By Michael W. Lodato, Ph.D.
Background: Some years ago, while I served on a faculty as an Associate Professor, from time to time someone would bring up the subject of critical thinking. The idea is that too much of our thinking is biased, partial, uninformed or downright prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought.
On one occasion the university was preparing for accreditation and one of the requirements was that the students learn about and exercise critical thinking. The university must have presented arguments that satisfied the accreditation folks because it did pass muster and win accreditation. But I’m not aware that much ever came of it in terms of what went on in the classroom. I don’t recall anyone coming up with definitions, objectives, action plans, etc. related to critical thinking.
I do remember, though, that I thought then, and continue to think now, that our universities are not places where critical thinking abounds. In a culture where the concept of right and wrong has been replaced by right and left, if the actions of the professors at most universities, particularly public universities, are not wrong, they are certainly left. (There are a few that lean right. So, the bias and prejudice can be from both sides.) I ask the questions: Would critical thinking be possible if the faculty and staff were 75-85% conservative? Certainly not. It is not possible, either, if the faculty and staff is 75-85% liberal, as is the case at most of our universities. The imposition of faculty points of view that is strongly conservative or liberal hurts the critical thinking of students. They will not improve the quality of their thinking, nor impose intellectual standards upon their thoughts in such an environment.
So that was then, and this is now. I’ve sat in on meetings recently that made me think about critical thinking and decided I should do a think piece on it so I can find out and organize what I know about it. As with all my think pieces, I write them for me but do share them with those who visit my blog.
What is Critical Thinking?
Let me start with a gut feel. It seems that critical thinkers would include those who are critical of their own thoughts as well as the thoughts of others. Let’s see if that makes sense. [I have recently completed a Think Piece on Climate Change and I will attempt to examine here to what degree it turned out to an example of critical thinking.]
From a search I found this definition: “Critical thinking means making reasoned judgments that are logical and well-thought out. It is a way of thinking in which you don’t simply accept all arguments and conclusions you are exposed to but rather have an attitude involving questioning such arguments and conclusions.”
Think of that last sentence as it relates to the many controversial issues we are confronted with every day – issues that you don’t bring up because of political correctness like climate change, abortion, Donald Trump, etc. The thoughts of most people on these issues are influenced by their point of view or frame of reference, often in the form of political ideology. They don’t bother to question their thinking and they accept the arguments and conclusions of the NY Times or Rush Limbaugh or other thought leader.
So, point of view or frame of reference must be an element of critical thinking.
Think of the many points of view out there… catholic, liberal, conservative and so on. Shouldn’t critical thinkers be honest about their point of view and go a step further and seek other points of view along with their strengths and weaknesses? When teachers impose their point of view on students are they helping or hurting the critical thinking of those students?
When I started writing Think Piece on Climate Change, I had a point of view that put me with those who are skeptical that climate change is a threat to mankind’s continued existence. I tried to suppress that point of view as I researched the topic for over four months. I sought other points of view and tried to assess their strengths and weaknesses. I ended up presenting both sides of the issue relative to some questions I was convinced were important. Then, at the end, I documented my own conclusions and recommendations and encouraged other readers to come to their own conclusions.
I wrote about climate change because I didn’t really know much about it. So, my objective, the purpose of my thinking, was to learn and document everything I know about climate change. I did not have a goal of convincing others to do anything. My think pieces are exposed to very few people – usually less than a dozen. But if someone wants to read both sides of the argument the information is available. If they reach different conclusions, they will have documentation to support their case.
So, purpose or goal or objective must be another element of critical thinking. What am I trying to accomplish? What is my central aim? Once you know your purpose you can check periodically to be sure you are still on target.
During my executive and consulting career I spent a lot of time developing strategies for corporations. I found that a key to good corporate strategy is to understand the firm’s external and internal environments, get agreement on them and document them. And then, most important, document assumptions about the environment – what the executives believe about the environment. Each strategy statement must be supported by assumption statements. They come in handy as the strategy is implemented. And I taught my strategic management methodology in the MBA classes I taught and later published a book on it.
So, in critical thinking all reasoning is based on assumptions.
By now we should be concluding that critical thinking is about the ability to think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connections between ideas. Critical thinkers should have the ability to recognize fake news.
Skills Needed for Critical Thinking
The skills needed in order to be able to think critically are varied and include:
- decision making,
- ability to think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas.
- analytical talent, i.e. can carefully examine something, whether it is a problem, a set of data, or a text,
- communication, e. have the ability to share your conclusions with others.
- open-mindedness and
- problem solving talent.
Critical thinkers will identify, analyze and solve problems systematically rather than by intuition or instinct.
Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not.
Someone with critical thinking skills can:
- Understand the links between ideas.
- Determine the importance and relevance of arguments and ideas.
- Recognize, build and appraise arguments.
- Identify inconsistencies and errors in reasoning.
- Approach problems in a consistent and systematic way.
- Reflect on the justification of their own assumptions, beliefs and values.
However, there are things that get in the way of thinking critically. We all carry with us a range of likes and dislikes, learnt behaviors and personal preferences developed throughout our lives; they are the hallmarks of being human. A major contribution to ensuring we think critically is to be aware of these personal characteristics, preferences and biases and make allowance for them when considering possible next steps, whether they are at the pre-action consideration stage or as part of a rethink caused by unexpected or unforeseen impediments to continued progress.
The more clearly we are aware of ourselves, our strengths and weaknesses, the more likely our critical thinking will be productive.