What it means to assume critically
from Terry Heik
What does “critical thinking” mean?
Well that depends on who you ask. For educators, critical thinking as a concept is similar to words like democracy, global, and organic: you hear people use them all the time, but no one seems to understand exactly what they mean.
This kind of etymological obscurity leads to them being misused, clumsily fiddled, and abused. In the long run, such misuse renders it meaningless until we all either casually toss it around in the middle of an overly complex sentence to gain our own credibility, or avoid the term altogether.
If we can agree for the here and now that critical thinking means something like judgmental thinking, then we’re already two-thirds of the way to creating some kind of new meaning here ourselves.
Critical thinking is among the first causes of change (personal and social) but is an underdog in schools – for no other reason than it gets the mind to surmise the form and function of everything it sees, including yours classroom and all that is taught in it.
Of course, critical thinking without knowledge is scrupulously idle, like a farmer without a field. They need each other – thinking and knowing. They can also disappear into each other during work. Once we realize that – that they are separate, can merge and need each other – we can get to the bottom of it and be scared.
More than definition and clarification, we need contextualization—to look at the term as we use it, and to see when and how it is used, and what kind of response it elicits when that happens. There’s a lot to look at here: how to teach it, how to assess it, the role it plays in the learning process, how to use it in misleading school mission statements, how to casually drop it in classroom walkthroughs or walkthrough documents (in a way , which implies that I don’t know exactly how this lesson should be improved, so instead I encourage you to “encourage the children to think critically” or “There is so much abstraction in your class that I have no idea what happens, but boy, is there probably a lot of critical thinking).
Criticalthinking.org says that critical thinking is:
“Critical thinking is the way of thinking – about any topic, content, or problem – in which the thinker improves the quality of his thinking by skillfully analyzing, evaluating, and reconstructing it. Critical thinking is self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitoring, and self-correcting thinking. It implies agreement to strict quality standards and careful mastery of their use. It requires effective communication and problem-solving skills, as well as a commitment to overcoming our innate egocentrism and sociocentrism.”
A 2004 article by a Harvard professor says that definitions of critical thinking are “available in a variety of sources, quite variable, and often narrowly field dependent,” and offers a psychologically based definition as “Critical thinking examines assumptions, recognizes hidden values, evaluates evidence and evaluate conclusions.”
In the same paper, philosopher Richard Paul and educational psychologist Linda Elder define critical thinking as “that mode of thinking — about any topic, content, or problem — in which the thinker improves the quality of his thinking by skillfully taking charge of structures , which are inherent in thought and impose intellectual standards on it.”
In education, critical pedagogy and critical thinking overlap almost entirely. While the definitions above focus on thinking, they do not focus much on criticism. In critical thinking, thinking is just a strategy to arrive at informed criticism, which is itself a starting point for understanding oneself and/or the world around one. While it may function in parallel with the scientific method, science intends to arrive at an unbiased, neutral, and null human conclusion.
In critical thinking there is no conclusion; It is the constant interaction with changing circumstances and new knowledge that allows for a broader perspective, that allows for new evidence that starts the process all over again. Critical thinking has raw emotion and tone at its core.
To think critically about something is to claim to circle its meaning completely first—circumvent it completely so that you understand it in a way that is unique to you. The thinker works with his own thinking tool – schema. Background knowledge. sense of identity. Finding meaning is a process as unique to this thinker as their own thumbprint. There is no template.
After circling the meaning of what you are thinking critically about—a navigation that is necessarily done with bravura and purpose—the thinker can then analyze the matter. In critical thinking, the thinker needs to see its parts, its form, its function, and its context. After this kind of polling and analysis, you can come to evaluate it – bring your own unique insight to the matter so that you can point out flaws, underline prejudices, emphasize merits – to get into the mind of the author, designer, creator to invade, or watchmaker and criticize his work.
This watchmaker that’s what this watch did.
This poet who conjured up this poem.
This scientist who spent months working on this study to prove or disprove this ambitious theory.
This historian who has contextualized this historical movement in a series of documents and artifacts that now deserve their own contextualization.
To think critically you need to gather knowledge, develop some kind of understanding, put yourself in the mind of the watchmaker, assess his work, and then tailor it all to a specific form (e.g. an argumentative essay) and audience (e.g . teacher) articulate. Think about what that means.
It is easy for teachers to see the role of critical thinking in a macro process. By analyzing and critiquing the work of others—especially experts—students must temporarily merge their thoughts with them (otherwise they only produce conjectures that sound smart). Through critical thinking, they learn here by imitation – for a moment running alongside others who, among other things, act as pacemakers. By combining this kind of wacky thinking with master craftsmen and their creations, we force students to dance with giants—or the holograms of giants.
The tone here is intimidating for budding thinkers – or at least it should be. It’s a tone that’s simultaneously intellectual, collaborative, and defiant. It says: “I have come to understand this complex matter, which is worth studying – which is probably a greater achievement than anything I have ever produced in my life – and then to pass judgment on it.” I am capable of all of this and willing to do it in a way that will be self-judged.”
That’s the kind of courage that takes years to grow.
What it means to think critically; Image attribution flickr user vancouverfilmschool
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