Monday, September 13, 2010

Critical Thinking: A Definition

I've started thinking much about critical thinking in preparation for a series of workshops that we are doing at my school, so of course, I asked myself what critical thinking has to do with life in the rhizome. As is almost always the case, I'm finding connections, but then, isn't that what the rhizome is all about? The very first characteristic of the rhizome as described by DnG is: any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be (7).

The first connection that I want to explore is the role of critical thinking in cartography and decalcomania, the two mapping heuristics that DnG discuss. I think that these have been the two most difficult principles of rhizomatics for me. Perhaps critical thinking will give me a way to wrap my head around these concepts.

Let me start with a definition of critical thinking, not such a trivial task, as I have found out. Critical thinking tends to be one of those catch-all terms that everyone uses, nodding to each other in presumed agreement, while meaning slightly or totally different things. To my mind, critical thinking is a cluster of mental heuristics that increase my chances of reasonably and scientifically observing some slice of the world and deciding what to do or to believe about what I observe. Critical thinking helps me more skillfully respond to my world. What are these mental heuristics? I've found several lists, but the 1990 Delphi Report from the American Philosophical Association (Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction) provides perhaps as solid a starting point as we are likely to get. The Executive Summary of APA's Delphi Report says:

  • We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair- minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society.

They later list 6 primary skills with sub-skills:
Critical Thinking Skills
Interpretation
  • Categorization
  • Decoding Significance
  • Clarifying Meaning
Analysis
  • Examining Ideas
  • Identifying Arguments
  • Analyzing Arguments
Evaluation
  • Assessing Claims
  • Assessing Arguments
Inference
  • Querying Evidence
  • Conjecturing Alternatives
  • Drawing Conclusions
Explanation
  • Stating Results
  • Justifying Procedures
  • Presenting Arguments
Self-Regulation
  • Self-examination
  • Self-correction
This is a fairly workable list and grouping, but a tighter grouping is provided by Sohindar Sachdev in the book Critical Thinking Through Technology in Science and Mathematics Education (2001). Sachdev groups 19 different critical thinking skills into three categories:

  1. Interpretive Reasoning - "the cognitive processes by which we begin to understand the information that has been remembered or observed."
  2. Strategic Reasoning - "the cognitive process by which we develop the conclusion provided by interpretive reasoning."
  3. Adaptive Reasoning - "the cognitive process by which we extend the knowledge beyond the criteria established by strategic reasoning."

Of course, I immediately see ways that I differ from these definitions. I start my critical thinking with observation, which neither of these definitions seem to do. To my mind, observation is an interpretive act, and if you are not observing in some systematic, critical way, then you are likely to see or not see most anything. But I don't choose to quibble about this just now. I think the above definitions of critical thinking form a useful starting point for my thinking about critical thinking, so I'm willing to see how far this boat will row.

In short, then, critical thinking is one way that I increase my chances for coming to know my world and positioning myself within it. If I think with some skill and grace, then I will better align with the world and make my way through it. As I mentioned in my previous post about the work of becoming an individual, "you work out the meaning of your life by the constant positioning, realignment, connecting and reconnecting of yourself with all the other selves in the rhizome." Critical thinking is one of the ways that we position, realign, connect, and reconnect ourselves with the world. It can be a fine way. It is the academic way, the path of Western intellectualism and science. Is it a rhizomatic way? I have my suspicions, but more on that later.
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