9 Strategies Of Critical Thinking

Most of us are not what we could be. We are less. We have great capacity. But most of it is dormant; most is undeveloped. Improvement in thinking is like improvement in basketball, in ballet, or in playing the saxophone. It is unlikely to take place in the absence of a conscious commitment to learn. As long as we take our thinking for granted, we don’t do the work required for improvement.

Development in thinking requires a gradual process requiring plateaus of learning and just plain hard work. It is not possible to become an excellent thinker simply because one wills it. Changing one’s habits of thought is a long-range project, happening over years, not weeks or months. The essential traits of a critical thinker require an extended period of development.

How, then, can we develop as critical thinkers? How can we help ourselves and our students to practice better thinking in everyday life?

First, we must understand that there are stages required for development as a critical thinker:

Stage One: The Unreflective Thinker (we are unaware of significant problems in our thinking)
Stage Two: The Challenged Thinker (we become aware of problems in our thinking)
Stage Three: The Beginning Thinker (we try to improve but without regular practice)
Stage Four: The Practicing Thinker (we recognize the necessity of regular practice)
Stage Five: The Advanced Thinker (we advance in accordance with our practice)
Stage Six: The Master Thinker (skilled & insightful thinking become second nature to us)

We develop through these stages if we:

  1) accept the fact that there are serious problems in our thinking (accepting the challenge to our thinking) and
2) begin regular practice.


In this article, we will explain 9 strategies that any motivated person can use to develop as a thinker. As we explain the strategy, we will describe it as if we were talking directly to such a person. Further details to our descriptions may need to be added for those who know little about critical thinking. Here are the 9:

  1. Use “Wasted” Time.
2. A Problem A Day.
3. Internalize Intellectual Standards.
4. Keep An Intellectual Journal.
5. Reshape Your Character.
6. Deal with Your Ego.
7. Redefine the Way You See Things.
8. Get in touch with your emotions.
9. Analyze group influences on your life.


There is nothing magical about our ideas. No one of them is essential. Nevertheless, each represents a plausible way to begin to do something concrete to improve thinking in a regular way. Though you probably can’t do all of these at the same time, we recommend an approach in which you experiment with all of these over an extended period of time.

First Strategy:Use “Wasted” Time. All humans waste some time; that is, fail to use all of their time productively or even pleasurably. Sometimes we jump from one diversion to another, without enjoying any of them. Sometimes we become irritated about matters beyond our control. Sometimes we fail to plan well causing us negative consequences we could easily have avoided (for example, we spend time unnecessarily trapped in traffic — though we could have left a half hour earlier and avoided the rush). Sometimes we worry unproductively. Sometimes we spend time regretting what is past. Sometimes we just stare off blankly into space.

The key is that the time is “gone” even though, if we had thought about it and considered our options, we would never have deliberately spent our time in the way we did. So why not take advantage of the time you normally waste by practicing your critical thinking during that otherwise wasted time? For example, instead of sitting in front of the TV at the end of the day flicking from channel to channel in a vain search for a program worth watching, spend that time, or at least part of it, thinking back over your day and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. For example, you might ask yourself questions like these:

When did I do my worst thinking today? When did I do my best? What in fact did I think about today? Did I figure anything out? Did I allow any negative thinking to frustrate me unnecessarily? If I had to repeat today what would I do differently? Why? Did I do anything today to further my long-term goals? Did I act in accordance with my own expressed values? If I spent every day this way for 10 years, would I at the end have accomplished something worthy of that time?

It would be important of course to take a little time with each question. It would also be useful to record your observations so that you are forced to spell out details and be explicit in what you recognize and see. As time passes, you will notice patterns in your thinking.

Second Strategy: A Problem A Day. At the beginning of each day (perhaps driving to work or going to school) choose a problem to work on when you have free moments. Figure out the logic of the problem by identifying its elements. In other words, systematically think through the questions: What exactly is the problem? How can I put it into the form of a question. How does it relate to my goals, purposes, and needs?

  1) Wherever possible take problems one by one. State the problem as clearly and precisely as you can.

2) Study the problem to make clear the “kind” of problem you are dealing with. Figure out, for example, what sorts of things you are going to have to do to solve it. Distinguish Problems over which you have some control from problems over which you have no control. Set aside the problems over which you have no control, concentrating your efforts on those problems you can potentially solve.

3) Figure out the information you need and actively seek that information.

4) Carefully analyze and interpret the information you collect, drawing what reasonable inferences you can.

5) Figure out your options for action. What can you do in the short term? In the long term? Distinguish problems under your control from problems beyond your control. Recognize explicitly your limitations as far as money, time, and power.

6) Evaluate your options, taking into account their advantages and disadvantages in the situation you are in.

7) Adopt a strategic approach to the problem and follow through on that strategy. This may involve direct action or a carefully thought-through wait-and-see strategy.

8) When you act, monitor the implications of your action as they begin to emerge. Be ready at a moment’s notice to revise your strategy if the situation requires it. Be prepared to shift your strategy or your analysis or statement of the problem, or all three, as more information about the problem becomes available to you.


Third Strategy:Internalize Intellectual Standards.
Each week, develop a heightened awareness of one of the universal intellectual standards (clarity, precision, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, logicalness, significance). Focus one week on clarity, the next on accuracy, etc. For example, if you are focusing on clarity for the week, try to notice when you are being unclear in communicating with others. Notice when others are unclear in what they are saying.

When you are reading, notice whether you are clear about what you are reading. When you orally express or write out your views (for whatever reason), ask yourself whether you are clear about what you are trying to say. In doing this, of course, focus on four techniques of clarification : 1) Stating what you are saying explicitly and precisely (with careful consideration given to your choice of words), 2)Elaborating on your meaning in other words, 3)Giving examples of what you mean from experiences you have had, and 4)Using analogies, metaphors, pictures, or diagrams to illustrate what you mean. In other words, you will frequently STATE, ELABORATE, ILLUSTRATE, AND EXEMPLIFY your points. You will regularly ask others to do the same.

Fourth Strategy: Keep An Intellectual Journal. Each week, write out a certain number of journal entries. Use the following format (keeping each numbered stage separate):

  
1. Situation. Describe a situation that is, or was, emotionally significant to you (that is, that you deeply care about). Focus on one situation at a time.

2. Your Response. Describe what you did in response to that situation. Be specific and exact.

3. Analysis. Then analyze, in the light of what you have written, what precisely was going on in the situation. Dig beneath the surface.

4. Assessment. Assess the implications of your analysis. What did you learn about yourself? What would you do differently if you could re-live the situation?


Strategy Five: Reshape Your Character.
Choose one intellectual trait---intellectual perseverance, autonomy, empathy, courage, humility, etc.--- to strive for each month, focusing on how you can develop that trait in yourself. For example, concentrating on intellectual humility, begin to notice when you admit you are wrong. Notice when you refuse to admit you are wrong, even in the face of glaring evidence that you are in fact wrong. Notice when you become defensive when another person tries to point out a deficiency in your work, or your thinking. Notice when your intellectual arrogance keeps you from learning, for example, when you say to yourself “I already know everything I need to know about this subject.” Or, “I know as much as he does. Who does he think he is forcing his opinions on me?” By owning your “ignorance,” you can begin to deal with it.

Strategy Six: Deal with Your Egocentrism. Egocentric thinking is found in the disposition in human nature to think with an automatic subconscious bias in favor of oneself. On a daily basis, you can begin to observe your egocentric thinking in action by contemplating questions like these: Under what circumstances do I think with a bias in favor of myself? Did I ever become irritable over small things? Did I do or say anything “irrational” to get my way? Did I try to impose my will upon others? Did I ever fail to speak my mind when I felt strongly about something, and then later feel resentment? Once you identify egocentric thinking in operation, you can then work to replace it with more rational thought through systematic self-reflection, thinking along the lines of: What would a rational person feel in this or that situation? What would a rational person do? How does that compare with what I want to do? (Hint: If you find that you continually conclude that a rational person would behave just as you behaved you are probably engaging in self-deception.)

Strategy Seven:Redefine the Way You See Things. We live in a world, both personal and social, in which every situation is “defined,” that is, given a meaning. How a situation is defined determines not only how we feel about it, but also how we act in it, and what implications it has for us. However, virtually every situation can be defined in more than one way. This fact carries with it tremendous opportunities. In principle, it lies within your power and mine to make our lives more happy and fulfilling than they are. Many of the negative definitions that we give to situations in our lives could in principle be transformed into positive ones. We can be happy when otherwise we would have been sad.

We can be fulfilled when otherwise we would have been frustrated. In this strategy, we practice redefining the way we see things, turning negatives into positives, dead-ends into new beginnings, mistakes into opportunities to learn. To make this strategy practical, we should create some specific guidelines for ourselves. For example, we might make ourselves a list of five to ten recurrent negative contexts in which we feel frustrated, angry, unhappy, or worried. We could then identify the definition in each case that is at the root of the negative emotion. We would then choose a plausible alternative definition for each and then plan for our new responses as well as new emotions. For example, if you tend to worry about all problems, both the ones you can do something about and those that you can’t; you can review the thinking in this nursery rhyme:
“For every problem under the sun, there is a solution or there is none. If there be one, think til you find it. If there be none, then never mind it.”

Let’s look at another example. You do not have to define your initial approach to a member of the opposite sex in terms of the definition “his/her response will determine whether or not I am an attractive person.” Alternatively, you could define it in terms of the definition “let me test to see if this person is initially drawn to me—given the way they perceive me.” With the first definition in mind, you feel personally put down if the person is not “interested” in you; with the second definition you explicitly recognize that people respond not to the way a stranger is, but the way they look to them subjectively. You therefore do not take a failure to show interest in you (on the part of another) as a “defect” in you.

Strategy Eight: Get in touch with your emotions: Whenever you feel some negative emotion, systematically ask yourself: What, exactly, is the thinking leading to this emotion? For example, if you are angry, ask yourself, what is the thinking that is making me angry? What other ways could I think about this situation? For example, can you think about the situation so as to see the humor in it and what is pitiable in it? If you can, concentrate on that thinking and your emotions will (eventually) shift to match it.

Strategy Nine:Analyze group influences on your life: Closely analyze the behavior that is encouraged, and discouraged, in the groups to which you belong. For any given group, what are you "required" to believe? What are you "forbidden" to do? Every group enforces some level of conformity. Most people live much too much within the view of themselves projected by others. Discover what pressure you are bowing to and think explicitly about whether or not to reject that pressure.

Conclusion: The key point to keep in mind when devising strategies is that you are engaged in a personal experiment. You are testing ideas in your everyday life. You are integrating them, and building on them, in the light of your actual experience. For example, suppose you find the strategy “Redefine the Way You See Things” to be intuitive to you. So you use it to begin. Pretty soon you find yourself noticing the social definitions that rule many situations in your life. You recognize how your behavior is shaped and controlled by the definitions in use:

  1. “I’m giving a party,” (Everyone therefore knows to act in a “partying” way)
  2. “The funeral is Tuesday,” (There are specific social behaviors expected at a funeral)
  3. “Jack is an acquaintance, not really a friend.” (We behave very differently in the two cases)

You begin to see how important and pervasive social definitions are. You begin to redefine situations in ways that run contrary to some commonly accepted definitions. You notice then how redefining situations (and relationships) enables you to “Get in Touch With Your Emotions.” You recognize that the way you think (that is, define things) generates the emotions you experience. When you think you are threatened (i.e., define a situation as “threatening”), you feel fear. If you define a situation as a “failure,” you may feel depressed. On the other hand, if you define that same situation as a “lesson or opportunity to learn” you feel empowered to learn. When you recognize this control that you are capable of exercising, the two strategies begin to work together and reinforce each other.

Next consider how you could integrate strategy #9 (“Analyze group influences on your life”) into your practice. One of the main things that groups do is control us by controlling the definitions we are allowed to operate with. When a group defines some things as “cool” and some as “dumb, ” the members of the group try to appear “cool” and not appear “dumb.” When the boss of a business says, “That makes a lot of sense,” his subordinates know they are not to say, “No, it is ridiculous.” And they know this because defining someone as the “boss” gives him/her special privileges to define situations and relationships.

You now have three interwoven strategies: you “Redefine the Way You See Things,” “Get in touch with your emotions,” and “Analyze group influences on your life.” The three strategies are integrated into one. You can now experiment with any of the other strategies, looking for opportunities to integrate them into your thinking and your life. If you follow through on some plan analogous to what we have described, you are developing as a thinker. More precisely, you are becoming a “Practicing” Thinker. Your practice will bring advancement. And with advancement, skilled and insightful thinking may becomes more and more natural to you.

 

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2001). Modified from the book by Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2001). Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Learning and Your Life.

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Critical thinking is the study of clear and unclear thinking. A simple definition, maybe, but that’s how it should be. The term was popularised long ago–by John Dewey, in the 1930s–but in recent years it has become less of an actionable technique and more of a trendy educational buzzword.

Our definition of “critical thinking” is sliding towards the obscure. Here’s the Australian Curriculum website’s take:

“Critical thinking is at the core of most intellectual activity that involves students in learning to recognise or develop an argument, use evidence in support of that argument, draw reasoned conclusions, and use information to solve problems. Examples of thinking skills are interpreting, analysing, evaluating, explaining, sequencing, reasoning, comparing, questioning, inferring, hypothesising, appraising, testing and generalising.”

Yikes.

From the Common Core Standards website:

“The Common Core asks students to read stories and literature, as well as more complex texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students will be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.”

What exactly is the difference between critical thinking and analysing, problem-solving, questioning, reasoning, etc? By stringing all these terms together we are diluting the power of each. What we need is precision. Teachers need it, and students need it. We all need to think critically about the meaning of critical thinking and come up with something that is actionable and distinct.

But first–it may be instructive to take a step backward and consider what critical thinking looked like before it became “critical thinking.”

Where Did the Concept Come From?

The Greeks, of course.

From the beginning, the concept included not only the examination of others but the constant cognitive monitoring of one’s own thinking as well. When Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” he meant it quite literally. So, the very earliest origins of critical thinking lie in self-examination.

But let’s take it a step further. It’s in the notion of self-correcting that the “critical” part starts to show. Thomas Aquinas was known to constantly test his thinking by systematically anticipating, considering, and answering every criticism of his ideas that he could conceive of. In so doing, he inspired others to appreciate a kind of systematic cross-examination of the self, which helped ensure rational and objective thinking.

Socrates, of course, established Socratic questioning, which we still use today. Rather than anticipating criticisms, it employs them: “I believe one should always be truthful. But what if telling a falsehood would save another person’s life? Is truth nobler than life?”

Later, Bacon and Descartes paved the way to the Age of Reason and Boyle and Newton challenged the existing definition of scientific proof. Quantifiable proof truly began to take hold in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the likes of Marx, Darwin, and Freud continued to challenge assumptions.

In 1906, William Graham Sumner published Folkways, which pointed to the dangers of social indoctrination in schools:

“School education, unless it is regulated by the best knowledge and good sense, will produce men and women who are all of one pattern, as if turned in a lathe…The popular opinions always contain broad fallacies, half-truths, and glib generalizations.”

Sumner supported critical thinking in life and in education, and believed that effective thinking is dependent on a mental habit and power.

Dewey is widely credited with sparking the contemporary critical thinking movement with his books How We Think (1910) and Democracy and Education (1916). Dewey popularised the words “reflective thinking” and “inquiry,” and solidified them as vital parts of critical thinking.

In the 1970s the term “metacognition,” literally defined as “thinking about thinking,” emerged, and critical thinking became a widely accepted educational virtue.

Still, when we hear the term “critical thinking” today, it reminds us more of Bloom’s Taxonomy than of Ancient Greek wisdom.

If we want our students to end up with critical thinking skills, we’re going to have to teach them what makes it distinct from other types of thinking. If we lump it in with deep thinking and analysing, we get a dizzying array of standards that are too obscure to meet. I think we’d all agree that today’s students, especially, need very concrete objectives in order to succeed in the workforce and beyond.

The problem is, sometimes we don’t know where to start to make this happen.

What Does the Term Really Mean?

A few years ago the Center for Critical Thinking was asked to conduct a study for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to determine the extent to which teacher preparation programs were preparing prospective teachers to teach for critical thinking. The study showed that although most faculty considered critical thinking to be of primary importance to instruction (89%), only 19% could adequately articulate what critical thinking is.

More than 75% of educators interviewed were unable to reconcile how to teach content while fostering critical thinking.

In addition, more than 75% of those interviewed were unable to reconcile how to teach content while fostering critical thinking.

“The reason teacher preparation programs fail to place critical thinking at the heart of the curriculum is two-fold,” says educational psychologist and critical thinking specialist Linda Elder. “First, faculty who control and teach the curriculum simply don’t know what critical thinking is. Second, they think they do.”

This is a problem, she says, not just with faculty in teacher preparation programs, but with faculty as a rule. Most teachers have never been explicitly taught the intellectual skills inherent in critical thinking. Many of them teach as if learning were equivalent to rote memorisation. Teachers tend to teach as they have been taught. Many confuse schooling with intellectual development.

They believe that, because they are college graduates, they automatically think well. The fact is, teacher preparation programs seldom prepare teachers to foster critical thinking skills and dispositions.

So what is critical thinking? Or–maybe a better place to start–what isn’t it?

Here’s what we know critical thinking isn’t:

  • Simply mimicking other thinking
  • Simply agreeing with other thinking
  • Being biased towards one way of thinking
  • Being biased against one way of thinking
  • Drawing conclusions too quickly
  • Denying faults in one’s own thinking
  • Placing weight on insignificant details

Here’s what we know critical thinking is:

  • Questioning other thinking
  • Embracing other thinking
  • Emulating other thinking
  • Willingness to be wrong
  • Questioning one’s own thinking
  • Putting logic before bias
  • Recognising contradictions

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s at least a start at trying to define critical thinking in concrete terms. The next challenge, once you’ve defined it, is to teach it. If critical thinking is such an essential academic standard in our society, as the Australian Curriculum and Common Core websites suggest, then we need clear examples of how to help our students meet it.

Critical thinking can occur anywhere, at any time. But it most often shows up in three contexts: essay writing, class discussions, and assessment. Below are nine practical ways to hone your students’ critical thinking skills in these areas:

Rules of Thumb for Essays

The best arguments try desperately to prove themselves wrong

1. Discuss the phrasing of prompts.

Do your students know the difference between “analysing” and “assessing” something? Part of critical thinking is being discerning about terms, if only because the language we use affects the way we think. Obviously, this applies to more than just prompts–you could create an entire lesson on word choice and thought in the construction of essays.

2. There’s no argument without a counter-argument.

The best arguments try desperately to prove themselves wrong in order to gain their audience’s trust and lend greater credence to their own assertion. This is also the way good science works–the hypothesis is correct only when all attempts to prove it wrong have failed. A great lesson in critical thinking.

3. Good essayists admit when they don’t know the answer.

Just because a thesis statement should be clear doesn’t mean it has to be black or white. If there’s a limit or a condition to an argument, say so. The grey area is just as important a part of critical thinking as anything else.

Rules of Thumb for Discussions

1. Hold regular “written” discussions.

In-class discussions are essential, but they appeal to a certain type of learner. Written discussions appeal to another type of learner. With an online discussion forum added to your curriculum, you’ll meet the needs of students who think best verbally and students who think best while writing.

2. Highlight the mysterious.

Every outstanding educator I ever had managed to make his or her topic interesting not because of what was known about it but because of what was unknown about it. It’s important for students to learn the basics of a concept, but that’s what readings and lectures are for. Use discussions to show that your topic is still “alive” and very much up for interpretation.

3. Always refer to other disciplines.

If you’re teaching a lesson on the history of Troy, tie in information about The Iliad. If you’re discussing 19th century US politics, talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Collaborate with other instructors to see what material students will identify with if you bring it up in your class.

Rules of Thumb for Tests

1. Have students write their own test questions.

What better way to test a student’s understanding of a concept (and their critical thinking skills) than to have them write their own test questions on a topic? You can either end the exercise here, and have the questions themselves be turned in for grading, or you can have students take each other’s tests. Either way, it will be an effective assessment.

2. Include the “how” and “why” in MC questions.

If you’re going to administer Multiple Choice exams, don’t make them content-knowledge-exclusive. Add questions that test students’ knowledge of why events occurred and how concepts work. Short answer questions serve a similar purpose, but MC questions force students to be discerning and recognise the difference between similar concepts.

3. Hold oral exams.

It’s pretty astonishing that nearly all of our assessments are written. In the real world, isn’t it far more likely that a student will have to explain a concept orally than in writing? But who has time to test every student’s oral skills separately, you may ask. You do. If you have the time to grade 25 papers, you have time to meet with 25 students individually.

“There is a direct relationship between teacher practices and student development of critical thinking,” says Elder. “To the extent that teachers foster the development of thinking abilities through their practices, students will begin to develop these abilities. To the extent that teachers fail to foster critical thinking, students will fail to develop these abilities. As a rule, people will not develop these abilities on their own. And very few students will learn them at home.”

We’re still a long way from streamlining or even understanding the way we teach critical thinking. But we know that we have to start closing the distance–because no one else is going to.

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