Critical thinking skills and dispositions

In the article What Critical Thinking Means, I discussed the fact that even the experts don't agree on the definition of critical thinking (CT).  It is largely domain-specific, meaning that most CT relies on specialized knowledge.  However, there are general skills that can apply to all fields of knowledge.  Before we discuss those, let's use a quick analogy to understand how CT fits into education.

Consider the following "facts":

  • The memory of a goldfish only lasts three seconds.
  • You sense different tastes on different parts of your tongue.
  • Seasons are warmer or hotter depending on the distance of the earth from the sun.

Many of us have been taught these "facts" at some point or another, and they sound logical.  However, science does not support these ideas.I thought about linking to sources to disprove these statements, but decided against it.  DuckDuckGo is your friend.  Or Google. Now consider this fact: Twelve divided by six is two.  Is this true?  It is unlikely that you would doubt this statement because you have learned how to verify it.  You know how to compute the number based on a mathematical formula.  In fact, you may be able to think of several ways to verify the statement.

Math well illustrates the relationship between knowledge and skills.  To reason on mathematical principles, we need a degree of knowledge, yet the principles enable us to verify the accuracy of new knowledge as we learn it.

Essentially, CT is like math formulas for thinking in general.  While it may not enable us to detect every error we encounter, It will make us smarter information consumers.  Let's consider twelve CT skills that can help us in most situations.

Twelve general CT skills

Basic skills

Observation

This is the most fundamental of all CT skills since you can't think about something you haven't observed. Practice seeing things with a critical eye.  How does what you are seeing differ from what you've seen before?

Identifying assumptions

An assumption is a statement that is accepted as true.  Some people say, "Never assume anything!"  But this is foolish because we have to accept some things as true without proof.  Otherwise, we would be paralyzed by spending our entire lives trying to prove every little thing.  From the moment we begin learning from our parents, we generally accept what we are told.  It is only when we don't trust the person telling us that we doubt what they say.Nearly every statement in this paragraph is an assertion. "This is foolish" is an inference.  I offer all of these statements without proof because I am hoping you will see that my arguments are reasonable.  If you accept what I am saying, you are making assumptions.

Another word for assumption is belief. A true critical thinker realizes that any belief they hold, no matter how firmly they believe it, could be wrong, at least partially.  Furthermore, they know this applies to anything they learn from someone else.

Identifying inferences

An inference is something that is held to be true based on something else.  While assumptions are accepted as true without reference to evidence, inferences rely on the underlying assumptions as well as certain logic.  Both need to be considered when evaluating an inference. 

If you see two cars stopped at a traffic light and the driver of the back one is honking and waving, you can infer that the person wants the other car to move.  But there may be other, less obvious explanations.  Consider what those might be.

Identifying implications

Implications are hidden assumptions that are implicit in the stated information.  A skilled critical thinker learns to unpack complex statements that contain implications.

If someone says, "The police officer slyly entrapped the criminal," we can infer two things.  The obvious part is that a police officer entrapped a criminal.  It is also clear that the speaker views the police officer's actions as unethical.  Finally, the use of the word "criminal" implies that the person the police officer entrapped is guilty.

Identifying biases

There are many cognitive biases that affect our thinking every day.  This fact is well known to a critical thinker.  The two most common biases to watch for are self-serving thinking and oversimplification.  Our brains are skewed toward self-preservation, so we often think and express ourselves in self-serving ways without even realizing it.  Also, to make sense of the constant flood of information, the brain creates shortcuts that alter the information. 

An understanding of cognitive biases and practice in recognizing them are excellent general CT skills. We should also develop the habit of asking, how does the person giving me this information stand to benefit if I accept it?  We will also benefit from examining our own reasons for our beliefs. 

Other common thinking errors include circular reasoning and confusing correlation with causation.

Use of questions

Questions are the foundation of the critical thinking process.  Examples:

  • Who stands to benefit from this information?  In what ways?
  • Who is an authority on this subject?  What do I need to ask him?
  • What are the strengths of this argument?  Weaknesses? 
  • Where can I find other perspectives on this subject?
  • Where does this apply?  Where does it not apply?
  • When has this concept appeared before?
  • When will this information no longer be relevant?
  • Why is this information relevant?
  • How can I verify this information?
  • How can I apply what I am learning?

Higher skills

Analysis

Analysis refers to approaching problems systematically, to breaking elements down into their components and examining how they function separately and together.  

Synthesis

While analysis refers to breaking things down, synthesis refers to putting things together. It is the process of combining parts in new and different ways.In fact, this article is based on an analysis of several different sources of information regarding CT skills, including the Delphi Report.  In turn, I synthesized the information I gathered to create this article.

Comparison

As my last article showed, comparing things is a particularly useful method for improving understanding.

Teachers often explain general concepts using examples. A teacher can help the students understand the general principle if he or she explains how it applies to each example. But as two studies mentioned in the last article demonstrated, when the examples are compared to each other, students learn to transfer the principle to other, less related situations.

I also referenced a study that examined the effects of teaching students to analyze, synthesize, and compare. In this process, they learned to adapt experimental methods, and they produced better explanations of the limitations of their models.

Prediction and testing

This is another form of comparison, involving comparing predicted outcomes with actual outcomes.

Evaluating arguments

This can be done in several ways:

  • Identifying inconsistencies and errors in reasoning
  • Determining the strengths and validity of an argument
  • Learning to identify weaknesses in arguments or evidence
  • Understanding whether a text is mostly about observations or measurements, mostly about ideas or theories, or a mix of the two
  • Analyzing whether observations about a particular case can be generalized
  • Determining whether statistics and probabilities are correctly analyzed

Metacognitive skills

These include: 

  • Learning more about our own beliefs and biases
  • Self-reflection, understanding our own thoughts and feelings.

Critical thinking dispositions

Many critical thinking experts believe that CT is a set of skills.  Others think it also includes dispositions, or propensities.  That is, a person with a CT disposition is inclined to apply CT in most situations they encounter.  How do people become habitual critical thinkers? What are some of the dispositions that contribute to this?

Curiosity

This may be the most important quality of a critical thinker.  A curious person isn't satisfied just to learn information.  They want to understand the hows and whys.  A curious person never believes they know it all.

Open-mindedness

No matter how authoritative something sounds, it could be wrong.  No matter how sure you are that you are right, you could still be wrong.  A person with a CT disposition wants to hear as many perspectives as possible, including those that disagree with his own.

Intellectual humility 

Humility is like open-mindedness in that a humble person is receptive to another's viewpoint. They see their own positive attributes accurately but they are also willing to acknowledge their own shortcomings.  A true critical thinker is willing to adopt a new viewpoint even if:

  • It goes against her own previously held convictions and long-cherished beliefs.
  • It is against her own self-interest.

Respect for others

A person with a CT disposition:

  • Respects the viewpoints of others
  • Can debate ideas while showing respect to the other person
  • Views others with compassion and empathy, even when disagreeing with them

Intellectual courage

A true critical thinker is willing to challenge the status quo.  They don't adhere to traditional methods simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.  Being confident in his own views, they are not threatened by those of others.  However, they are also able to defend their own views when necessary.

Perseverance

CT is unlike making intuitive judgments because it takes sustained effort. Seeking relevant information requires diligence. Filtering and separating out appropriate information can be a lengthy process.

Self-regulation

For those who consider critical thinking to be a self-directed activity, this quality is necessary.  It includes:

  • Self-observation - monitoring one's performance systematically, including keeping records
  • Self-judgment - systematically comparing performance with a standard or goal
  • Self-reaction - taking measures to keep oneself moving toward the goal

 A good start

There you have it, twelve CT skills and seven dispositions. To the extent that you cultivate these in your own life, you will benefit.  Future articles will expand and apply the principles discussed here.