Chapter Eight: Implementing Critical Thinking Skills
= Theory =
We have now described all of the central elements of critical thinking, as we understand it in here. For proof of this, let’s return for a moment to our working definition of critical thinking:
Working Definition: Critical thinking is thinking that involves the principled application of standards and criteria in the evaluation of practical and theoretical options for the purpose of reaching conclusions about those options.
As we noted in Chapter Three, critical thinking so understood has three nested parts, viz., deliberation, evaluation, and application. Critical thinking is done while attempting to arrive at a conclusion about a range of options. Thus, it is done in the context of a goal-directed deliberation between alternatives, which could be theoretical or practical. Deliberation requires that one evaluate the alternatives, weighing them against one another so as to make it possible to choose between them. This is typically done by scoring the alternatives with the help of principles or standards that reflect values deemed appropriate at the time. Thus, evaluation requires the application of standards to each of the options. By the end of the principled evaluation of options, if all goes well and there is no loss of nerve, a decision will be made.
When deliberating about options, you can cast the deliberation in terms of arguments as follows: deliberation involves the construction of arguments for each of the options, understood as a conclusion. The argument for a given option will comprise reasons that are grounded in the standards that one uses to evaluate the option. If it fares well relative to those standards, then the argument for that option will be strong; otherwise, it will be weak. Deliberation produces a set of arguments through the process of evaluation, one for each option, making possible a ranking of options according to the cogency of their associated arguments. This would appear to justify our strategy, viz., to examine critical thinking through the lens of argumentation, since argumentation can be used to provide a general rendering of the processes involved.
Given this, we can convert a study of critical thinking, as characterized by our definition, into a study of argumentation. This study of arguments has three stages: identification, (re)construction, and analysis. As we saw in Chapter Four, we must be able to identify the need for arguments, and then identify them when we have them. Failure to identify arguments gives rise to missed opportunities. botched chances, and bad decisions. Chapter Five displayed the elements in constructing and reconstructing arguments, processes that yield more complete knowledge of the rationales supplied by arguments. Finally, Chapters Six and Seven detailed the steps involved in analyzing the strength of support provided by reasons for their conclusions. Further, each of these stages has two modes, corresponding to whether one is producing an argument or one is consuming an argument. When producing an argument, you must identify the need and then construct one that qualifies as strong from your perspective, a judgment that will require on-line assessment of it while under construction. When consuming one, you must initially recognize that you are presented with it and then reconstruct it for the purposes of analysis. Each of the elements is in place, but the process associated with each mode is the converse of the other. Together, these various pieces constitute our theoretical model of critical thinking.
The primary purpose of this chapter is to present a flowchart that takes this theoretical structure and locates it in a practical and dynamic context. One must understand the theory if one hopes to teach the skills, but one must also be able to implement it. Each node of the flowchart will represent a stage in the process of critical thinking, and it will be associated with a question or set of questions that point the way to the next move in the implementation sequence. I close the chapter with comments on a couple of miscellaneous topics that relate to the implementation of critical thinking skills.
II. Judgment as Critical Thinking?
In light of what we have said above, you might wonder why we stop here. That is, why is analysis the last step of the process? After all, our definition makes the goal clear enough—we think for a reason, typically to make some decision, whether theoretical or practical. Shouldn’t the act of decision or judgment be included in our model as well? The short answer is “no.” It is true that judgment, or decision, is a form of thinking, but it isn’t properly considered a part of critical thinking. The process of critical thinking helps to structure and prepare the way for a judgment. It supplies information on the relevant options to be judged, and then when it is complete, one plumps for an option. This “plumping” is a different sort of cognitive activity than the deliberative evaluation that constitutes critical thinking—it is to critical thinking as the leap off the high dive is to the trip to the edge. It is related, of course, since the plumping is the end for which critical thinking is a means.
This last point is important and deserves a bit more attention. Critical thinking is a means and not the means to achieve the goal of judgment. There are other ways to sift through the options that life throws at you, and other factors that influence the choices you make. We know that we don’t always select the winner of the critical thinking sweepstakes in every deliberative episode, a sign that critical thinking gets us to the edge, but it doesn’t push us off. As an example of this, consider the person who does a fine job of thinking critically about the options and then decides in the end to just “go with their gut.” (Perhaps this is a policy with them, one that has paid dividends in the past.) Other factors that influence judgment in ways that are not always consistent with critical thinking include passion, one’s aesthetic sensibility, the desire for fun, habit, weakness of will. Of course, from the focused perspective of critical thinking, a choice made contrary to its dictates will be viewed dimly, but one could be a very skilled critical thinker and make contrary calls. Further, this could very well be a good thing—perhaps it’s time for fun, or perhaps in this case your gut is more astute than your head. Of course, if you often choose in ways that are inconsistent with the results of critical thinking, then you are at least forced to rely regularly on luck or at most dangerously irrational.
Perhaps it might seem that at the point of the plumping, there is another, second-order act of critical thinking that takes all of these factors under its purview—reason, emotion, taste, hunger, etc.—and, evaluating them as if in a flash, determines which belief or course of action is to be preferred. But say you get to the conclusion of this second-order act of deliberation. Are you guaranteed to go in the direction it points? Again, no—you could lose your nerve even here. But given this response, it is clear that this attempt to insert judgment into critical thinking will only generate a psychologically implausible regress. This is not going to justify extension of our model. What it does do, though, is point to just how thin an event plumping is, a fact that should allay any concerns one might have about its exclusion from the model.
III. Implementing Critical Thinking: The Flowchart
As a teacher of critical thinking, you will be asked to explain yourself from time to time. In such instances, the ability to call to mind the theoretical underpinnings of the skills you teach will come in very handy. However, the theory’s primary value for you will be as a guide to the practice of critical thinking, a practice that you must be able to describe and model in an explicit way. That is, you must be able to practice what I’ve been preaching. To this end, it would help have a schematic diagram of the theoretical model that could be used to guide one through the process in the messy world of the classroom (and beyond!). This would relate all the elements together, indicating where these figure into the process of implementation. Such a flowchart would be useful whether you were producing an argument or simply consuming one.
In this section, I supply such a flowchart. It is lightly annotated with explicit connections to the preceding chapters. I tag each of the nodes so as to make it possible to move around the chart, a key ability given the dynamic and unpredictable character of real world argumentation. In addition, each tag is associated with a label, either “Context”, “Subject”, or “Form”. These indicate whether the node in question is associated with assessment of context, assessment of subject matter, or assessment of form, respectively. In addition, I tag questions with a “+” and instructions with a “>”.
chart, see the attached PDF files:
Critical Thinking Implementation Flowchart.
IV. Loose Ends
The theoretical narrative is behind us, and so too is the diagrammatic representation of the concepts and conceptual relationships that figure into it. Nevertheless, there are a few loose ends to tie up before concluding. First, there is an observation about the relationship between context, subject matter, and form in the production and consumption of arguments, on the one hand, and those same elements in the process of analysis, on the other. Second, there are a few relevant notes to make about argument style. The flowchart allows for flexibility in application, and the decisions one makes in applying it can be seen as reflecting a certain style of critical thinking. Finally, the connection between this process and the goal of rationality deserves some comment.
IV.1 Context, Subject Matter, and Form
When we first distinguished between these elements, we did so in the context of argument analysis. Recall that in Chapter Six we led with analysis of form, and then followed this up with analysis of subject matter and context, in that order. Among those skills that can be seen as a proper part of the suite of critical thinking are those of logical analysis. Application of these skills to an argument permit one to determine if it has a conclusion supporting structure; if it lacks this, then there is almost no point in engaging in substantive or contextual analysis. But if an argument passes the structural inspection, then one can turn to the specific character of the claims made and assess them for truth. Most people are familiar with this level of analysis, since it is here that one decides whether the argument gets things right, i.e., whether it properly characterizes that part of the world it concerns. Special knowledge, beyond logical or “critical thinking” knowledge, are generally required to do this sort of analysis. Finally, if the premises of an argument can convey truth to their conclusion and they are in fact true, then we must determine if the argument as such actually advances the agenda of the arguer. Arguments are constructed and advanced in contexts and in the service of goals. An argument can be impeccable when considered by itself yet fail to mesh with the goal it was meant to serve, and this is revealed when one raises one’s eyes above the argument and looks around at its context. So analysis will take us from form to subject matter to context. (Of course, if one detects a false premise before conducting formal analysis, or a contextual flaw before conducting either formal or subject matter analysis, then one can suspend consideration without going through the processes in this order. However, if there are no obvious flaws, this is an effective and systematic way of proceeding.)
Analysis forms a part of the processes of argument production and consumption. These broader processes also relate in important ways to form, subject matter, and context. However, the relationships are different in an instructive way from those described in the previous paragraph. One becomes an argument producer or consumer only after recognizing that one is in an argument context. One must then determine the specific subject matter of the argument, i.e., what the specific conclusion will be, what claims will be adduced in support of it, etc. The process of argument (re)construction then proceeds with an eye to form. What is the best way to put the pieces together so as to achieve the proper degree of conviction or the proper interpretation? This order of appearance is echoed in the fact that we often approach arguments with questions similar to these: Is an argument appropriate? What should it say? How should it say it? Thus, argument production and consumption take us from context through subject matter to form. (Here again, I have separated out the stages somewhat artificially, given that the processes of construction and consumption are typically much more integral than this, especially where the elements of subject matter and form are concerned; nevertheless, the order of appearance indicated here does represent a natural progression and so serves what is largely an abstract point in this case.)
Note that analysis reverses the order of the elements as they appear in the overarching processes. This is no accident. Analysis is evaluation, and it is not uncommon to begin with last element and proceed to the first. An illustration of reverse analysis of this sort is found in oral communication, where we typically begin with the sentence uttered and work backwards to the thought that it must have been used to express. The speaker, of course, will move from thought to sentence. Of course, there is nothing necessary about this order. In certain circumstances, it might be better to retrace an arguer’s steps, since that can help one determine where they might have gone wrong. This is especially important for teachers who wish to help students master the process of argument construction in a particular domain. The difference between these two directions of analysis corresponds to a difference of emphasis. The reverse method of analysis described above, where one moves from form to context through subject matter, is a method keyed to the argument, i.e., to the product of an argumentative episode. You begin with the product and move outward from it in an effort to determine whether it does what it was intended to do. Analysis that would track the production or consumption of arguments, from context to form through subject matter, is keyed to the arguer, and more specifically, the process of argument. This method of analysis is used to assess whether the process of argument production or consumption unfolded in a principled fashion in a given case.
IV.2 Argument Style
If you give a group of people an argument to analyze, you will find that no two analyses will be the same. They may all agree about whether the argument is compelling or not, but they will generally disagree about the precise character of the argument. These differences arise in the process of argument reconstruction, and concern both subject matter and form. In some cases, these differences represent an adjudicable disagreement, where one side is superior to the other based on conformity with the text, etc. For instance, if you have two arguments presented as the main arguments from the text and they have noticeably different subject matter, then (at most) one will likely win an appeal to the text. In other cases, the disagreement is one that can’t be settled by appeal to the text. Here, the disagreement represents a difference in style, or a difference in what argumentative elements the groups emphasize and how they put these elements together. Most texts do not spoonfeed their argument to their readers, allowing them room to maneuver as they are conveyed toward the conclusion. In fact, many authors don’t give much thought to overall argument structure, creating a rather impressionistic mélange of claims that support numerous different yet acceptable reconstructions. There are two common dimensions along which argument styles express themselves, viz., argument constitution and formal type. I consider these in turn.
Many texts are rich in the sense that they contain more than one argument. These tend to be related to one another; often, one of the arguments resides at the top level, with the other arguments supporting its premises. Call the top level argument the überargument. One way in which reconstructions of the arguments in a text differ is in how they constitute the arguments, i.e., how they carve up the relevant propositions into überargument and supporting arguments. Some will take all of the argumentatively relevant propositions and put them in one lengthy argument. Others will reconstruct a shorter überargument and then list different arguments that have as their conclusions the premises of the überargument. (Some may focus only on the überargument, although they will typically acknowledge the presence of reasons for its premises if pressed.) These differences in emphasis often give rise to disputes that are only verbal; in fact, it is often possible to associate the various reconstructions so as to argue that they are really the same argument thread represented in different ways.
A second dimension along which there are stylistic differences is the specific formal type to which one assimilates the argument. That is, does the reconstruction regard the argument as deductive or non-deductive? In some cases, there is no choice. For instance, if the argument were presented in a discussion of mathematics or logic, it would be highly irregular to represent it non-deductively. (Consider: if you asked someone to prove the Pythagorean Theorem and they responded with a statistical report on a set of real world triangles, you would not accept it---they would have failed to get the concept, so to speak.) However, in many contexts there is flexibility on this score. In these contexts, both deductive and non-deductive considerations might be adduced in support of the overall conclusion. When this is done, one might choose to present a deductive überargument that is associated with non-deductive supporting arguments. Alternatively, one might choose to forego deductive argumentation altogether and represent the reasoning in a thoroughly non-deductive way. The former approach is helpful in that it supplies a top down systematicity, but it also adds to the argumentative complexity of the reconstruction. Either way, though, is typically acceptable as an assessment of the arguments in the text.
IV.3 Critical Thinking and the Passions
Philosophy is the love of wisdom. Traditionally, the love of wisdom has translated into a love of reason and an associated suspicion of all that opposes reason. In this latter group, passion and emotion stand out as prominent members. More than a few productive rational moments have been upset by an emotional surge. (And then there are those long periods of time when emotional surges are the norm, buffeting us about like hurricanes. Think junior high.) For those who think that humans are fundamentally rational animals, this seems quite problematic. I am not interested in defending this view, nor am I interested in denigrating emotion. Rather, I want to call attention to the limits that constrain critical thinking, not perhaps as a matter of necessity but certainly as a matter of fact.
Whether we like to be carried away from argument by passion or not, we are from time to time and that is just the way it is. Note, though, that this way of looking at things assumes a conflict between distinct mental faculties. This assumption, which we can call the assumption of cognitive modularity, has underpinned the discussions in this book. We have assumed that cognitive abilities are organized into distinguishable modules that have their own internal dynamic and their own distinct cognitive reality. In particular, we have assumed that one could separate out those abilities that qualify as critical thinking skills from the general list of cognitive abilities and treat them separately from other cognitive influences. (For a discussion of an opposing view, see Appendix 2.) The assumption of modularity helps motivate and justify this approach, but it isn’t necessary to it---so long as it is possible to isolate the skills we need and study them, it isn’t critical that they constitute a distinct mental module. Nevertheless, the modularity assumption has empirical support, and is useful as a way of organizing the theoretical discussion in this handbook; however, it is admittedly rather at odds with our experience. In reality, critical thinking skills and emotions intermingle, making it difficult to separate them one from another. There will be times when emotion distracts us, but there will also be times when it motivates us to think critically or sustains us in our pursuit of an argument analysis. Many goals require or at least welcome emotion. And even when they don’t intermingle, it is certainly not the case that critical thinking is the one we prefer. Quite to the contrary, as we noted in Chapter One, there will be many times in our life where we want emotions and passions to dominate and are not interested in thinking critically. Critical thinking skills are important, but they are not everything by any means, and they are not necessarily at odds with those things that they are not.
IV.4 Critical Thinking and Rationality
The previous discussion is intended to caution against the too liberal application of critical thinking skills. But this carries with it a cost. If one thinks critically about options and acts accordingly, they may not be successful but at least they will be rational, so long as they have applied the skills correctly. In fact, the epithet ‘rational’ is joined at the hip with intellectual approaches to problems of this type, and so failure to approach them in this way carries with it the specter of irrationality. No one wants to be irrational, and no one should have to regard themselves as irrational simply because they have forgone critical thinking in a particular case. (Of course, forgoing critical thinking can certainly prepare the way for irrationality, but then again, one can be irrational even in the process of thinking critically.) But is this what we are left with if we allow that critical thinking isn’t always the best way to approach a problem?
I think not. The term ‘rational’ is tied to the term ‘reasons’, in that one is rational in acting if one has defensible reasons for acting. The nature of this defense is a topic of some dispute, but there is little dispute about the centrality of reasons to rational belief and action. Given this, we can say that if one acts without reasons, or if one acts without making sure that one has reasons, then one does not act rationally. However, non-rationality should be distinguished here from irrationality. To say that someone does not act rationally need only mean that they do not act with reasons firmly in mind, and not that they act in a crazy or unpredictable fashion. We might say that someone fails to act in an understandable or excusable way if they act irrationality, but that they can act in an understandable and perhaps even laudable way if they act non-rationally. (Consider: one might do something rash, like save a baby from a burning building, and be regarded as a hero, even though a bit of critical thinking might have led one to a different and much less heroic course of action.) One can make decisions and perform actions that are not in line with the results of critical thinking and feel good about them. If the actions are non-rational, then they are not rational, but this shouldn’t be cause for concern in these cases.