Principles of critical thinking
What is critical thinking? If you’re drawing a blank, don’t worry - you’re not alone. Turns out that most faculty don’t know what critical thinking is or how to teach it (Paul & Elder, 2013). This gap is understandable considering the abstract nature of critical thinking and lack of unity among scholarly works. Nilson (2014; 2017, pp. 36-37) has identified the common ground among the experts in the field, summarized below.
- Involves an interpretation and judgement about a claim
- Is difficult, especially when it challenge closely-held beliefs and values
- May require self-reflection, meta-cognition (thinking about thinking), and self-regulated learning
Critical thinking involves both an interpretation and a judgement about a claim. A claim may be challenged because the evidence is weak or the values underlying the claim are questionable. There may be a conflict of interest – those backing the claim may benefit from its promotion. A claim may also be so firmly integrated into the dominant way of thinking that is almost invisible – a seeming universal truth. This last point highlights the fact that critical thinking is particularly difficult when it challenges closely held beliefs. Our sense of self is based upon our values and beliefs – to question these is to question aspects of who we are. Consequently, many students will be reluctant to deeply engage in critical thought. This is why we must make a strong case for critical thinking – to communicate to our students the consequences of an unquestioning approach to our decisions and stances on issues. Take for example, the issue of climate change. Many people who dispute the well-documented claim that climate change is caused by human activity do not base their argument on evidence, but instead on identity – they do not see themselves as part of a social group or as the kind of person who would believe in an idea like human-caused climate change. This underlines the notion that critical thinking reaches beyond cognitive function - it also involves self-reflection, metacognition (thinking about thinking), and self-regulated learning. Encouraging our students to dig deep and examine why they believe what they believe may help them to put beliefs and ideas to the test – in short, to engage in critically thinking.