At the end of my last post I mentioned critical thinking – & said I’d leave that topic till later. This is ‘later’ :-)
If you ask a university lecturer to list the attributes that they’d like to see in their graduates, then ‘critical thinking’ will feature somewhere on that list. It’ll probably be in the institution’s ‘graduate profile’ as well. What I’d like to consider is, how well do graduates actually match that particular part of the profile? How well do we help them to become critical thinkers? (That last means, not just talking about it, but modelling critical thinking skills for our students – & giving them the opportunity to practice! They’ll only learn by doing.)
What is a critical thinker, anyway? I’ve heard it said that a critical thinker is someone who has an open mind on issues under discussion – but not so open that their brains fall out! When faced with a given position statement (‘therapeutic touch really works’; ‘intelligent design explains biodiversity better than evolution’; ‘scientists are wrong about global warming’; & so on), someone who thinks critically will ask things like:
- What is the source of your information?
- What assumptions are you making?
- Is a different conclusion more consistent with the data?
- What is an alternate explanation for this phenomenon?
These are ‘Socratic questions’. Brian Dunning (of Skeptoid) offers a good introduction to the use of these questions. And he makes a very important point. The end point of critical thinking (skepticism, if you like) should not be simply the debunking of a particular point of view. That’s not exactly helpful (even if it does provide temporary satisfaction to the debunker!) As Dunning says, “[s]kepticism is about applying the scientific method to arrive at a conclusion that is evidenced to be beneficial…” In other words, it’s not enough to demonstrate why that point of view is incorrect – you need to produce an interpretation or explanation that better fits the available evidence, and ideally one that can be usefully applied to solve a problem.
And learning to do that takes time. And practice.