Field of Science

Critical Thinking: What Is It?

Previously, I posted a set of four questions related to 'critical thinking'. This was driven and has been reinforced by a number of factors that have all come to a head in kind of a perfect storm. First, there was the 'class' on teaching where we discussed this issue; second, there was the release of the report by the authors of Academically Adrift stating that 1 in 3 students learn jack shit in college; third, there was an MPR discussion this week on Morning Edition with Kerri Miller entitled Is Higher Education Losing Its Meaning? Together these episodes, plus the insights I gained by serving on a committee to revise the state science standards, became the impetus to begin a post, which is developing into several posts, on critical thinking.

I think we can make several solid statements regarding 'critical thinking' that essentially everyone agrees on.

1. Critical thinking is something we want students to learn.
2. We value 'critical thinking' as a societal good.
3. We believe that it is possible to teach critical thinking.

I am happy to engage in a discussion of these points, but this is where I am starting from.

So the first question I asked in the original post was:

"What is the your definition of "critical thinking"?"

I want to thank those who responded (although I will guilt trip the FoS-collective, excluding Emily, for not participating). From these comments, comments at Academic Philosophy, and the discussion from my faculty group interested in improving teaching, I feel gratified  that this question is a good place to start.

To be fair, I am taking the philosophically weak-ass position of PASS. I do this because I think the question is a poor one. The idea of 'critical thinking' is something I expect everyone has some kind of intellectual sense of, like art. But when put to the test of defining it, we end up in a "I know it, when I see it" mentality. 

In general I agree with Emily's response "I think it comes down to being skeptical of any unsupported statement and recognizing holes in arguments." While not critiquing the response itself, I do not think this goes far enough. This was the response from the Academic Philosophy thread as well. Indeed, this viewpoint was promoted in the teaching working group I am involved in. In all cases, these responses do describe 'critical thinking' skills. But not critical thinking itself. Also I will argue that they describe one aspect of critical thinking, but not all aspects of critical thinking (akin to a 'species concept' that only deals with the rare sexually reproducing  organisms).

I want to briefly introduce Bloom's taxonomy, of which the 'cognitive' taxonomy is most familiar (at least in the circles I run in). Here is an example of  this type of taxonomy
The lower tiers are considered the lower cognitive functions and higher the higher. (To be clear here, this taxonomy is NOT a judgement call. Knowledge is essential and not less important than Analysis, simply that Analysis requires (according to Bloom) higher cognitive ability.

I introduce Bloom's taxonomy, because conscious or not, I believe that this is the default approach teachers take. I also believe it is reflective in the ideas of critical thinking' described by my responders and my teaching group. When we think 'critical thinking,' we think deconstruction (Analysis-Evaluation on Bloom's scale). Look at the responses if you don't believe me. Indeed, this is the easiest way to demonstrate a critically thinking scientist in action (go to a departmental journal club to see it in action). You see us ripping apart, finding fault, pointing out limitations to any and all studies! This is exactly the exercise described by Emily and taught in Logic classes. (I am not beating on Emily, I teach an entire class that is essentially this approach. In fact, this is important essential critical whatever, it is just not sufficient to be considered 'Critical Thinking'.)

What I think is missing here is what was included in the revised Bloom's Taxonomy:
Creating. Now as anyone who knows me will attest, I am not a fan of creationism. However, 'Creating' is different and is, in my opinion, the antithesis to deconstruction. Yes, 'critical thinking' encompasses deconstruction. Can you look at an argument, data set, etc. and find the limitations, holes, faults? However, 'critical thinking' is so much more. Can you look at two, three, seventeen datasets and develop a new idea? Can you read a paper on the physics of water molecule tension and apply it your research on plant stomata cell function?

I am not advocating that we teach all possible aspects of 'critical thinking' at all times. But it is important to know what 'critical thinking' is, so that we can know when we are (or should) be teaching it.

This post was based on the question "What is the your definition of "critical thinking"?" and I passed on answering it. I still pass on answering it, because I have come to the conclusion that any definition I can come up will lack some important facet (kind of like the 'species concept'). So I will say instead that 'critical thinking' is a skill set that allows one to establish the veracity of an idea, data-set, etc. and to develop logically cohesive ideas, hypotheses, etc.

And it is this idea that 'critical thinking' is better thought of as a skill set than an easily definable term that will be the basis of the subsequent post.

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