Cultivation  of Critical Thinking


Education is good just so far as it produces well-developed critical faculty . . . A teacher of any subject, who insists on accuracy and a rational control of all processes and methods, and who holds everything open to unlimited verification and revision, is cultivating that method as a habit in the pupils. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded . . . They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence . . . They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.

Sumner, W.G. (1940)


We belong to the species known as homo sapiens (the thinking/rational/wise human) which, according to the Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary (1996), is "characterized by a brain capacity averaging 1400 cc (85 cubic in.) and by dependence on language and the creation and utilization of complex tools" Thinking is innate in us. It is this characteristic that distinguishes us from other animals.

We humans use our thinking capacity basically to meet three native drives: self-gratification, self-interest, and self-preservation. Because by nature our thinking is imperfect this can lead to problems. Our thinking is often prejudiced, unfair, and plainly wrong, as Dr Richard Paul (Director of Research of the Center for Critical Thinking, and the Chair of the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, California, USA) points out, due to our innate ego-centrism (‘It’s true because I believe it’) and our innate socio-centrism (‘It’s true because that’s what my group believes’); it also results from our innate wish fulfilment (‘It’s true because I want to believe it’) and our innate self-validation (‘It’s true because I have always believed it’), and our innate selfishness. Flawed thinking causes trouble in our day-to-day life and also in more serious matters such as education, business, politics, diplomacy, communication, etc which touch the destinies of whole societies.

If confirmation of this is demanded, we have a plethora of evidence around us. There’s the notorious Sakvithi case in which some four thousand eager investors were swindled out of a billion rupees and in which the fraudster escaped into hiding under the very nose of the authorities, until apprehended recently with the help of some watchful public-spirited citizen; in spite of the wide publicity given to this event over the media we still hear about people getting defrauded in new scams; the general public is perplexed by the inefficient, awkward way measures to control the deadly dengue epidemic are being carried out; we may refer with national shame to the failed CFA with the terrorists which, although it was clearly forced on us through ‘international’ complicity with the separatist criminals, was negotiated with the involvement of some of our leaders, a few of whom were reputed intellectuals, later offering only to defend it before the public, instead of at least expressing some reservations; we may talk about how we are regularly sickened by news about fatal accidents involving children at play, or about undergraduates who resort to violent demonstrations, and get involved in fratricidal conflicts at the instigation of insignificant outsiders. All of these and countless other similar disastrous acts of commission and omission would have been easily avoided, had the victims or those responsible for them acted with some forethought.

Training in critical thinking should be considered as an educational priority in Sri Lanka today, like training in language and computer, particularly for students on the threshold of higher education. In this connection, we need to remember that training in critical thinking is not possible without training in language, in which I include both the mother tongue of the students and English. My feeling is that more attention should be paid to this aspect of education than ever before.

It may be good to introduce critical thinking as a major component of a compulsory language paper or even as a separate paper at the AL. To accommodate critical thinking in the curriculum without adding to the workload that the students must cope with at this level the amount of ground to be covered in the ‘speciality’ subjects may be appropriately curtailed. The reason is that what matters in education ultimately is not how much one knows but how well the educated person can think in a given field of knowledge and in general life. Albert Einstein, often described as the greatest scientist of the twentieth century, wrote in his book Ideas and Opinions (1954) thus:

It is not enough to teach a man a speciality. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he – with his specialized knowledge – more closely resembles a well trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to the individual fellow-men and to the community…Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included. It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects. Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality (pp. 66-67).

Dr Richard Paul, when asked to define ‘critical thinking’, said that definitions are at best "scaffolding for the mind", and produced the following "bit of scaffolding" for the questioner to construct the meaning of the term: "critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better" (Think Magazine 1992).

I found this scaffolding built into a fuller definition by Dr Richard Paul and his partner Dr Linda Elder:

Critical thinking is, in short, self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It requires rigorous standards of excellence and mindful command of their use. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities and a commitment to overcome our native ego-centrism and sociocentrism. (2007)

Out of a number of mutually compatible definitions, I picked this up as a valid and sufficiently comprehensive statement of what constitutes critical thinking. In terms of this definition, critical thinking is a dynamic process that improves itself by analysing, assessing, and reorganising; according to the same source the analysis of thinking involves identifying its purpose, the question at issue, the data available, inferences, assumptions, implications, main concepts, and the point of view. To assess one’s own thinking means to check it for clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, logic, and fairness. Critical thinking is thinking under control, which calls for a high degree of self-discipline, together with effective communication and problem solving abilities. Our thinking often loses its objectivity by our ego-centrism (our natural human tendency to ignore the rights and needs of others in our selfish concern with our own interests) and sociocentrism (similar self-serving concern with the interests of the group that we identify ourselves with); critical thinking demands a commitment to overcome these shortcomings.

Dr Richard Paul and Dr Linda Elder, in their "Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking" (2007) set out eight elements of thought that should be applied with sensitivity to the universal intellectual standards of clarity, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, logic and significance. The eight elements of thought are: purpose, question at issue, information, interpretation and inference, concepts, assumptions, implications and consequences, and finally point of view.

I’ll briefly explain what these terms mean. We analyse thinking in terms of the eight elements of thought, the first of which is purpose. We always think for a purpose; the critical thinker identifies this purpose clearly. It is equally important for the thinker to be clear about the question or the issue to be resolved. Information is the data, the facts that are collected for solving the problem that has been identified. Inferences are the conclusions that you draw about the issue using the information you have. Assumptions are what you consider to be true or valid, or what you take for granted as a basis for your conclusions. Implications and consequences are those that would follow if someone accepted your position. Concepts are the theories, definitions, laws, principles, models that implicit in your analysis. The point of view means the frames of reference and perspectives from which the problem is approached.

According to Drs Richard Paul and Linda Elder students new to critical thinking move from their Unreflective thinker status to the Challenged thinker position (where they realise the inadequacy of their thinking capacity and decide to improve it); from there they move on to the Beginning thinker stage in which they learn what critical thinking involves; the next step is for them to become Practical thinkers and engage in conscious practice; further practice leads them to the Advanced learner stage, from where they proceed to the Master thinker stage; in this final stage, critical thinking becomes second nature to the cultivated thinker.

The authors summarise the qualities of a well cultivated critical thinker as follows. Such a thinker

* identifies important issues, formulating them clearly and precisely,

* Collects and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively,

* Arrives at well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards,

* Thinks with an open mind within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as needs be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences, and

* communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

The need for the cultivation of critical thinking cannot be exaggerated, especially for the youth of the country who are its future. The unfortunate truth, however, is that for generations it has not been given the attention that is due to it. Training in critical thinking comes within the purview of education. Critical thinking must be included in the school curriculum as a part of the language syllabus, if not as a separate subject at Grade 12, for the young people most need it when they are in higher education. This is necessary for creating a future Sri Lankan society consisting of good citizens who are cultivated critical thinkers.

I wish to wind up this essay with another extract from William Graham Sumner who writes in his Folkways (1906):

The critical habit of thought, if usual in society, will pervade all its mores, because it is a way of taking up the problems of life. Men educated in it cannot be stampeded by stump orators ... They are slow to believe. They can hold things as possible or probable in all degrees, without certainty and without pain. They can wait for evidence and weigh evidence, uninfluenced by the emphasis or confidence with which assertions are made on one side or the other. They can resist appeals to their dearest prejudices and all kinds of cajolery. Education in the critical faculty is the only education of which it can be truly said that it makes good citizens.

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