Critical Thinking: What Is It, Anyway?

by Elizabeth King on June 13, 2010

think_outside_the_boxAs 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

thinking_critically

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

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?

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You may also like Creativity: What Is It, Anyway?

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  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.
  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.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Dykeman June 13, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I like this post as a primer to critical thinking. The key questions (the 5Ws and the Y) are always a solid starting point.

It seems to me that propaganda, in particular, is the type of writing that shouldn’t stand up to the light of criticism. I Googled “how to spot propaganda” to see what I could find on the topic. This was the top entry and, on the surface, it looks pretty good:

http://ckcounterpunch.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/diy-how-to-spot-a-propaganda-through-critical-thinking-why-think-about-propaganda/

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Jenn June 13, 2010 at 4:49 pm

This is a pretty thorough intro into how to read critically. It stings me a bit to think of how few of these questions I probably ask myself in my day to day reading…although I suppose the author’s interests may be best served much of time in hiding the answers to these questions, so even if I ask, I won’t have an answer!

This also got me thinking about journalism in the modern world. Theoretically, the who, where, why, etc. should be irrelevant if a journalist is simply reporting the facts. In reality, journalism is heavily opinion oriented, and it is actually critical to consider the source. Newspapers voice an opinion in their choices of what to publish or not. News channels do the same. It’s actually shocking to see how Fox News and CNN slant their coverage of the same event (things get even worse in state or religion driven media outlets around the world). Viewers know what to expect from their channel of choice, and they continue to watch because they know that that network will cover a story in the way they believe it should be covered. To me, this trend means we’re thinking LESS critically about current events because we choose material that suits what we already believe.

And contrary to your advice, we’re quick to read, and think, emotionally. I had an article published yesterday in our local newspaper. It was absolutely an opinion piece, but my argument (I hope) was rational and supported by rational evidence. The interesting thing was that the paper held off publishing it for a couple of weeks until they could solicit a rebuttal piece by a student. The student’s counter-argument was emotionally driven, and by tugging heartstrings, made me look a bit like the bad guy (the title the newspaper added to my article was a serious bit of hyperbole, too). It gave readers an easy way out, rather than pushing them to critically assess their own behavior. Maybe biased/emotional content is the paper’s latest bid to save itself from a slow death, but given the barely perceptible jump in traffic on my website yesterday, I can’t say the approach works all that well (or maybe my article just wasn’t that interesting…I can’t expect others to be critical if I can’t be self-critical!)

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Jonathan June 14, 2010 at 10:03 am

Great post! And as the previous commenter noted — very necessary given that the current fashion for evaluating arguments based on volume leaves a lot to be desired.

To the starting list, I’d like to see someone come up with a simple guide to the formal techniques of argumentation — a “Dummies Guide to Debate”. Persuasive speakers or writers know how to craft an argument that is subtly seductive. They won’t leave obvious logical flaws and can get you to reach the conclusion they want before they even get there themselves.

The Persuaders will use the standard arguments such as “If the Lesser is True, than so must be the Greater,” e.g., if water boils at 212 F, then it will boil at 220 F. Hard to argue with logic like this — except when you realize that some processes aren’t continuous and discontinuities spoil the logic train. Moreover, this kind of argument assumes that you can meaningfully measure “greater” or “lesser” — you can do it with temperature — but it gets a lot more difficult with softer subjects, like politics, relationships, etc.

Another sleight of hand you’ll see is the displaced metaphor. The sun most certainly always rises in the east — but you can’t then extend that to the moon. They are different things and what is true for one is not true for the other.

Of course the preceding examples are easy to pick apart. But, the Persuaders operate with much more refined versions of these techniques, as well as others. It wasn’t until graduate school that I came across the tools of the argumentation trade, and, even then, it was of my own initiative.

It would be great to arm people, especially kids, with the tools to spot and then think critically about the arguments frameworks that people use. Maybe it could be Critical Thinking 201 to the great starter above.

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Crudbasher June 14, 2010 at 10:11 am

Great post! That is one of the best, most clearly laid out primers on critical thinking I have seen. I’ll pass it around. Thanks!

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admin June 14, 2010 at 10:12 am

THANK YOU.

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Nicholas Provenzano June 14, 2010 at 10:31 am

This was a wonderful post. Sorry for this, but it really made me think critically about critical thinking. I love the way you broke down the different parts. I really wonder how I’m briniging that concept to my students. Oh, that’s more CT! Great job at getting peope thinking about this importan topic. Well done. :-)

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Lee June 14, 2010 at 2:05 pm

It seems to me that most people out there are critical of thinking period. It’s so messy, disturbing, and let’s face it, just plain hard. It inconveniences not only the thinker but everyone around as well. It calls for accountability from everything including (but not limitted to)The Congressional Budget Office and your kids. It calls into question the “accepted” way of doing anything from composing music (think Bethoven) to resisting and hence resolving racial injustice (think Martin Luther King, Jr.) It is so much easier and faster to simply emote. Seriously, who can’t work up a pretty good, yet empty, head of steam over things they’d rather leave unpondered?
I suspect that, had a little more critical thinking been going on and a lot less emotional hysteria, The Crusades may have been shelved. What would Jesus do? NOT that. Critical thinking might create a shortage of suicide bombers. Does anyone really think that young people blowing themselves up on buses is a well thought out idea?The encouragement of critical thinking in the classroom could ignite the ideas which ultimately lead to a cancer cure rather than the ones which ultimately lead to our ridiculous drop out rate. The next time someone mentions that the president or their mother is a total jerk, ask for the reasoning and not the emotion behind the assessment.
When we reacquaint ourselves with the challenging process of critical thinking in all areas of our culture maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to have a meaningful conversation. In the meantime, I need to put on my thinking cap.

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Akil June 14, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Awesome post and thanks Mark for the link it is/will be a great resource. Its incredible to think that this post would be thought provoking to any adult, but so many do not think about what’s said and what’s meant and how that impacts communication and learning.

I recall learning the 5 Ws in middle school and to think that adults would need a refresher is saddening. But given the state American media and ‘news” its clearly necessary. This also makes the case for the validity of many of the Standardized test we both teach. The SAT reading section purports to test reasoning (thinking) skils and in many ways if more students thought more immediately and completely about the 5 Ws scores would be much higher.

I’ve tried to convince a school to help me develop a program for their kids. A course which would develop the ability to think critically, using debate, media and the written word. If a student develops a love for analysis and critical thinking then all other topics are easier to learn. Imagine a school where all students take in information digest it, look at it through their lens and find what pertains to them, whats designed to persuade them, and whats factually inaccurate, such kids would start a revolution.. such adults would rule the world

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Rozz Hardin June 17, 2010 at 9:33 am

A critical thinking course for kids would be wonderful! Children are influenced by many things, yet they don’t always realize what causes them to make the choices and decisions they make. This article has really helped me too. I read a lot of educational blogs and sometimes can’t make heads or tails of what people have posted. There is a lot of information out there and this helps me to sift through it and get what I should get out of what I read.

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David McGavock June 17, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Great overview of critical thinking Elizabeth. As you say, critical thinking is a broad subject. It spans many disciplines, approaches, not to mention developmental levels. You have synthesized it into an approach that any teacher can use – immediately. We are creating some critical thinking resources on a wiki at: http://critical-thinking.iste.wikispaces.net/ I will certainly link your blog post there. Please join us in the creation of these resources.

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Gail Martin June 18, 2010 at 11:30 am

Love this post. Love the comments, and the thinking behind them that follows.
Inspired. You’re a blog voice worth paying attention to, Liz. I’ll be sharing your culture making ideas widely.

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Joel Fouse June 18, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Well said, and concisely presented. One of the areas I’m hoping to teach my kids this kind of critical thinking is in general media consumption, particularly being aware of how advertising works and being able to see the true motivation behind the various gimmicks and such.

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Brenna June 19, 2010 at 8:31 am

Excellent post, though I’d like to see your credentials, a list of any major life events in the past 3 months, and your paycheck. ;)

I’m part of a classical homeschool co-op. For those that have suggested a critical thinking program for kids, it’s out there and we use it. Classical education is based on three tenets: rote learning, logic, and rhetoric. Younger kids can soak up tons of information just by memorizing for fun (I miss being able to do that!); by fourth grade or so, they learn logic and WHY something is true/untrue by being able to discern whether or not an argument is sound. In high school, they can give a persuasive, logical case based on everything they’ve already learned.

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admin July 14, 2010 at 1:39 pm

That first line cracked me up– I was so hoping someone would take the opportunity for a good laugh. : ) Kudos!

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Alan Wade February 14, 2012 at 12:42 pm

I’m researching a page about critical thinking for my own web site and my reason for writing is to ask if I can link to your page and maybe use a short extract? I will, of course, give credit to the writer.

I was enjoying your blog until I came across this:
“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)?”

My own personal view is that a persons qualifications, socio-economic standing and such are the last things we should consider when searching for logical, quality, critical thinking.
The results of critical thinking will not necessarily fit into what you already know, what you have been taught, or what you have read in the press.
If they do, then it’s likely that you have not managed to abandon your learned, emotional or environmental bias…which is what the exercise is all about. Critical thinking from within the confines of qualification and scientific paradigm is not critical thinking at all as it excludes the possibility of criticising science and education.

My own web site is mostly the result of critical thinking with regard to what is taught in education, with particular emphasis on the academic science that supports all education and the widespread mythology that has become attached to it.

I will understand if you choose not to answer. Some of the scientists I’ve written to also choose not to discuss the contents of my writing although most do reply.

Best regards

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Elizabeth King February 19, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Thanks so much for taking the time to post–and I’m glad you did, because there’s probably a bit of a misunderstanding here:

My own personal view is that a persons qualifications, socio-economic standing and such are the last things we should consider when searching for logical, quality, critical thinking. OF COURSE. In no way am I intending to imply that we should discriminate against people of any particular socio-economic group (really, neither the poor, middle-class, nor the elites). The directive is less about “the search for logical thinking” as it is how to think logically when faced with the opinions, ideas, and assertions of others, which is exactly what you’re also addressing in your comments.

The point of considering someone’s background when analyzing what they have to say should be clear: our backgrounds inform our perspectives, expectations, and objectives. Doing one’s homework, for lack of a better term, can help one parse out why someone might be saying whatever it is s/he is saying. That’s as much as I meant by that. I suspect you mean the same.

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Alan Wade February 20, 2012 at 7:35 am

Thank you for the kind reply.
I can see your point in as much as someone who is an extreme sceptic (skeptic) would have opposing views to someone who is a fundamental Christian, but then that’s why we do critical thinking and point to logical errors in the philosophy of both?

You see, I have this problem with those who tell me that qualification is all-important. ‘The expert has the last word’.
Education is driven by academic science (Maybe a future topic for discussion?) which is itself a belief system.
Therefore: qualification is initiation into a belief system.

Experts do not have the luxury of critical thinking and have to toe-the-party-line of consensus. If part of that consensus happens to be false, the expert will nevertheless support it for the sake of cohesion in the peer group. I have some examples of this on my web site: http://www.n-atlantis.com/

Confronted with an expert or pseudo expert, I doubt I would be concerned with his/her background as much as with what is being said and the authority behind it.
A typical example would be the writing of Richard Dawkins, which on close examination turns out to be largely unsupported even by his peers, not to mention his all but complete abandonment of logic.

This dislike of logic is not uncommon in scientific circles and I would direct you for a further example to the web pages of emeritus professor of physics at Lock Haven University, Donald Simanek.
http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/logic.htm
He thinks logic is something of a joke and when I wrote to him he managed to avoid the subject like a plague, preferring to refer to it as ‘something to do with mathematics’.

I really don’t care about professor Simanek’s background, just his faulty thinking, that his followers seem to accept without question.

Regards

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Elizabeth King February 21, 2012 at 4:04 pm

The point of my post is *how* to think critically, not *where to find* critical thinking. I’m not talking about qualification at all. Heck, I’m not an “expert” other than my reader weighing out my ideas against the world’s. All I mean here is that one’s background can *inform* what one is saying or reveal one’s motivation.

It sounds to me like you and I would need to clarify our terms, given your comment,

Experts do not have the luxury of critical thinking and have to toe-the-party-line of consensus.

We’re going to continue conflating ideas and going round and round in circles where you feed me statements/ideas that aren’t in my post and see how I respond to them.

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sibiry niare January 26, 2014 at 11:12 pm

I would like to say thinking is lightened by a passive idea. When we think, we are seeking details about something; we make our brains busy for in a way that it can’t accomplish anything else. But a critical thinker, delivers ideas that must contain the answer of the questions like who, what, when, how, why, where. The better the answers of these questions, the more better critical thinker one is .A critical thinker’s ability varies with the time/era in which it was thought out. Which are self-explanatory, most scientific discoveries are criticized by the following generations, even though in their time those ideas would have seemed flawless.

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