thinking is what education is all about. At least 100 times every day life throws an issue at each of us that we must evaluate. We can respond like a dunce or like a genius. Critical analysis gives us the means to respond intelligently.
· The techniques used in critical analysis apply to a wide range of arguments and presentations including those made in scientific studies, essays, editorials, reports, text books, journal articles, magazines, Internet blogs, e-zines, newspapers, and term papers. Even the arts (movies, acting, dance, art, music) do not escape critical analysis although the standards for analysis in the arts are more subjective than those presented here
· Critical analysis is the means by which ideas and presentations can be reviewed and evaluated objectively by others. Everything from “string theory” to an essay on school lunch programs is subject to such reviews. Those that survive stand at the leading edge of their respective fields of endeavor.
· Critical analysis allows the user the freedom to be objective in his/her analysis of the author’s presentation. For example, what are the author’s sources for his information? Is he relying on assertions and opinions, or doe he use facts? Is he slanting his presentation toward an objective while omitting evidence that might contradict his? Does his presentation cohere? Are there any contradictions? Is his logic sound? Does his conclusion follow from his evidence? Has he stated any limitations to his conclusions? Is he/she an advocate for others? What’s in it for him? What’s in it for me? What other potential conclusions might an independent investigator arrive at, and why?
Problems/Issues Associated with Teaching Critical Analysis
There is an organization called “The First Tee.” It is an organization devoted to teaching kids how to play golf. A secondary objective is to teach 9 core values they hope the kids will carry into their lives. They are: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment. I don’t know how conscientiously First Tee pursues these objectives, or their success rate in achieving them. But they certainly are onto something. Too many kids are not exposed to these values at all. Learning about them at an early age could have wonderful outcomes much farther in life. They are certainly complementary to critical analysis outcomes.
To anyone who believes that the ability to think clearly and objectively is a danger to any given religious belief, let’s be clear: It is only a threat to such beliefs if they are based on rigid rules that make no sense; that cannot be supported by intelligent thinking; that defy logic and rationality; that are harmful to the well-being of the student; that encourage unlawful, harmful, or disloyal activities; or that are connected to outrageous politics.
Here is a longer list of the activities that have no chance of "sliding by" someone well-versed in critical analysis:
propaganda, lies, deception, trickery, shenanigans, bluffs, balderdash, bull crap, horse feathers, falsehoods, canards, deceits, deceptions, distortions, equivocations, exaggerations, fables, fabrication, fairy tales, fallacies, falsehoods, falsifications, fibs, fictions, half-truths, horse shit, humbugs, inventions, jive, libel, mendacities, misconceptions, misinformation, misinterpretations, misreports, misrepresentations, misstatements, myths, obliquities, perjuries, poses, pretenses, prevarications, slanders, stories, tales, taradiddles, untruths, and whoppers.
Anyone inclined to use any of these forms of gimmickry and deception should seek out a different audience. The critical analysts could tar and feather you, and run you out of town on a rail.