Chapter One: Introduction
I. Approaching Critical Thinking
Consider the following examples:
Contrast these with the following examples:
The kind of thinking that is often called "critical thinking" is intuitively on display in all of these examples. In each, the person in question chooses among competing alternatives, and in doing so they deliberate about them, weighing them in light of goals and values that occasionally conflict. The examples demonstrate that these alternatives can be practical, involving actions, or theoretical, involving beliefs. Further, they illustrate that there are better and worse ways of deliberating. For instance, Monica manages to negotiate her way through a changing landscape with her goals intact, whereas the same cannot be said for Lane. The decisions confronting Robert and Jennifer are similar--both must weigh a variety of considerations in making a decision between two alternatives, neither one of which is the clear and obvious favorite. Yet, even given the complexity and difficulty of the decisions, it seems clear that Robert makes the right call and Jennifer the wrong one. Finally, Kristine would appear to judge rationally, given the standard she applies in her deliberations, whereas Allen gives into a prejudice that undermines a conclusion he should by his own lights endorse.
In each of these examples, the person involved pursues a decision through a maze of internal and external constraints, evaluating the alternatives relative to the standards they have available and their own values and desires. They assess how well the alternatives measure up to the standards and then how the alternatives fare relative to one another, and the quality of their thinking depends on the quality of this assessment. At first blush, then, three things would appear to be true of critical thinking as evinced by these examples:
In fact, we will take the first of these as the characteristic feature of critical thinking in this handbook. In subsequent chapters, we will develop it in detail, eliminating the vagueness associated with "application of standards and criteria" and "evaluating options". At present, it can serve as a quick and dirty formulation of the type of thinking we will discuss. (Given this conception of critical thinking, it becomes clear that in the cases above where mistakes are made, the people involved are still thinking critically, even though they are doing a bad job of it.)
This handbook is designed to help college instructors integrate the explicit teaching of critical thinking skills into their classes. To that end, the book combines discussion of concepts that are central to a theoretical development of the subject matter with a presentation of broad pedagogical strategies and focused teaching tips.
One might wonder whether there a need for this handbook. After all, college instructors are good critical thinkers, in general, and we typically model this thinking in our classrooms. It is present in the decisions we make about coverage and emphasis, and it is evident in our lectures and our responses to student questions. If our students pay attention to how we conduct ourselves as teachers, surely they will learn how to think critically.
I believe that students can enhance their critical thinking skills by osmosis in the classroom, but I'm not convinced that this happens consistently and in most cases. The situation with critical thinking is little different from the situations with writing and oral communication. We model effective writing and public speaking as we teach, but without explicit instruction in writing and speaking skills, our students would largely fail to develop into effective writers and public speakers. Explicit knowledge of thesis development, paper and paragraph organization, and grammatical structure comes in handy when you are writing an academic paper--you can rely on this knowledge to help guide your writing decisions in the complex spots where effective expression is difficult. The same is true of critical thinking. Explicit knowledge of deliberative standards, argument structure, and option analysis can be tapped when circumstances make it difficult to rely on intuition, as they often do for the novice. (Compare: so long as your car is running smoothly, you need not have explicit knowledge of its operation, but such knowledge can come in very handy in the event of a breakdown.) Thus, the same arguments that make a compelling case for explicit instruction in writing and oral communication can be co-opted to support explicit instruction in critical thinking skills.
Explicit instruction in critical thinking skills has value beyond helping students out of tight spots. It offers the student an appreciation for the ubiquity of situations in which one deliberates between options, comparing and evaluating them in light of goals and values. Such instruction also enhances student sensitivity to the structure of deliberation and decision-making, and to the standards that distinguish good evaluations and justifications from bad ones, both of which can only help them as they negotiate their way through the world. Explicit instruction in these skills produces students with wide open eyes who no longer need rely solely on their gut and good fortune to create a good life for themselves.
As mentioned above, we will take critical thinking to be the application of standards and criteria in the evaluation of options, both practical and theoretical. Critical thinking, so understood, will take shape for us in the context of arguments. When you consider an option, you examine what can be said for it and against it, and then compare the results to those generated for competing options. In effect, what you do is treat the option as a claim and identify reasons for and against the conclusion. For instance, Robert considers an option that we can render as the claim, "I will buy the Windstar," and in so doing marshals reasons for it and against it. What results are arguments for that conclusion and arguments against it. Thus, we can think of evaluated options as conclusions and related considerations as premises or assumptions, and so we can think of critical thinking episodes as essentially argumentative. The standards and criteria that we consider, then, will concern arguments, and so will draw heavily from both rhetoric and logic.
Because we conceive of critical thinking as argumentative thinking, the skills we will focus on will be argumentative in character. The skills can be divided into three categories: identification, (re)construction, and analysis. These categories correspond to the three stages of argument assessment. The bulk of this handbook will be devoted to developing and illustrating these categories and the process to which they correspond; further, I will supply many suggestions, strategies, and tips for teaching critical thinking understood in this way in the classroom. I begin, however, with a chapter devoted to a general overview of critical thinking as it has been characterized by those who work on the topic. In Chapter Three, I argue that one very good way of developing the theory of critical thinking, understood as characterized in Chapter Three, is through argument analysis. Chapter Four contains a discussion of argument identification. Argument (re)construction is the topic of Chapter Five, while Chapters Six and Seven address argument analysis and the fallacies, respectively. In Chapter Eight, I supply an argument assessment flowchart that you can use in the classroom. I close with a chapter devoted to certain conceptual issues surrounding the subject of critical thinking.