Chapter One: Introduction



I.    Approaching Critical Thinking

Consider the following examples:

  1. Monica is a second-semester sophomore, and she has just declared a major in psychology. This is somewhat unrelated to her previous major, and so the courses she has taken beyond the core will not help her satisfy her psychology requirements; further, she has only taken Psyc 101. She has always intended to earn her degree in four years, and this recent change of life plan has not deterred her from her goal. However, because of pre-requisites, she will need to take several psychology courses each of her remaining semesters if she is to meet her goal. When she visits her new adviser, they discuss the shape of the next four years, remaining sensitive to the constraints described above. At the end of the meeting, they have a plan in place that will enable Monica to graduate in May of her fourth year with a B.S. in psychology.

  2. Robert's car is fast approaching the 100,000 mile mark. Further, it dropped its transmission last summer, and it is once again making tell-tale noises. He had been considering a vehicle change, but the rumblings from below convince him that now is the time to act. He drives to the local Ford dealership and inquires about mini-vans. After 90 minutes with a salesman, he has seen 10 different vehicles and has test driven two of them. He has heard things like "five-star safety rating", "anti-lock brake system", "dual climate control", and so on. Over a cup of coffee-flavored water, he considers the alternatives, making lists in his head while he doodles on paper. After a half-hour of deliberation, he decides to buy the 1998 Windstar, which he judges to be the best combination of cost, safety, gas mileage, size, and appearance.

  3. Kristine finds herself troubled by recent discussions of trade with China. She recalls the Tiananmen riots and the harsh way in which the Chinese government dealt with advocates of democracy. She is also mindful of the many human rights abuses that have been blamed on the Chinese government. Should we support such a government, given that it stands for principles so diametrically opposed to those that are so central to the lives we lead in the United States? On the other hand, she recognizes that China is a major economic player, and will only continue to increase in influence. Further, she finds herself persuaded by the view that economic interaction with the Chinese will result in more beneficial change in China than economic sanctions would. Given her belief that the Chinese people should enjoy more freedom, she concludes that granting China Most Favored Nation status is the right thing to do, as it is a step in the direction of creating the conditions for real change in China.

Contrast these with the following examples:

  1. Lane is driving across the upper midwest on his way from Idaho to Illinois. He is in a hurry--he promised his in-laws that he would be in Chicago on Tuesday, and it is Monday morning in Sturgis, South Dakota. A long day on I-90 awaits, it would appear. But wait! He sees a sign that says, "Badlands, 40 miles, Next Exit." Lane has heard interesting things about the South Dakota Badlands--haunting moonscapes, striking colors, bighorn sheep, exposed fossils. The Badlands might be worth checking out, and he hadn't realized that he was so close. Suddenly he finds himself turning on the next exit. It occurs to him that this detour will mean a Wednesday arrival at his in-laws. He knows that this is a mistake he will regret, but he chooses instead to concentrate on the slowly changing landscape.

  2. Jennifer is down to two colleges, State and City College, and she has arrayed on the table in front of her all of the literature and information she has collected about both. In addition, she has constructed a detailed list of pros and cons, and State would appear to be in the lead on both fronts. State offers more liberal arts courses, which appeals to her, and it is in a prettier place; in addition, there are more study abroad programs and more programs that appeal to her sense of intellectual adventure. City College grads seem to make more money on graduation, which is fine, although money has never moved her much. City College is also less expensive, all things considered, although her scholarships tend to balance the two on this point. City College is closer to home, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the mood she is in at the time. But Jennifer can't get City College's website and its glossy brochure out of her mind. Surely that must mean something significant, she thinks, as she signs her name to the City College admission form.

  3. Allen has just finished conversing with some friends about the Clinton administration's recent decision to create new national monuments in three western states. He enjoys hiking and camping, so he is happy that more territory that is home to scenic beauty will be protected. He's camped in the Kaibab National Forest, for instance, and he is a big fan of it. However, he cannot get it out of his head that this is something that was done by the Clinton administration. Allen hates the Clinton administration. Surely there must be some nefarious agenda motivating this move. His friends think he's paranoid, but they were unable to convince him that this was a good decision. Thus, Allen finds himself convinced that this is a bad decision, and something that must be stopped.

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:

    1. It consists in the application of standards and criteria in evaluating options.

    2. It can concern either practical or theoretical options.

    3. It can be better or worse.

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.)

II.    The Purpose of This Handbook

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.

III.    Looking Ahead

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.