Like many people I was never taught critical thinking skills when I was younger and like many people if you stopped me on the street and asked me point blank to define exactly what critical thinking was, I would probably give you a blank stare back and say something like, “Um, it’s…thinking… critically…?”
The fact that I couldn’t recognise it (even though I was convinced that I was doing it every day) meant that when someone or something challenged my beliefs I was very hard pressed to actually defend them and to give solid reasons as why I believed anything at all.
So what exactly is it? Can we get a working definition?
Critical thinking is defined by the Oxford dictionary as: “The process of analysing information in an objective way in order to make a judgement about it.”
Schools do teach this to a certain degree but often focused solely on a particular issue or area. I was taught to think critically when writing essays, or when presenting an argument in a debate rather than think critically when analysing my own opinions or the issues that I faced outside the classroom or around the school. The sad fact is that critical thinking tends to be a bit like a candle. It’s good when it’s used at a distance, but when you apply it up close to things they tend to distort from the shadows. Especially if you keep applying it from only one angle.
Critical thinking follows the idea of deductive reasoning, that is you start from a broad assumption or premise and you follow a logical chain of reasoning down to a provable or logical conclusion.
Growing up like most people I was pretty sure that I based most of my decision making on sound logical argument and as a result made sound objective logically consistent, critically well thought out decisions
Let me give you a few examples of where I was wrong.
If something is good then more is better. As part of my job I design computer based training materials for various organisations. This means converting pages of information into short easy to understand units of learning. The issue I find again and again is I need to add more and more information to the lessons because I think it’s important that people know everything. I worry that I haven’t covered everything that I need to or that the learner might need some crucial piece of information later so therefore I need to include everything. This kind of thinking leads to an assumption that I need to be sure that I have absolutely every base covered and to make sure that everything that worked in the past is covered too. This means that while I may question my assumptions about what works or how to improve things, when it comes down to it I may still bow to those assumptions just to quiet any lingering anxiety.
The other argument is: Let’s give people as much knowledge as we can, they can sort out what is good and what is bad on their own and work out what was actually relevant later. Similarly, a little parental support for my child is good, so therefore more will be better. And as much as possible will be best.
Oversimplification – Once I have an understanding of something then I see that part of the thing that I understand as representing the whole problem. This is an issue in the news and current affairs shows when they are trying to make a complex story and issue as simple as possible to present it in an entertaining way. If I assume that after watching that 5 minute video clip then I know what is actually going on with the particular issue (or even just that I now have a good grasp of it) then I won’t think that I need to investigate it further. This is sometimes called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where someone who knows very little about a topic assumes that they are experts because they simply don’t know what they don’t know. Running a government? That can’t be too hard can it?
Separating the person from the problem – This is common in counselling and other service industries that you separate the person as an individual from their actions, so that, for example, just because a person has stolen something doesn’t make them a thief, i.e. That their behaviour doesn’t determine their identity. After a while though I need to consider that maybe I’m just making excuses for someone and they actually are like that.
Thinking critically also means thinking critically about our own thoughts. How are we approaching the problems that we face? When I do make an assumption about someone, am I making it because it’s really just the way I see things? Do I consider how I actually reach the conclusions I reach and not question them? But at the same time do I question others?
A friend of mine once said to me that they can tell whether someone is nice or mean just by looking at them. While I’m sure that my friend was sincere in that belief, I do tend to think that that kind of thinking, (that I can tell what someone is really like, even without meeting them) says a lot more about my friend than it does about anyone they might meet.
The trouble with critical thinking today is that thinking logically or critically about a subject doesn’t convince people anymore as to whether your point of view is true or not. Everyone has their own opinions or points of view and the fact that you may have reached yours through critical and robust debate and rational thought doesn’t necessarily make yours any more valid that someone who has an opinion based on their feelings at the time.
Besides, both of these points of view may be equally valid. I can love someone dearly but still objectively understand that they do bad things. It doesn’t stop me from loving them. The problem comes when I need to decide on which point of view am I going to base my actions on concerning them. Not enough feeling can be just as bad as too much. Am I going to listen to one side more than another in some circumstances and not others? And what determines those circumstances?
I need to be critical in my feelings as well as my thinking and understand what areas my feelings are not appropriate in and what areas they can have free reign. The heart is a great companion but a poor master.
Critical thinking is a tool, but one that has to be used wisely. Otherwise I will use it the same way as I use all my other shiny new tools and think that since all I have is a hammer then everything starts to look like a nail.
That’s something I wish I was taught at school.