Thinking Out-loud #5: "Critical thinking" - It's About You.
I was reading a discussion earlier about whether "critical thinking" can really be taught in schools. Many people said yes, and I was inclined to believe them as a prospective English teacher (seeing that "developing critical thinking skills" is among the stated goals of many English departments). But those who said no also had an interesting argument that it's about the natural inquisitive nature of the person. In other words, they have to want to know.
After reading the discussion I began to wonder what "critical thinking" really means, and now I think most people, particularly the students who are trying to "learn it," have the wrong idea. So this is about what it means to me. I believe it can be taught, but not the way we've gone about it. It should be taught by fostering students ability to assess things for themselves and then build a case and sense of confidence in their own perspective.
Look at the word "critical." The root, "crit" comes from Latin "criticus" (which may be a derivative of the Greek work "kritikos" or "krites," meaning a judge). A critic is a judge, one who tests the merits of something. The suffix -al implies likeness, so to be critical is to be like a critic. Therefore, to think critically is to make determinations from one's own mind by assessing the merits and qualities of some thing.
To me critical thinking is about the person, and the way he or she perceives, processes and determines truth of the world and everything in it. It's not about learning to see from this perspective or that, but looking beneath the surface of a text or a claim or an idea to make connections from the evidence using one's own reason. Learning about other perspectives is only the starting point, but in the end, yours is the one that matters. It's about what you find after looking from as many angles as possible (close, wide, overhead, underneath, whole, in parts, etc.) with your own eyes
In literature, this often means asking about who's writing, when are they writing, to whom are they writing, and in what form. It does not mean adopting a Marxist, feminist, naturalist or modernist lens (for example). We can use these questions formulate judgments about the texts meaning, purpose, and more. In science it often mean asking if an idea is in keeping with other scientific findings, and more importantly, if it match the evidence presented. It does not mean accepting a conclusion as fact because there is data, but reviewing the data to see if it supports the conclusion.
Being critical often means being skeptical, but that is not a bad thing in and of itself. It means having a mind to doubt, and doubt opens doors for questions. These questions questions lead to discovery. It's not about right or wrong, but this process, which inevitably opens and empowers the mind. Only an open mind can think critically because only an open mind is daring enough to look for it's own answer. Critical thinking, then, is a function of the free mind, an intelligent expression of individuality. (Keep in mind intelligence is not a matter of what you know, but how you think, and no two people have to think alike.)
So can critical thinking be taught? I say yes, but only insofar as one is willing to teach individuality and to foster curiosity and the belief in one's self. A better question might be if it can be learned. That answer depends on the individual, their willingness to trust themselves and their innate desire to learn. In the end, this is all my take, but I do encourage you to have your own opinion.
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