• What is critical thinking?
• The tools of critical thinking
• Tools for getting the facts
• Tools for evaluating the facts
• Tools for drawing a conclusion-using logic
• Tools for evaluating a conclusion
• Putting it all together-critical thinking
• Building a critical thinking lens
1.1 What is critical thinking?
Humans think. You know this. Everyone, whether they seem to or not, thinks. You are thinking at this moment as you read these words. You might be thinking about where the person writing these words (me, the author) is going with this topic on thinking. You might be thinking that this a good way to start a paragraph on thinking—telling you that you think. You might be thinking that this is a lousy way to introduce a topic on thinking because it is obvious you are thinking, and you don’t need anyone to tell you that. You might be thinking that you might learn something new about thinking you never thought about. You might be thinking that you already know all there is to know about thinking, and you might be wondering why you are reading this in the first place. The point is that you are thinking right now. You think because you are human, and humans think. But how do you think? Yes, there is a “biology of thinking” or a process that is going on in your brain as chemicals are being activated and deactivated as a result of your thinking. However, beyond biology, how do you think, and what do you think? What do you think exactly? Do you think that you think clearly, or do you get lost in your thinking?
Do you sometimes wonder if you are the only one thinking what you are thinking, or do you wonder if everyone thinks the way you think? Can you think through a problem, or does it seem like thinking through a problem is the problem? Do you think that there are people who are just naturally good thinkers, like Albert Einstein? Do you think that these naturally good thinkers are the only thinkers who think and think, and with all their gifted thinking, discover amazing things? Or do you think that you could ever learn to think like Albert Einstein, and someday, think through and discover your own amazing things?
The fact is that almost anyone can learn to think like Albert Einstein. Yes, some people pick thinking up easily, but everyone can learn to think as well as Albert Einstein. Because everyone can learn to think well, everyone has within him or her new thoughts that could turn into new discoveries that are just as amazing as Albert Einstein’s discoveries. However, good thinking is hard work. Learning to think clearly and carefully takes training, patience, and practice. Thinking carefully with clarity, depth, precision, accuracy, and logic is thinking critically. Great scientists, like Albert Einstein, who discover amazing things about the world, have trained themselves to think critically. Critical thinking is the process of thinking in a certain way. Critical thinking is the process of thinking clearly, with accuracy and precision; of thinking carefully, with logic and depth; and of thinking open-mindedly, by examining points of view and acknowledging assumptions and biases within a given viewpoint. The point is that everyone can learn how to think critically if the time is taken to learn.
1.2 The tools of critical thinking
So what does it take to think critically? What are the nuts and bolts of critical thinking? Just like math or language or science, critical thinking has necessary tools and a method for using those tools. There are two main activities we do all the time when we think. The first activity is gathering information or collecting data. As humans, our minds are constantly observing and collecting information about the world around us. We use our five senses to gather information about the world we live in. We are observing the height, size, weight, color, texture, and odor of the objects around us, and we are observing these qualities in relation to each other.
The second activity we do when we think is drawing a conclusion based on the information we’ve collected. We may conclude a building is too high to jump over, or an atom is too small to see with our eyes, or a boulder is too heavy to lift with our hands. However, what separates a critical thinker from a non-critical thinker is how she evaluates both the data she’s collected and the conclusions she’s drawn to evaluate both information and conclusions, the critical thinker must use the most important tools in the critical thinking toolbox: questions.
To think critically, we must ask questions about the information or data we have collected. “Is it important?” “Is it relevant?” “Is it applicable?” “Is it significant?” But that’s not enough. We must also ask questions about the conclusion we’ve drawn from the information we’ve collected. We need to ask the following types of questions: “Is the conclusion fair?” “Is it logical?” “Is it reasonable?” and “Is it consistent with all the information collected?” There are different kinds of questions (critical thinking tools) for different activities. There are tools for Getting the Facts, Evaluating the Facts, Drawing a Conclusion, and Evaluating the Conclusion.
1.3 Tools for getting the facts
When you first hear a statement or an argument, it is important to get the facts. If an officer has been called to an accident, the very first thing he does is get the facts. Who was involved? How were they involved? Which car hit first? Which car hit second? Who was driving? Who wasn’t driving? Exactly how fast was the first car going? When looking at something critically, it is important to collect as many facts as you can. Tools for Getting the Facts include questions like “Who?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” and “How?” The facts need to be accurate, clear, and precise. Questions that get to the details of facts, with words like “exactly,” “how much,” “what time,” etc., help to clarify the facts
1.4 Tools for evaluating the facts
Now that you know the facts, it is important to evaluate the facts. When an officer has collected all the facts for the accident, he needs to evaluate the facts. Evaluating facts is not as easy as it sounds because evaluations involve not only facts, but also involve opinions and preferences. For example, one driver in the accident may claim that because there was a full moon, the accident was the other driver’s fault. It might be a fact that there was a full moon, but is this fact relevant to the accident? Is it a significant fact concerning the accident? The officer has to evaluate the facts to find out if they are facts that should or should not be used to draw a conclusion. Tools for Evaluating the Facts include questions that explore the relevance and significance of the facts and questions that explore whether or not the facts are substantial, crucial, or applicable to the conclusion.
1.5 Tools for drawing a conclusion – using logic
Now that we have collected the facts and evaluated the facts, we can “draw a conclusion.” A conclusion is a statement that sums up all of the information collected in order to make a point or a decision. But how do you know if the conclusion you’ve made is valid and consistent, or logically flawed? For example, one driver might not like men in flowered shirts. This driver might want to say that it was not the moon that caused the accident, but that it was the man in the flowered shirt that caused the accident because “men in flowered shirts always cause accidents.” Is this true, or is the driver making a logical error? Tools for Drawing a Conclusion use logic (a method that investigates arguments) to help the critical thinker avoid making errors by exploring validity, consistency, and logical flaws.
1.6 Tools for evaluating a conclusion
Sometimes it’s not enough to have a logical conclusion. Sometimes it is necessary to evaluate your conclusion. We need to ask the following types of questions: “Is my conclusion fair?” “Has my conclusion taken into account all the information available?” “Is my conclusion reasonable?” and “Is there more information that should be considered?” For example, the officer may conclude that the moon did not cause the accident, and that the man in the flowered shirt did not cause the accident, but that instead, neither man was watching where he was going. One was looking at the moon, and the other was fixing a button on his shirt; so they are both at fault. But does that conclusion take into account all the information available, or is there more information that must be considered before the officer can make a fair conclusion? Tools for Evaluating a Conclusion include questions that explore the fairness, reasonableness, depth, and breadth of a conclusion.
1.7 Putting it all together-critical thinking
In summary, the four main types of critical thinking tools are: Getting the Facts, Evaluating the Facts, Drawing a Conclusion using Logic, and Evaluating a Conclusion. As we’ve mentioned, asking questions is the key for critical thinking, and it is important to ask questions that incorporate all of the critical thinking tools we’ve discussed. It is important that we ask questions not just of other people’s thinking, but that we also challenge, and ask questions of, our own thinking. The critical thinking tools we’ve discussed are different kinds of questions that explore different aspects of the information gathered, and that explore different aspects of the conclusions drawn from that information. Throughout this workbook, we will be asking questions using all of the critical thinking tools. Finally, one of the most important questions you can ask another person is, “Let me understand what you are saying. Are you saying…?” Then in different words, repeat what you think the other person is saying, or repeat what you think you are saying in a different way. To admit you may not understand what someone else is saying is a way to open up more critical thinking questions.
1.8 Building a critical thinking lens
We have been talking about “critical thinking tools,” but what exactly do all of these critical thinking tools look like together? One way to envision all of the critical thinking tools is to think about a lens. If our eyes do not function properly, a lens helps us see objects more clearly. In the same way, a critical thinking lens can help you think through problems more clearly. Constructing a critical thinking lens is not very difficult. It amounts to asking questions using the four critical thinking tools we have been learning. LAs you improve your ability to ask good questions, your critical thinking lens will improve. A critical thinking lens can help you decide what kinds of statements are scientifically valid, and what kinds of statements may not be scientifically valid.