Critical Thinking: What Is It, Anyway?


As much as we hear about bringing creativity to classroom and business, we hear even more about teaching and using critical thinking skills. Since we’re prone to throwing terminology, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about critical thinking and what it entails. First, let’s parse out the difference between thinking and critical thinking. Here’s what I’ve come up with: “I’m thinking about the beach,” or “I’m thinking about my mom’s peach pie,” is plain vanilla thinking. Thinking is giving mental attention to something that doesn’t require assessment or response from the thinker. Alternatively, critical thinking guides our assessment of and our reactions to information being considered— frankly, the act of thinking critically demands a reaction, any reaction or decision (including everything from “nope, that’s utterly incorrect,” to “oh, ok, that fits in my web of preexisting knowledge this way” to “well now that I know that, I have to change my whole life”).Either way, critical thinking demands objective examination of a topic and then a conscious response to that examination. In other words, you should be doing a lot of it every day. Critical thinking is happening when you’re asking questions like Is that true? How do I know? How did you arrive at your conclusion? Did you consider _____? Would it be better if we ______? Does doing ______ have any affect on that? What factors went in to that decision? Is it likely that the person making this argument knows about ______?  Why does that idea matter anyway? I’ll stop there before I accidentally create Earth’s worst Mad Lib. The ability to think critically is arguably the most important skill for the 21st century person. It’s the equipment anyone can use to navigate a world of ideas that are increasingly unmitigated and available—everyone is tweeting, blogging, and broadcasting into the ether, so sorting through all the static is that much more important. Since this is a blog post and not a PhD course, I’d like to briefly take a look at using critical thinking specifically for reading blogs and tweets (although this method could apply to just about anything). While there isn’t an official formula for doing this, I’d like to suggest using “The Five W’s” that we learn in elementary school as guidelines for inquiry; they include Who?, What?, Where?, When?, Why?, and (sometimes) How?. Instead of using the Five W’s for developing content (they’re the basics for writing a successful news piece), use the Five W’s to analyze any post/piece of writing. Here’s how to get started: [1. This isn’t meant to be the definitive be-all end-all list for thinking critically; it’s just a nice place to start exercising these skills. Feel free to add other ideas in the comments section.]

Who? Consider who wrote the piece.

   What do you know about this individual’s background?

   What is his or her age and socio-economic standing?

   How about level of education [which you may not want to assess simply using degree level but also the person’s body of work]?

   In what part of the world or country does she live?

   Is she regarded as an expert on this particular topic?

   Is she a widely regarded BS-artist (seriously)?

What? Figure out what the writer is saying—and what she isn’t saying.

   Does she want someone to change something?

   Start something?

   Does she argue for the status quo?

   How far-reaching are her suggestions: do they apply to every situation or is she flexible in the application of her ideas?

   Does she address counter arguments in her own work?

   Is she writing from personal experience or synthesizing ideas from other people?

   [While this isn’t applicable to blogs, usually, you may also want to consider who the intended audience is… is this a letter? Was it published post-mortem? Etc.]

When you’re considering the “what” of a piece of writing, you’ll have to consider what you know about the topic as well, which colors your ability to assess it. You’ll need to ask yourself:

   What is my own level of expertise in this subject?

   Is this something that hits close to home for me?

   Is my own personal experience/research affecting the way that I am hearing/reading this argument?

   …and the zinger: Am I hearing only what I expect this person to be saying, or am I being objective enough to see the true argument. [2. The ability to parse out your expectations of another person’s argument is the key to being able to have a sensible, effective, and relatively calm conversation about tough topics like politics and religion. It’s imperative, the key listening skill.]

Where? Context is so important; you'll need to consider it.

   Where is this work published? WSJ? NY Times? Homemade newspaper from the Midwest/Southern California/Salt Lake City/Miami?

   Who is sponsoring the site? Might the sponsors of the site be influencing the apparent viewpoint of the author?

   Is this the author’s personal website or a site used to promote a business?

When? Addressing the “when” of the post goes beyond “oh, that was written in 1997.” Looking into when means looking at the political and economic time frame of the argument, both on a national level and in the writer’s personal life. This can cover everything from “well, the stock market had just crashed so everyone was extremely worried and fiscally conservative at this time” to “he wrote this three months before/after he became a father for the first time/ lost his job/ got a new job/ killed that guy/ saved that whale/ got his legislation passed.” The when for the author can color the argument.

   Does the political climate affect the writer's intentions?

   Does he or she have something to gain or lose because of the timing of this post?

   Would she be saying the same thing at a different time?

Why? What prompted the whole thing, anyway?

   Is what you’re reading for artistic purposes?

   Is it to entertain or educate?

   Does it seem that the author wants you to change your viewpoint?

   What is her call to action?

   Is she hurt or outraged by something or, alternately, elated and supporting something she believes in?

   What does she have to gain from sharing these ideas?

   What does she have to lose?

   Why might that be “worth it” to her?

How? How did this piece of work get into your hands anyway? Was it intended for you? Is the author married to editor of the paper? Did she make a considerable donation to some charity who now feels obligated to let her say her piece? Does she “know someone” or was this vetted by objective third parties? Is she writing in her own space where she has clearance to say whatever she likes without consequences [as if that were possible!]? Did she likely write this for free or is she making a large chunk of change for it? Keep in mind that critical thinking is not critical feeling. You’re going to have to leave your emotions out of it, or at least be aware of them and separate them from the task of critical thinking. There’s not a lot of room for “But that’s not fair! But that makes me jealous! I could have said that! This offends me! She’s a jerk!” in critical thinking because it clouds our ability to see an argument for what it really is and to refine our own thinking in light of it. Even the most distasteful arguments can be used to strengthen our own ability to think. Exposing ourselves only to those ideas that are already in keeping with what we understand or believe is the fastest way to disarm ourselves and end up in the complacency zone. Thinking critically demands energy and effort, and yet, if you’re not thinking critically, are you really getting anywhere?

Elizabeth KingComment