What is Critical Thinking?
The purpose of critical thinking
is to create light, not heat.
Beyond the Vernacular:
The concept of critical thinking is one that is often misunderstood. Like many words, the word critical has many meanings that are governed by the context within which they are used. According to the MacMillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners of American English (2002), the word critical has at least seven different meanings. Certainly, its first definition, and the one most often conjured is "expressing an opinion when you think something is wrong or bad". This definition is focused purely on the negative and thus strikes a defensive cord, creating tension or "heat". However, other context bound uses range from "very important", "difficult to deal with", "seriously sick or injured", "according to critics", "at a level where changes happen", but in the context of critical thinking, it is the sixth definition that is intended; "considering something carefully and deciding what the good and bad aspects are".
Within the context of critical thinking, the word critical, means to clearly and rationally consider both the pros and the cons before coming to a point of view.Critical thinking is an objective, logical and balanced examination. Critical thinking also implies the equal consideration of new information as it becomes available. Even the Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 BCE), who was considered to be the wisest man in the Greek Empire, would offer the following caveat with any carefully considered theory, "[According to my] best understanding to date" (Hogan & Smith, 2003, p. 169).
Critical thinking is not a one-time event in which one carefully concludes only to create and then fight to protect a dogma. It is an iterative process in which the thinker is continually revising their point of view based on the open-minded consideration of the ideas of others, new experiences and new circumstances in an ever changing world. In this way, critical thinking clarifies, sheds light on, or illuminates an issue.
Within the discourse of critical thinking is another, equally misinterpreted word, argument. Again, for many, the word argument prompts a tension, or "heat". Indeed in some contexts, the word argument does mean "an angry disagreement between people", however within the realm of critical thinking it refers to "a reason or set of reasons that you use for persuading other people to support your views or opinions" (MacMillan, 2002, p. 60). To be sure, there is no fighting in critical thinking or debate.
Much of the literature focuses on the work of Socrates' to describe the process and true intention of critical thinking, however it cannot be denied that the Buddha himself had practiced and promoted the same principles prior to Socrates (Nault, Feb 2008, The Buddha was a Critical Thinker).
Here, we turn again to Socrates (Socratic questioning) to emphasize an important but sometimes misunderstood component of critical thinking, and that is the purpose of constant questioning or probing. Again, this can create tension if the intention is misunderstood, but learning starts with questions, not answers. Repeated questions are not asked to create doubt, tension or "heat", but rather are asked with the intention of pealing away the layers of ambiguity, to provide greater clarity, allow learning to happen - in short, to add "light".
The Center for Critical Thinking explains that Socratic questioning emphasizes the "importance of [actively] seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but by what is done as well."
Throughout the literature, Paul offers various definitions of critical thinking, however the following offered by Paul with Scriven at the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking is perhaps the most succinct and comprehensive:
"Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action."
Critical thinking is the process with the thinker being an active participant going through a "digestion process" based on among other things, open-minded observation, experience or reflection and results in an outcome that affects behaviour.
Paul writing previously and alone ties the vernacular to the true value of critical thinking by linking it directly back to intention, morality and ethical behaviour which is what the Buddha practiced and promoted:
"[Critical thinking] comes in two forms. If it is disciplined to serve the interests of a particular individual or group, to the exclusion of other relevant persons and groups, it is sophistic [sponsored or fallacious] or a weak sense critical thinking. If disciplined to take into account the interests of diverse persons or groups, it is fair-minded or strong sense critical thinking" (in Binker, Ed, 1990, p.52).
Where critical thinking focuses only on the negative, it is considered to be ill-intentioned or weak creates. In such a case, it creates only "heat". Where it is balanced and open-minded, it is well-intended and is described as strong sense of critical thinking. It creates "light", which provokes learning.
What are the characteristics of a Critical Thinker?
Adapting Facione (1998), people that have developed critical thinking skills and apply them to life and living are:
Facione, P.A. (1998). Critical thinking: What is it and why it counts. Millbrae, CA: California Academic Press. Retrieved February 26, 2007 from http://www.insightassessment.com/articles.html
Nault, Roger. (2008, February). The Buddha was a critical thinker. http://www.ilearnincambodia.org/ct/buddhact.pdf.
Paul, Richard W. (1990). Chapter 4: Critical thinking: What, why, and how. In Binker, A. J. A. (Ed), Critical thinking: what every person needs to survive in a rapidly changing world. California: Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, Sonoma University.
Paul, R. & Scriven, M. (n.d.). Defining critical thinking. National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking Instruction. Retrieved February 26, 2007 from http://www.criticalthinking.org/page.cfm?PageID=410&CategoryID=51
(2002). MacMillan English dictionary for advanced learners of American English. Oxford: MacMillan Education.
Learning starts with questions, not answers.
Teaching Critical Thinking: Selected Readings, R. Nault
Modernist Reform in Khmer Buddhist History. A Hansen
Pedagogy of the Oppressed, P. Freire
Critical Thinking for the Restoration and Development of Cambodian Higher Education, R. Nault
Solidarity or Objectivity? R. Rorty
Justice as a Larger Loyalty. R. Rorty
Multiculturalism, Universalism and Science Education, H. Seigel
Foundation for Critical Thinking
Learning Skills for the 21st Century