Friday, April 8, 2011

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking

Recently we (i.e., the faculty at our college) had to redo all of our student learning outcomes to conform to our authorizing agency. To some extent we had to put the SLOs in a format that showed our classes taught Global Perspectives, U.S. Perspectives, and Critical Thinking. It was, as many things are, tedious, but it got done, and we are satisfied with it. But the process raised a number of questions for me, as did a project I am working on with a colleague in another discipline.

Critical thinking is the buzz word for the ages in higher education, but do we even know what we are talking about? Below are my musings about the subject, which I put out here in cyber space to see if anyone want to comment upon them.

First, critical thinking is a process, not an outcome. It is a system for getting to a conclusion, not the conclusion. The best definition I've read is this one, from the website critical, "the skillful application of a repertoire of validated general techniques for deciding the level of confidence you should have in a proposition in the light of available evidence."

However, I don't think everyone would agree with that definition, because it seems to me to be grounded in a certain discipline (natural or social sciences) and not everyone thinks like a hard or social scientist. But there is another possible objection.

Any educated person thinks he or she is a critical thinker. The attitude goes something like this: "I'm smart. I used critical thinking to come to conclusion X. Therefore conclusion X is right and anyone who does not come to conclusion X has not used critical thinking."

I'm not 100% sure, but I think there is a flaw in this conditional syllogism, although I am still working on it. Maybe it's just a flaw in the major premise.

If a person uses critical thinking, then he will come to conclusion X.

If a person does not use critical thinking, then he will not come to conclusion X.

If a person does not come to conclusion X, then he did not use critical thinking.

If a person comes to conclusion X, he did use critical thinking.

Are we confirming the antecedent or denying the consequent? Like I said, I'm working on it, which is the whole point of critical thinking--it's a work in progress.

My point is (and I don't blame anyone if the point was missed) that there is a lot of pride involved in what we call critical thinking.