The Basics – Critical Thinking

A lot of blogs have a category in which they describe basic concepts pertinent to the subject matter.  I think this is a wonderful idea, and will sporadically indulge myself.  Here is the first of my basic concepts: critical thinking.

Critical thinking is once again entering the lexicon of the culture wars.  It is considered the gold standard of teaching, so it is understandable that various ideologies would like to wrap themselves in its mantle.  However, what these ideologists call critical thinking is but a pale ghost of what critical thinking really is.

Back in high school, one of my classmates complained to me that he couldn’t figure out how to solve the homework problems.  So I sat down and asked him to show me what he was doing so I could help him.  When I saw what he was doing, I was speechless.  Instead of solving the problem the way we were taught, he was trying to use the method we were taught to use to check our work.  You need to have an answer before you can check your work.  When I pointed out to him what he wa doing, we looked at me like I had grown two heads.  Why would we solve a problem we already solved?

The answer, of course, is to make sure we solved it correctly.  Checking your work is the least important part of finding a solution, but its vital to making sure that your solution is correct, that you understand how to solve the problem.

Creationists -including people who endorse intelligent design- and other conservative ideologists have made a major push to get “critical thinking” initiatives added to a number of science standards in the United States.  But like my classmate, their concept of critical thinking is limited to the solution check.  They believe (or possibly pretend) that critical thinking means “questioning what you have been taught or have concluded.”  But that is merely the solution check.  Its important to making sure that your answer is correct, but is useless in deriving your answer.

So what is critical thinking?  It is a multi-step, iterative process.  First you identify a problem, trying to discern the relevant questions and known and unkown data.  Then you take the knowledge that you have gained and apply it to the problem, looking to see if there are multiple approaches to take.  You then evaluate what you have done, trying to determine which approach is the most likely to produce a good answer.  You may need to try several approaches.  You then look at your answers to see if they make sense, and whether they suggest other questions to be asked.  Then and only then, do you sit down and ask if the knowledge you were applying can give the answer to the problem.

Ideologists want to skip to the last step.  They want people to conclude that the concept they despise doesn’t give a good answer, without actually going through the beginning steps.  And they want their ideology to get a free pass, for people to conclude that they have the better answer without any of the steps of critical thinking being applied.  In other words, they want rote memorization.

Obviously, in order to teach critical thinking, you have to have a knowledge base.  But how do we select that base?  In the tradition of critical thinking, you let a bunch of people loose on the problems and see if they can reach a general consensus on the solutions by applying critical thinking.  This consensus does not require unanimity.  Those solutions that achieve a general consensus become part of the knowledge base.  You then teach that knowledge base, and show the students how to properly apply all the steps of critical thinking.  Only after they have mastered the art of critical thinking do you start to introduce them to solutions not in the general consensus or that have not been subjected to or have failed rigorous critical thinking.  This level of mastery is not normally reached until college. 

To make it short and to the point, the question we need to be teaching them to answer is not “How does x explain y?” or “How could x possibly explain y?”

The question they should be learning to answer is “How would x explain y?”