Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Friday, December 25, 2015

Confused About Critical Thinking?

Educators often pay lip service to the idea of teaching “critical thinking”.  But, when asked to define “critical thinking” answers are often weak and sometimes so ambiguous they are virtually worthless.  Common responses to the defining  critical thinking questions include, “teaching them how to think”, “teaching them formal logic”, or “teaching them how to solve problems.”   They already know how to think, logic is only a portion of what is needed to increase critical thinking, and teaching them how to solve problems is an ambiguous answer that is context specific.  Stanovich argues, “that the super-ordinate goal we are actually trying to foster is that of rationality” (Stanovich, 2010, p.198). Ultimately, educators are concerned with rational thought in both the epistemic sense and the practical sense.  Certain thinking dispositions are valued because they help us base our beliefs on available evidence and assist us in achieving our goals. Many educators express to students and administrators the importance of critical thinking, yet, many of those expressing the importance of critical thinking don't know what critical thinking encompasses.  In fact, many educators are simply in the business of repeating what others say-Critical thinking is important.  Critical thinking, as promoted by educators, is often and appendage used to increase the value of intellectual status, or used to indicate this course is different.   

Understanding Rationality

Rationality is concerned with two key things: what is true and what to do (Manktelow, 2004).  In order for our beliefs to be rational they must be in agreement with evidence.  In order for our actions to be rational they must be conducive to obtaining our goals. 

Cognitive scientists generally identify two types of rationality: instrumental and epistemic (Stanovich, 2009). Instrumental rationality can be defined as adopting appropriate goals, and behaving in a manner that optimizes one's ability to achieve goals. Epistemic rationality can be defined as holding beliefs that are commensurate with available evidence. This type of rationality is concerned with how well our beliefs map onto the structure of the world. Epistemic rationality is sometimes called evidential rationality or theoretical rationality. Instrumental and epistemic rationality are related.  In order to optimize rationality one needs adequate knowledge in the domains of logic, scientific thinking, and probabilistic thinking.   A wide variety of cognitive skills fall within these broad domains of knowledge.  Components of critical thinking have been operationalized in a wide range of studies.  

Critical thinking can and has been measured.  CT is something much more than the over conceptualized ambiguous definitions often provided by educators and others (evidence based practitioners, science writers, skeptics, and so on...)  perpetuating the importance of critical thinking. 

Tasks on a critical thinking test include (Hale, 2012):

Answer the following:

John is looking at Cindy but Cindy is looking at James. John is married but James is not.
Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
A) Yes   B) No   C) Cannot be determined

Does a conclusion follow logically from the two premises?

Premise 1: All living things need food
Premise 2: Animals need food
Conclusion: Animals are living things
A) Yes B) No

Read and answer the following:

A suit and tie cost $120 in total. The suit costs $100 more than the tie.
How much does the tie cost?     

In order for educators to successfully teach critical thinking / rational thinking it is imperative that they understand what critical thinking actually is and why it matters.  What are the goals of critical thinking?  How can critical thinking be assessed?  Does my curriculum contain information regarding scientific reasoning, logic, heuristic processing and probabilistic thinking? 

Critical thinking is about what is true (epistemic rationality) and what to do (instrumental rationality).  The best tip I can provide regarding critical thinking is to educate yourself on the works of the most influential people in the field of critical thinking.  A few of those people  include: Keith Stanovich, Daniel Kahneman, Richard West, Shane Frederick and Jonathan Baron. 

Rationality vs. Intelligence

 Rational thinking skills are as important as intelligence.  Intelligence and rationality are often dissociated. Research demonstrates that intelligence is often a weak predictor of rationality.  This has been shown over a wide range of studies.  Intelligence is important, but there is more to good thinking than intelligence.  Intelligence reflects reasoning abilities across a wide variety of domains particularly novel ones.  In addition, intelligence reflects general declarative knowledge acquired through acculturated learning.  Rationality reflects appropriate goal setting, goal optimization, and holding evidence-based beliefs.

Chapter 2 in my book - In Evidence We Trust- provides information on the science of critical thinking / rational thinking.  

References are available upon request.