Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: Breakout Session Notes, Ppt, and Summary, Oct. 14, 2011 (Jim Garson)

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Break Out Session:  Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking


Richard Armstrong, Associate Professor, Modern and Classical Languages, and Fellow in the Honors Program

Rebecca Forrest, Instructional Assistant Professor, Physics

Lonny Hoffman, George Butler Research Professor of Law, UH Law Center

Maria Solino, Associate Professor of Spanish Literature and Film

Department of Hispanic Studies

Moderator: James Garson, Full Professor, Department of Philosophy


The panel began with an exercise asking all the participants to write out answers  two questions (exercise and other ppt visual materials can be found here):

1. Give an example of an intellectual skill that qualifies as an example of critical thinking.

2. How do you help students master that intellectual skill?

Three or four answers to the first question were briefly discussed, and as expected, they illustrated very different intellectual abilities, among them, artistic creativity, seeing the value in another’s point of view, problem solving, and the ability to distinguish cause from mere correlation.

Then the panelists introduced themselves and explained how their own interests are connected to critical thinking.

At that point a brief, and then a very wordy, definition of critical thinking was offered as a way to try to focus on exactly what we are seeking when we hope to promote critical thinking.  Almost every cognitive skill other than rote memorization has been classified as critical thinking by someone, and even memorization drills are classified as critical thinking in some websites. So the puzzle over what critical thinking is remains.

However, a discussion of specific critical thinking skills and how they can be promoted brought out some interesting themes related to aims in the classroom:

*  to welcome asking and answering questions of the form: “What if?”, “How do we know?” and “Who cares?”

*  to have the flexibility to suspend ones own beliefs, and to see the world from another’s point of view

*  to be creative and voracious readers, with nuanced appreciation for ambiguity and novel context

*  to be endlessly curious

*  to welcome and to profit from being wrong

*  to be able to evaluate the accuracy of sources of information, for example information found online

*  to slow down, to see the wider view, to be circumspect and thoughtful

A common thread in many of these ideas is metacognition, or executive functioning, the ability to consciously evaluate one’s own learning process.  Organizing classroom goals around opportunities to practice such talents is a great way to improve teaching effectiveness, and to promote valuable higher level thinking skills.

Jim Garson


3 Comments on “Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking: Breakout Session Notes, Ppt, and Summary, Oct. 14, 2011 (Jim Garson)”

  1. Dave Mazella says:

    The interesting thing to me is that discussions of critical thinking seem to have evolved over the years, so that we are less likely to regard it as a uniform or meta-disciplinary kind of thought, and more likely to look at the concrete behavior of each discipline as it works with its materials, orders its evidence, and assembles reasons and arguments. So the question I’d have is, what were the important differences in the way critical thinking was defined or practiced in various disciplines?

  2. Jim Garson says:

    In courses called Critical Thinking in philosophy, the emphasis is on recognizing arguments, determining their structure or form, evaluating that form, and then modifying ones beliefs in light of that evaluation. While this set of skills is very important, I am struck by how much more widely cricial thinking id defined n other disciplines.

    Jim Garson

  3. Dave Mazella says:

    This is absolutely right: philosophy understands and practices a form of “critical thinking” that seems to focus as you say on arguments and their forms. But it seems valuable, too, to look at the range of behaviors evidenced in other disciplines that would constitute “critical thinking” crucial to their concepts and practice: analysis of style, for example, in literary studies, or analysis of sources in historical studies.

    As this little article suggests, Bloom’s taxonomy (represented in visual form at the top of this post) was generated by separating skills from content and context in the 1940s: one of the things this “decoding the disciplines” project does is to re-imagine skills in their disciplinary domain, to examine and highlight the differences from domain to domain.

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