the skills of critical thinking

By Alison Campbell 11/07/2010

Those of you who are thinking of entering for the Scholarship Biology exam at the end of the year may have had a look at the statement of just what is expected (the ‘performance descriptors’). If you have, you’ll have seen that one of the key attributes you need to demonstrate is an ability to think criticaly: about the question; about the supporting materials that the examiner may have provided; about your own knowledge (you don’t want to do a brain dump, after all – this will not impress the examiner one bit!).

I’ve written quite a bit about this in the past (here, here, & here, for example). Today I thought I’d add to that, with a closer look at some of the questions that you, as a critical thinker, might ask about a topic. (This is a modified version of something I’ve posted on the ‘other’ blog, Talking Teachingwihich I share with my colleagues Marcus & Fabiana.)

At the end of my last Talking Teaching post I mentioned critical thinking — & said I’d leave that topic till later. This is ‘later’ 🙂

If you ask a teacher to list the attributes that they’d like to see in their students when they move on to further education, then ‘critical thinking’ will feature somewhere on that list. It’ll probably be in most tertiary institutions’ ‘graduate profiles’ as well. What I’d like to consider is, do our students measure up to that aspiration? How well do we help them to become critical thinkers?  (That last means, not just talking about it, but modelling critical thinking skills for our students – & giving them the opportunity to practice! They’ll only learn by doing.)

What is a critical thinker, anyway? I’ve heard it said that a critical thinker is someone who has an open mind on issues under discussion – but not so open that their brains fall out! When faced with a given position statement (‘therapeutic touch really works’; ‘intelligent design explains biodiversity better than evolution’; ‘scientists are wrong about global warming’; & so on), someone who thinks critically will ask things like:

  • What is the source of your information?
  • What assumptions are you making?
  • Is a different conclusion more consistent with the data?
  • What is an alternate explanation for this phenomenon?

These are ‘Socratic questions’ (if you’re working towards Schol exams, I’d suggest following that link & having a look at the entire list). Over at Skeptoid, Brian Dunning offers a good introduction to the use of these questions. And he makes a very important point. The end point of critical thinking (skepticism, if you like) should not be simply the debunking of a particular point of view. That’s not exactly helpful (even if it does provide temporary satisfaction to the debunker!) As Dunning says, ’Skepticism is about applying the scientific method to arrive at a conclusion that is evidenced to be beneficial…’ In other words, it’s not enough to demonstrate why a point of view is incorrect — you need to produce an interpretation or explanation that better fits the available evidence, and ideally one that can be usefully applied to solve a problem.

And learning to do that takes time. And practice.

And maybe listening to some of the Skeptoid podcasts – I know I’ve learned a lot from those myself 🙂

0 Responses to “the skills of critical thinking”

  • Nice post. Although I’m certain I have a long way to go before I am the perfect critical thinker, I do naturally tend towards the approach you describe. It’s the only way that makes sense, really. Although, I’ve spent much of my career thus far in a commercial setting, and that is certainly one place where critical thought isn’t generally appreciated… I have learned the hard way that applying critical thinking to the pet theory of one’s boss is not a good way to have a happy life!

    Perhaps I’m out of practice as a result. Oh well, I’ll have to sharpen up again: I’ve just enrolled for further (science) study after quite a bit of a break.

    Thanks for the pointer to Skeptoid, I’ll give him a try. Looks to be a mixed bag though – some good stuff, and ironically, a degree of magical thinking and outright cartooning of a few of the topics I skimmed through. Listeners may be advised to apply some critical thinking to Mr Dunning’s pronouncements, in turn.

  • Great post! One reason that thinking skills (whether they be critical, creative, scientific, prosocial, etc) aren’t often taught is that we haven’t had a method for teaching thinking skills alongside the content (reading, mathematics, arts, etc). The two have been separated.

    Since leaving the classroom, I’ve had a chance to work alongside Dr. Derek Cabrera. He developed the DSRP Method, a practical way to teach thinking skills in the context of ANY subject, in any grade, with any student. I would encourage you to check out the free materials available for download:

    And to watch teachers using the DSRP Method in the classroom:

    Keep up the great work!