What is critical thinking and how do you develop it?
If you have had the privilege of going to university you will have been extolled to engage in critical thinking. Many organisations have critical thinking in their competency frameworks and it is a phrase banded about a lot in professional circles. But what does it mean and why is there so little of it?
In this article I want to look at:
- What critical thinking is.
- How to know when it is and isn’t happening.
- How to develop it.
Critical thinking and ‘The Manchester Airport’ conversation
There is a famous incident in our family where we were on holiday in Morocco. I don’t normally do the organised trip thing but the casbah in Marrakesh was a bit overwhelming, so I thought we would do a guided tour first to get some form of orientation before tackling it ourselves. The trip included a ‘traditional’ Morrocan lunch, oddly in a carpet and souvenir warehouse, the owner of which was referred to as ‘uncle’ by the tour guide, but it could just have been a misinterpretation on my behalf as my Arabic is somewhat rudimentary.
Anyway, we were all sat at tables with little flags for the various nations so that we could sit with people from our home countries. (Just why I would want to fly over two thousand miles to a different country full of interesting cultural and intellectual artcafacts and customs to sit and talk with people from ‘back home’ eludes me.)
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So, sitting opposite another family waiting for our traditional Moroccan lunch, wondering if traditional Moroccans (whoever they are) sit around a table with a little Moroccan flag to have lunch, we quickly ascertained where the family opposite were from. There was a long silence as I gazed at the ‘bargains ‘ surrounding us. One of my daughters poked me to ‘engage’ but before I could conjure up a suitable question or observation the chap opposite asked which airport we flew out from. Under the ever watchful gaze of my children I decided that eye rolling was probably not my best course of action and replied with probably a little too much enthusiasm “Manchester airport” whilst wondering what to level of enlightenment this conversation was about to lead.
The response was what has since become immortalised as ‘The Manchester Airport conversation’ was “I hate Manchester Airport”. Seeing a window of opportunity for a discussion about the merits of the various airport facilities and maybe airports with a fellow worldly traveller I enquired tearing my eyes from a ‘traditional’ Moroccan rug twice the size of my house in Oxford “Oh? Why is that?”
The answer was a resplendent “Well I just do, don’t I?”
The Manchester Airport Conversation
My daughters looked at me in horror and decided to intervene quickly with a beautifully deflective “Seen any nice rugs?”, as I glared into the tagine that had just been pushed in front of me.
Opinions vs ‘opinions’
Subjective experience, such as I feel this when x happens or I feel y about this building or work of art is valid for matters of taste; however using that as your sole evidence for your opinion on a universal statement of fact doesn’t exactly invite much discussion or exploration. Indeed, beyond asking why again, there isn’t much one can do to evaluate whether the opinion is valid and is one you can ascribe to or try to refute with a better argument.
An opinion without supporting evidence and data (see this post for the difference between the two) is just that, an opinion. There is no way to discover whether the opinion has any foundation in reality or is just the ravings of a mad person.
Why students find university hard and how to ace any university course
When I was a university student, I had a problem. Well I had lots of problems but at the risk of invoking tears of sympathy and mockery I will focus on this one pertinent issue. It was a problem I didn’t actually know I had.
The issue was I wasn’t able to accurately predict my marks from assignment to assignment to assignment and I wasn’t confident what grade of degree I would get.
Why did I get that grade?
Nothing unusual in that I hear you say.
However this is actually a problem of major proportions in any learning system. The fact that I couldn’t accurately predict what grade I was going to get meant that I didn’t understand what they were looking for. I didn’t know what the rules of the game were. Because if I did know what they were looking for and what the rules of the game were I should have been able to get straight ‘A’s or at least know that what I was submitting was only worth a B or a C or whatever.
Marking isn’t a great mystery. There are rules and criteria. Know the rules and the criteria and, assuming you are intellectually capable, you should be able to get top marks.
This I was to realise later in my academic and professional careers was not just my problem. That many if not all students submit assignments and tests and have difficulty predicting their grade and all because they don’t understand what the rules of the game are.
The rules of the game
So what are the rules of the game?
Well as an undergraduate I was never to quite fathom out what those rules were. I did okay with my strategy of writing as much stuff down as possible and then rehearsing it just before the exams. When I got to my masters the same scenario started to play out. I’d submit something and not quite be able to predict what mark I would get. Things I thought were great pieces of work got a B or a C and the stuff I rushed or cobbled together could get anything from a D to an A.
At this time I was at Oxford and reading education. Of all the topics that should have let me into the secret of success this was it. But no… well that was until I happened across a book and a professor that changed all that.
In those days you had to do philosophy and maths as part of your masters and it was the questioning of a professor of educational philosophy called Richard Pring finally let me into the secret.
Professor Pring intoduced me to a whole world of thinking, thinking about thinking, and thinking about learning, education and human (learning, intellectual, moral and ethical) development in general. During this time of having my mind well and truly spun around and stretched, I stumbled across a fascinating body of work by an epistemologist (the study of knowledge and how we know and understand things) called William Perry. Perry wrote a brilliant book published in 1970 called Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years: A Scheme. The research Perry did was nothing short of ground breaking and is still the basis of much work and research about how people learn today. He also made explicit the rules of the ‘critical thinking game’ and the secret to success.
Learning, knowledge and facts
What Perry did was study how students think and how their thinking develops over time. What he discovered was that when the vast majority of students typically arrive at college they think the rules of the formal learning game (at school, university or indeed any classroom) is to memorise ‘stuff’.
It’s all about the facts
Then Perry asked students why they are at college.
They replied “To learn”. Okay so far.
Then when he asked them “to learn what?” they replied “Knowledge”
The next question was the most revealing. “What do you mean by knowledge?”
The vast majority (about 95%) of students just out of school reply “Facts”.
When he probed a bit deeper he discovered that in the heads of these students ‘facts’ have two properties.
They are either right or they are wrong.
This is what he called dualism; Formal learning is about remembering the facts and the facts are either right or they are wrong.
When you think about it, learning at school appears to fit this model of learning. This implicit model or understanding of the game of learning leads to three basic assumptions:
- The exams and assessment are there to test my ability to recall the facts.
- My job as a student is to memorise the facts for the exam.
- The lecturer/teacher’s job is to tell me the right facts.
Studying means revision which means reading over and over the material just before the exam. Being in class means recording the facts to later revise.
This short term memorisation drives not just a lot of ‘learning’ but many teachers/trainers/lecturers also think this is what it is about. So called transmission or transfer of knowledge (which I would argue is impossible anyway – more of this later).
The game seen from these eyes is a memory game. And not just any memory game but a short-term memory game, just long enough for he test/exam.
Exams to test the facts
Indeed that’s what I thought the game was until I read this book / studied educational philosophy; Go to class, listen and record the facts, re-read the notes just before the exam, regurgitate the facts in the test, or repeat the facts in essays and assignments… pass!
It never entered my head that getting variations of marks meant something other than I must have missed some facts!
There are a number of levels of intellectual development which Perry uncovered, which are stages of intellectual development. I will look at these in my next post. For now I want to jump to the rules of the critical thinking game….Perry’s last level.
The critical thinking game
A small group of students (less than 5%) had a completely different view of learning at college. When asked why they were at college they replied like the first group, “to learn”.
When asked “To learn what?” they also replied “Knowledge”.
But this time when asked what knowledge is their answer was completely different….
“All knowledge is an argument”
These students replies included comments like:
“well knowledge is dynamic in that the things we believed to be true 100 or even 50 years ago we no longer believe to be true. Therefore what we think is correct now, people in 50 or 100 years time will think is pretty rudimentary or even wrong” and
“All knowledge is just an argument” and
“there is no such thing as a ‘fact’ as such. It all depends on the context. Some things appear to be correct in one context and not correct in another context”.
In effect, what the students were describing is that all knowledge is an argument or a hypothesis or an opinion based on the best evidence at the moment. And the best evidence at the moment is the evidence that is both valid and reliable in the context of the argument or opinion it is being used in. That we weigh evidence based on how it was obtained and how much of the argument or opinion it supports.
Knowledge = argument with valid and reliable evidence
Note, here there is a distinction between an unsubstantiated opinion (aka the Manchester Airport Conversation) and an evidenced opinion where the limits of the evidence to support the argument are known. For example, Manchester Airport serves it purpose as an airport. It has some weaknesses which include x,y and z (too crowded at peak times, lack of comfortable seating and quality food, for example). This is very different from Manchester Airport is rubbish and when asked why answering “well I just do don’t I”. The distinction is between an informed / evidenced opinion in the context and an uninformed, poorly articulated and generalised opinion.
Critical thinking is…
Critical thinking therefore is the ability to construct good arguments or opinions, based on evidence that is valid and reliable for the context of the argument, and the ability to be able to analyse or unpick an argument and its evidence to workout what the strengths and weaknesses of the argument and the evidence are.
Research and critical thinking
All academic research is based on this principle. There are two basic types of research, Deductive and Inductive.
Deductive research starts with an hypothesis or argument/opinion and then tests to see if the evidence supports the argument. (Actually it tests to see if the evidence supports the null hypothesis or the opposite of the hypothesis. Does this evidence support the opposite of the argument? If it doesn’t we will accept the hypothesis or original argument for now.)
Research as critical thinking
Inductive research (which id often carried out by the social sciences) starts at the other end and says look at all this evidence. What hypothesis or argument can we produce that adequately explains all this evidence?
Once I had understood this, I realised that my job as a student wasn’t just to memorise the stuff in the books, but to analyse it and come up with my own opinions. Is this a good argument? Does the evidence support the argument? Are there holes in the argument? Is the evidence good evidence? Is it as valid and reliable as possible for this context (there is no such thing as 100% validity or reliability)? Given all this, is there a better argument?
In brief – ‘What do I think about what I am being presented with?’, and ‘What is my evidence for that?’
Once I started to analyse other’s arguments and start to learn to wield and even produce my own arguments and evidence, I was suddenly catapulted in the world of straight ‘A’s. The name of the game is critical thinking. The ability to understand and use knowledge (arguments) and evidence.
These I realised, are the rules of the academic and work world. Knowledge and understanding are based on evidence, analysis and critical thinking.
Learning to be a critical thinker
The first principle of learning to be a critical thinker is that you can’t be taught to be a critical thinker! You have to learn to be a critical thinker. You have to have your own opinions and ideas or arguments (hypotheses). You have to test them. You have to look at the evidence of your own arguments and those of others. You have to be open to challenge, challenge of your argument and opinions and the evidence used to support your argument. You have to engage and to challenge others’ thinking and use of evidence. You have to run experiments to see what works and what doesn’t. You have to listen and read.
Developing critical thinking by being challenged
Learning to be a critical thinker is an active process. You have to play and experiment. You have to argue and listen. You need to be open to new evidence, new arguments and to being challenged. You have to learn to be open to learning.
A mentor that challenges your thinking helps.
First, however, it helps if you understand the structure of critical thinking…
Perry, William G., Jr. (1981), “Cognitive and Ethical Growth: The Making of Meaning”, in Arthur W. Chickering and Associates, The Modern American College (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass): 76-116.
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